David Warburg is an up-and-comer at the U.S. Treasury when he is appointed to head up the War Refugees Board. The Board’s pilot project is to rescue 1,000 Jewish refugees to upstate New York. Warburg is not a religious Jew, but he has been wanting to get into the fight since the beginning. James Carroll’s Warburg in Rome tells his story. Carroll uses real history to give Warburg’s tale a sense of the real post-war tragedy of the ratlines and the struggle of Jews and displaced persons to find a new home.
Warburg arrives in Rome with Father Kevin Deane, the aide to Archbishop Spellman. They strike up a friendship that solidifies when Warburg requisitions a shipment of milk and food for the Red Cross. Carroll broadens his lens as the story progresses, to show what Deane is up to, how Roberto Lehmann created a ratline on orders from Heinrich Himmler, and how Margeurite d’Erasmo grows from Red Cross worker to radical.
At every turn, Warburg, Deane, and d’Erasmo are confronted with lingering anti-Semitism. So many of the people they meet are complicit in war crimes or are so worried about the coming war with the Soviets that they’re willing to turn a blind eye in order to score potential allies in the new Europe. Carroll’s afterword notes that he stuck as close to real history as possible, which makes this book just that much more depressing.
David Warburg is mentioned in the title, but Warburg in Rome is not just about him. It’s about all the other characters in his sphere. At times, they’re more interesting than Warburg. Warburg is only conflicted about his past rejections of his Jewish heritage—which he embraces as time passes. Other characters have to square their consciouses about keeping silent or telling devastating truths, or killing a man in retribution for the lives he took during the war or leaving it to the “authorities,” whoever they are. Marguerite d’Erasmo and Sister Thomas Aquinas stole the show for me.
For a book about war refugees, very few refugees get any face time in Warburg in Rome. The novel tries to be a thriller most of the time, rather than being an exploration of deep morality and justice. This is a big flaw, I think. If you read Warburg as a thriller, you’ll be fine. If you want something better, read Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 1 July 2014.