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Memorial Addresses in Honour of Past Presidents: Philip Guedalla

Cecil Roth

<plain_text><page sequence="1">(iii) Philip Guedalla (1889-1944) By Cecil Roth. Fate has dealt harshly in these past few years with the Jewish Historical Society. The passing of one after the other of the veterans to whom we had owed so much was to be anticipated, but not the loss, at the height of his powers, of our immediate past President, Philip Guedalla. Our Society has been fortunate in the collaboration of eminent men of letters. Guedalla was outstanding among them. He was a member of the Council for many years, and in the old days at least was a regular attendant. Our proceedings were not only enlivened by his mordant wit and brilliant phrasing, but also by the sound counsel which lay beneath them. For his epigrams were an adornment to, not as in the case of so many of his imitators, a substitute for, common sense. In 1938 he became President of our Society, and signalised the occasion by a brilliant Presidential Address on The Jewish Past, perhaps over-optimistic but with a superb peroration: The lesson of the past, as I read it, is that if we are true to our past we have ... a future. That is the lesson for the Jews. There is another lesson, and that is for Germany; and Germany may read it in the history of Egypt, and Assyria, and Spain, and Czarist Russia. Germany has asked for justice, and I cannot doubt that it will get it; and when it comes, it will be something more terrible than man's justice?the justice of Almighty God. Guedalla was re-elected for a second term in the summer of 1939, his pleasure in this being a tribute to ourselves as well as to the sincerity of his interest. The outbreak of the war deprived us of the second Presidential Address to which we had looked forward, and thereafter his national work gave him no opportunity for further collaboration in our activities. 195</page><page sequence="2">I96 MEMORIAL ADDRESSES IN HONOUR OF PAST PRESIDENTS The passage quoted above indicates Guedalla's profound sense of Jewish pride. Let me quote another memorable passage in a speech delivered before the Society, in taking the Chair for Mr. Wickham Steed on the occasion of the Lucien Wolf lecture in 1937: Freedom, which may be a luxury to others, is a necessity to us, because by the destiny of history we are, wherever we find ourselves, a minority, and minorities without freedom are slaves. That is why we owe it to ourselves and to our children, wherever there is a fight for freedom, to be foremost in that fight. ... If you don't fight for your freedom, you don't deserve your freedom. I will say one thing more. No man, no group, no community, ever achieved or retained its freedom by a policy of genteel unobtrusive ness, by a policy of sitting in a corner and hoping to God that no one will notice us. Unless we are prepared to sacrifice a litde of our gentility and to descend into the fight, our freedom may be something that we shall not enjoy for ever. . . . Here we have the slogan of Guedalla's own career. No man was less of the Marrano. Personally, I worked in close collaboration with him in many matters. I recall a Christmas morning, some fifteen years ago, when he walked up from Hyde Park to my flat in Hamp stead to discuss with me a recent literary recurrence of the Ritual Murder Libel in an ostensibly serious historical work, which he urged me to tackle at once. This sort of thing must be scotched, whenever it appears, he said; we cannot afford to risk the case going against us by default (This was the genesis of a memorable polemic on the subject in The Dublin Review in 1932). Later it was he who gave the first impetus to the project for the republication of the famous report by Cardinal Ganganelli (subsequently Pope Clement XIV) on the same subject, which I presented at the Vatican in private audience in 1935. (It was at a time when * official' circles had solemnly expressed their opinion that the Libel was dead, and that refutation only gave it unnecessary publicity?and this, after the Nazis had seized power in Germany!) One remembers other notable demonstrations of pugnacity?as for example when opposition to establishing a canteen in the Bloomsbury area for the German refugees was overcome when at last he and I threatened that other</page><page sequence="3">MEMORIAL ADDRESSES IN HONOUR OF PAST PRESIDENTS I97 wise we would personally set up a refreshment stall in the street outside! It was unfortunate that his literary output bearing on Jewish questions was so small. Other than his introduction to the Braden ham edition of Disraeli's novels, the Presidential Address referred to above, and a few scattered articles and reviews, there was only his Arthur Davis lecture on Napoleon and Palestine, when (to use his own phrase) he * intervened with a slight lecture between a Chair? man, who was Israel Zangwill, and a vote of thanks that was moved by Mr. Lloyd George.' There was little fresh, unfortunately, that could be said upon the subject. But it was a memorable essay, of remarkable brilliance of style. Apart from the amazing epigram? matic output that is generally associated with the Guedalla Manner, he was indeed at his best one of the finest prose stylists of our day, and it is questionable whether any Anglo-Jewish writer?not except? ing even Israel Zangwill?ever surpassed him in this respect. And he was, too, an historian of outstanding ability. Behind those epi? grammatic touches, those perfectly balanced sentences, those forceful antitheses, there was much solid research. As his position in the world of letters became more assured and he was able to devote more time to his researches, his books became more and more rounded, some of his later works being assured of a permanent place in English historical literature. Our Society was fortunate that so eminent an historian and man of letters should have been associated so closely with its work. I cannot close without an expression of my personal sense of loss at the interruption of a friendship now of some twenty years standing, beginning when I was just down from Oxford and he took a very real interest in my first book. He perhaps never knew how much the encouragement of an eminent writer could have meant to a very recent graduate; and how the mere fact of treatment as an equal and a colleague by a man of his distinction encouraged me through a difficult period. The loss to English letters is felt by our Society as an intimate blow, and by no member more than myself.</page></plain_text>