Judith Wertheimer is arriving in Israel. Like many of her fellow survivors of the Holocaust, she’s arriving at night, in darkness, aboard a ship smuggling Jews into Palestine. It’s February 1947; the British Mandate still exists but Britain’s days of control are numbered. And then, who knows what will happen?
The British discover the smuggler ship: Judith jumps into the cold sea to get ashore. She’s desperate to find her one remaining relative, an uncle who emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s. When she discovers he’s recently died, she tries to take her own life and is taken to Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. She needs a blood transfusion, and a nurse has a matching blood type – an Arab nurse. Juditch will later return the same favor to the nurse.
Thus begins Where the Desert Meets the Sea, the novel by Werner Sonne that tells the story of the people involved in Israel’s fight for independence in 1947 and 1948. It’s a story filled with tension, death, hatred, determination, and love, and Sonne tells it well through the lives of Judith; Uri, the Israeli freedom fighter whom Judith falls in love with; Hana, the Arab nurse who is rejecting a traditional marriage with an unwanted suitor because she’s in love with Dr. David Cohen, an American working at Hadassah who also happens to be Jewish; and Josef Goldsmith, a young officer in the British occupying army who happens to be Judith’s brother and who was on one of the last kindertransports out of Germany in 1939.
The story could have easily slipped into soap opera, but the ever-present reality of the political and social turmoil underlying the stories of the characters prevents that. Instead, the reader finds himself experiencing the mounting tension as the British army prepares to leave and the reality of war between the Jews and Arabs grows ever stronger before it finally explodes.
The characters are fictional, but the events are historical. Sonne includes the infamous massacre of the Hadassah Hospital medical staff, their convoy bombed on the way to work. The irony is that Hadassah, funded by American Jews, served both Jewish and Arab patients. And on full display is the duplicity of the British, who theoretically were neutral but who were constantly tilting the scales in favors of the Arabs. In the hatred and rage that explodes in Palestine, efforts at understanding are lost and destroyed. One of the key themes of the story is how two women – Judith and Hana – come to see each other and their people as the enemy.
Sonne was a German radio and television broadcaster for more than 40 years, covering the German government in Bonn and Berlin along with reporting assignments in Washington, D.C., Poland, and Moscow. He began his travels in the Middle East with the 1972 Yom Kippur War and also covered the war in Afghanistan. He writes on foreign and security policy and has written several non-fiction books. He’s also written several political thrillers and historical novels, but only this novel is currently available in English, translated by Steve Anderson, a political and historical thriller novel in his own right.
Where the Desert Meets the Sea is the kind of novel that you have to put down and walk briefly away from, because the tension grows overwhelming. You care for these characters, and you know it’s likely that some will not survive. Those who do survive will face a future of conflict and turmoil. It’s a great, riveting story.