On a summer’s night in 1946 over a thousand Holocaust survivors secretly travelled to a secluded beach on the Italian Riviera. They stood in silence in the moonlight as they waited for a ship disguised as a banana boat to collect them. They had survived Auschwitz, hidden in forests, endured death marches and now they were about to take on the Royal Navy and try to run the British blockade of Mandatory Palestine.
Rosie Whitehouse’s ground breaking book The People on the Beach: Travels through the History of the Holocaust and its Aftermath tells the story of the mass exodus of Jews out of Europe after the Second World War.
In part detective story, it is an account how she discovered who the people on the beach were, where they came from, what had happened to them during the Holocaust, how they had survived and why they felt that their future belonged in Palestine.
The People on the Beach is a journey through history. Whitehouse takes her readers to the places where Jews had lived for generations, the camps in which they had suffered and the forests where they took up arms. She follows the route the survivors took out of Europe, which leads her to those who are still alive.
The book is not a story of characters from a distant past but one of real people who live with the Holocaust every day of their lives. This is an intimate personal story and that is why it matters. This book tells the story of the survivors in their own words, told not in the clinical surroundings of a museum or institute where a testament is being given, but in their own homes as they make a cup coffee and put biscuits on a plate.
This is the way the story should be heard. The Nazis dehumanised the Jews. They took away their individuality by giving them numbers instead of names. Whitehouse gives them back their own voices in a unique account that shows the Holocaust is still living history - a story of the present.
The story the survivors tell of why they left their homes to build a new life in Palestine is a tale that has until now been forgotten but it is part a larger story and one that sits between two crucial historical events – the Holocaust and the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. It is the link between the two.
Overlooking the suffering and the desperation of the survivors in those vital years has allowed a false history to grow up around the story of how Israel was born. That is why this book matters. It explains why so many Holocaust survivors felt they could not return to or stay in the places in which their families had lived for generations and how Zionism offered them a future.
The Holocaust also plays into contemporary politics and there are stories about the present here, not just about the past. In order to understand what made these Jews leave Europe, Whitehouse visits the places they left behind not only to discover what had happened there but to find out how they are remembered.