“The Long Way Home from Crete”
By Isaac Kal
Available on Amazon
Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN
I don’t think I’ve ever had quite the experience reading a book that I had reading one that was recently sent to me by the author of “The Long Way Home from Crete”.
The story, in itself, is terrific – but the mistakes – oh god, I’ve never read anything that has mistakes in just about every paragraph, from grammatical mistakes, to omitted words, to usage of the wrong word entirely – and, to top it off, an absolutely egregious error when it comes to writing about what was known as British Mandate Palestine, but which the author insists on referring to as “Israel”. It wasn’t Israel yet – not until 1948!
Despite all that, I told the author that I was going to give his book a good review in our paper (also on our website). Why? Because the story he tells is so engrossing that I actually found myself riveted to the book. However, that being said, I’m not so sure that the typical reader would be able to forego wanting to grab the author by the neck and say to him: Why didn’t you have someone edit the book before you published it?
To illustrate, here’s just the third paragraph in the opening chapter: “As the ship pulled up its anchor, the tossing waves beneath me, made me feel though the world I once knew, was losing its stability.”
Okay, how many mistakes can you find in that one sentence? For one, why does he separate the sentence with three commas? For another, that phrase “made me feel though the world I once knew” has a word that is totally misplaced. Take out the “though” Isaac, and lose two of those commas! And – talk about awkward syntax!
Finally, as I’ve already noted, the ship wasn’t headed to Israel, it was headed to Palestine.
Now, if you’ve made it this far in my review, you might be wondering how someone who’s as interested in proper grammar, vocabulary and attention to historical accuracy as I like to think I am, could have persevered in reading a book that was almost comically poorly written.
The reason is that the story of the protagonist, an individual by the name of Abraham, which is told in the first person, along with the parallel story of Abraham’s wife, Genia, which is told in the third person, offers an intriguing glimpse into what life might have been like for Jews who had come to Palestine in the late 1930s, after fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany.
Abraham’s story in itself is especially absorbing. Born into a poor Jewish family in Poland, he makes his way to Konisberg in Germany, where he is taken in by the family of a well-to-do uncle. In time, Abraham discovers that he has a talent for business and, along with a cousin of his, opens up a successful sauerkraut business.
At the same time, Abraham, who is somewhat of a playboy, it seems, ends up meeting the love of his life, a beautiful but very observant young Jewish woman by the name of Genia. After promising her that he will modify his lifestyle to the point where it will be acceptable for her to marry someone who is clearly not the type of person to whom she would have previously been willing to marry, they eventually settle into a very happy life in Konisberg, and have one child, a boy named Aaron.
The story does go back and forth in time at the start, moving from 1938 “Israel” to 1930s Poland and Germany. I suppose the author was attempting to emulate other writers who decided they didn’t want to tell their stories in chronological form, and although it can be a bit confusing, using that particular device can help to hook the reader who might want to find out how a character ended up where they are.
But, given the era in which the book is set, it comes as no surprise that Abraham and Genia decide they must leave Germany. I have my qualms though with how easy it is for them to get into “Israel” in 1938: no British blockade – and no difficulty in entering the country. That simply doesn’t jive with the reality of the time, in which the British had imposed severe quotas on the number of Jews allowed into Palestine. Still, for the sake of the author being allowed some latitude in telling his story, I’ll allow him some discretion in handling the historical accuracy of that particular aspect of his story.
It’s when Abraham and Genia do settle into their new home in Herzlia though that the story really picks up. Abraham cannot find suitable employment and, even though he had been quite wealthy in Germany, when he tries to import funds from that country, they’re frozen, and the couple finds themselves quite desperate just to feed themselves.
One day, however, Abraham happens to chance upon an advertisement in a paper seeking men to enlist as support workers for the British army. It’s at that point that the story starts to move at a much faster pace. The author provides a detailed description of what life was like for Jewish men in Palestine who volunteered, not to serve in the British army itself, but rather as support workers. This was an aspect of history about which I had never read anything, so I contacted Isaac Kal while I was reading the book to ask him whether the story which, to that point, I had thought might have been a work of fiction, was actually true?
Isaac responded that the story was indeed true – it was his grandfather’s story. He also suggested that I take a look at his website for further information. That didn’t prove at all helpful, but what did help was going to the Amazon website and entering the name Isaac Kal. It was then that I discovered a fair bit more information about what led Kal to write this book – along with some further information about the unit in which his grandfather served.
Here’s what the website says: “In the midst of the Covid-19 closure, the author had plenty of time to go through the photos and documents of his family. He found his grandfather’s soldier certificate and the date of his enlistment. While browsing online, he came across a group of relatives of the Israeli POW from WW2. he discovered the name of the unit in which his grandfather served (Port Operation Unit 1039). Interestingly enough, his captain kept a war diary until his capture.
“Through the stories and the dates in the diary, he was able to trace the route that his grandfather took until his capture.”
As Abraham completes his training, which is to enable him to work in ports helping to unload cargo ships – eventually leading to his becoming a skilled crane operator, he is fairly quickly thrust into an ongoing series of dangerous situations, in which he and the other members of his unit are required to work under enemy fire.
The scenes move from battleground to battleground as German forces advance, first in Africa – in Tobruk (Libya), then in Greece, leading to British forces, along with the support units, such as Abraham’s, constantly retreating.
Again, if the author’s descriptions of events are true, then the vivid accounts of all the near misses that Abraham experiences, often when others nearby get killed, provide descriptions of battlegrounds, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, that are perhaps not as well known to many of us as battlegrounds in western Europe.
At the same time though that Abraham is experiencing the arduous life that anyone who is attached to a combat unit during a war would no doubt experience, his loving wife, Genia, it turns out, is not quite as virtuous as one might have thought. Left alone with her young son she turns to a younger man by the name of Jacob who works in a store and who offers to assist Genia, first by attending to some repairs needed at her home, then by offering her a job helping him in the store.
It doesn’t take long though for the reader to realize that Jacob has an ulterior motive, which is to bed Genia. I was somewhat surprised to read that she wasn’t all that reluctant to give into Jacob’s advances. The whole time I was thinking: “Isaac (Kal), is this your grandmother you’re writing about?”
Thus, while the book evolves into quite the exciting war story – as Abraham escapes from one near-death situation to another, eventually finding himself on Crete – surrounded by Germans, until he is finally captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp in Silesia (in Poland), Jacob has moved in with Genia, while Aaron has been sent to an orphanage in Jerusalem.
Abraham does survive – of course, otherwise the title of the book would not have been what it was, and is reunited with Genia.
But, the story suddenly ends with the couple back together and no clue as to whether Genia ever confesses her marital infidelity to Abraham. (To be fair, he was gone five years and had been reported as “Missing in Action”, but even when Genia learns that Abraham is indeed alive, she finds herself still drawn to Jacob and unable to resist his sexual advances.)
I note that, of the reviews on Amazon, a number ask whether there will be a sequel to “The Long Way Home from Crete”? I suppose that if what happens to Abraham and Genia following Abraham’s return to “Israel” was nearly as interesting as what preceded his return, then it might make for a very good sequel. But, for gosh shakes, Isaac Kal, get someone to proofread your writing!