Book Review: Memories After My Death by Yair Lapid

–by David Broida

This book is unusual – it’s a memoir of Tommy Lapid, former Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, journalist, member of the Knesset, husband, father, and friend, written in his voice after his death, by son Yair Lapid, a journalist and writer.  An oversized personality (and person, too – Tommy liked to eat), what better way to tell his story!  From his early days in Yugoslavia and Budapest, where his father and other family members were taken away never to return, to his escape from Europe to pre-state Palestine, to becoming an adult in Israel – his story is compelling, always interesting, and just fun to read.  Like many memoirs, of course, his ego bounces off pages, but not to the detriment of this book.

Readers who don’t mind reading one more story of survival – cunning, strength, and luck all played a part – will be captivated by Tommy’s escape from Eichmann’s reach in Budapest.  Equally important is his take on events.  He’s a keen observer, of the Jews, his neighbors, the Hungarian collaborators, and his family, whose comfortable lives were changed forever.  He observes the Hungrian police, no longer collaborting with the Gestapo now that the Russians are at the gate, now dressed in civilian clothes and mixing in with Jews, are actually posing as Jews and hoping to fool the Russians when they arrive.  

More after the jump.
In Israel as an adult, his dislike of anything religious and the Haredim in particular seems to define his public life more than anything else.  He writes that he is no less of a Jew than any rabbi in Jerusalem whose children “cannot find China on a map or turn on a computer, and who do not serve in the army or repress their wives or refuse to work, living off the taxes I pay instead”.  It’s a caricature, of course, but it rings true.  

Tommy writes of “the end of the period of silence” in Israel, regarding survivors finally speaking out when Eichmann was captured and put on trial.  “Fifteen years of mute silence had ended”, and then survivors began to speak out “in an unstoppable flood”.  His observations (he covered the trial as a journalist) highlight the importance of Eichmann’s capture and trial, and the centrality of that event in Israelis coming to terms with the Holocaust (if that’s ever possible, of course).  

As the 1982 Lebanon War went sour, especially with Israel’s role in the massacre at Sabra and Shatilla, Lapid’s opposition was firm.  He felt the war was wrong.  At the same time, he remained a friend of Ariel Sharon the rest of his life.  He did not let differences interfere with friendship.  The same situation occurred when Sharon dumped him from his government.  He served as head of the IBC – Israel’s broadcasting arm – and he writes of his conflicts with Prime Minister Menacham Begin, who wanted more and better television coverage of his government.  From Begin to Arafat, he’s got one interesting anecdote after another.  In the case of Begin, he did not yield.  

Lapid addresses an IDF issue – is the State responsible for the soldiers, or are the soldiers responsible for the State?  He seems to say that the soldiers looking after the State comes first, but the 1982 Lebanon War changed his mind.  He felt that the state’s repsonsibility to the soldier is understated.  

Early in the book, he foreshadows his daughter Michal’s death at age 33, but he does not say how she dies until a few chapters later.  From my visits and reading over the years, it seemed to me that there was one cause of death more likely than any other – an automobile accident.  War aside, it seemed to me the most probable cause of her death was that.  And – that’s what happened, revealed many pages later.

Tommy Lapid was a controversial figure in Israeli public life, so it’s not hard to find an opinion to disagree with.   “I am not a leftist, because their solution – giving up the dream of a Jewish state for a bi-national state (one state solution) – is heartless”.  I agree – it is heartless – but I don’t consider it a “leftist” position.  I consider it way out of the mainstream of Israeli political viewpoints.  The parties on the Left – Labor, Meretz – they don’t advocate a bi-national solution.  

He expresses his disdain for the Israeli left, because it combines Zionism with Socialism.  Coming from Communist Eastern Europe – Yugoslavia and Hungary – it’s easy to understand his impatience with socialism.   But he says “The Israeli Right has lost its way, too, as it has thrown its fate in with the vision of a Greater Land of Israel that could not be actualized”.  I think the key phrase here is “could not be actualized”.  And he seems to be saying that neither the right nor the left is suitable for him.  He can find fault with anybody, any party, so it’s easy to understand why he led his own party (Shinui).

He wrote a famous essay in Israel – “To Live in New Zealand” – which includes this line:  In New Zealand, when a parent refers to “a child who fell, he is referring to a playground”.  So true – and, also true is that IDF deaths of soldiers are so painful to think about and to endure, that the popular euphemism, “fell”, is a common term to describe death.  Not just in Israel, of course.  “He fell in battle”, etc., is said in many countries.

He grew up in a cultured and educated home, and he has a keen eye for irony, for history, and for hypocrisy, too.   He notes that the German language that was the language of Schiller and Heine (a Jew, of course) and Goethe was also the language of Hitler and Himmler.  Nothing new there – it’s been said before, many times.  But he reminds readers that Herzl wrote The Jewish State in German as well.

From an American Jewish point of view, Tommy writes a line that I like, because it shows a human-ness, a sensitivity, and a liberal approach to a difficult subject.  He refers to the “cruelty of some Arabs”.  Good for him!  He does not demonize all Arabs for the vicious crimes of some.   And he calls on Israel to be “an enlightened Western democracy, humanistic and free”.  He says, “In the short run, we must give up our need for retaliation.  It is painful, but essential”.  This comes from someone who is NOT a naive liberal American Jewish cousin (me), but rather a survivor of the Holocaust and an Israeli citizen for more than 60 years.

Tommy Lapid led a full life.  I enjoyed seeing him break away from his mother, join the army, go to school, get his first job, and climb up the ladders of Israeli journalism and politics.  He was bright, energetic, and especially – cultured.  You can see his European parents and their culture and education in all his quotes – the Greek gods, the European literature, etc.  

Some Europeans Jews who lost everything never recovered.  Tommy Lapid did, and then some.  What a life he led!  Maybe he was a difficult public figure, husband, father and friend – who knows.  The only picture we get it his, through Yair.  And maybe his egotism was also difficult to endure.  I imagine it was.  People who rise to power usually are egotistical.  But still – his story is an inspiration to any reader who feels he or she can contribute more to their society or country.  And he’s also an inspiration to those who need to listen to their own voices, those who do not follow the herd.

Perhaps his success in Israeli public life can be traced to his survival in Budapest.  As a teenager, had to rely on his own skills and ability to make quick decisions in order to survive.  He learned independence at a young age.  It served him well all his adult life.

Note:  The book has not been published in English in the U.S.  It is available from from a UK publisher.


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