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Through Spain to Canary Wharf
by Douglas Bell

This is the sort of prodigious and intelligent biographical study that blows away the fog and cobwebs built up after twenty odd years of journalistic scrutiny. In this instance, Bianco's very compelling chronicle of undiscovered lands guides the reader on a journey by turns melancholy and terrifying, following Samuel and Renée Reichmann's flight from Vienna to Paris; then, three years later, south across the border to Franco's Spain and finally on to Tangier (all this with six children in tow).
Whatever brilliance Paul and Albert Reichmann later demonstrated for commercial enterprise; however monumental Paul's hubris in running a multi-billion dollar fortune into the ground; however beneficent was Albert's freelance diplomacy on behalf of Soviet Jewry, in the grand scheme these tales pale beside the Reichmann family doings one generation earlier. The story of the family's flight from the Holocaust, of how as refugee survivors they turned their attention to assuring their own futures and simultaneously easing the burdens of the walking dead they left behind, puts the family at or near the centre of the twentieth century's focal moment.
Bianco's telling lives up to the importance of the events he chronicles. He is thorough and dogged in his pursuit of a nuanced portrait of a family caught in history's rip-tide. There are no cartoon villains or heroes here. While in Moroccan exile, Renée Reichmann ran a one-woman relief program that probably saved a couple of thousand Jews from the gas chambers. Yet, as Bianco points out, her willingness to trade favours with the Franco regime probably prevents her (even posthumously) from being fully lionized as a saviour for her people.
At the same time Samuel Reichmann, the patriarch, sought to make a living from the currency trade engendered by the lucky few who made good their escape from Europe.
Happily for the Reichmanns and their legacy, Bianco goes a long way towards putting paid to the scurrilous innuendo generated through the publication of Elaine Dewar's exhaustive and exhausting 1987 piece for Toronto Life (a piece that resulted in litigation, an out-of-court settlement, a cringing apology from the magazine, and a lingering smell of scandal around the Reichmanns). In it Dewar implied that pater Reichmann made his Tangier fortune in trade with the Nazis.
This Bianco debunks: "To believe that Samuel knowingly trafficked with Nazis in Tangier, even as Renée and Eva [the Reichmanns' only daughter] were exerting themselves mightily to frustrate Eichmann's murderous designs in Budapest, is to believe that within the Reichmann family the vilest sort of greed coexisted with the highest form of virtue. This is more than improbable: it is ludicrous, as is the notion that the Reichmanns' food parcel program was an illicit black market enterprise disguised as charity."
And yet just as the evidence allows Bianco to rehabilitate the family's reputation with one hand, so the evidence forces him to besmirch it with the other. In the very next sentence he is forced to conclude that "it is conceivable that the family was directly involved in smuggling." Bianco brings the same care and attention, not to mention evidentiary clout, to bear on the remainder of the Reichmanns' twentieth-century journey. Most impressive is Bianco's access to Paul Reichmann in helping to clarify both family lore and the rise and collapse of the greatest real estate fortune in modern times. Though this story has been chewed over by business journalists in this country like a cud, the final word goes to Bianco.
There is evident throughout a professionalism and regard for history that simply puts to shame previous journalistic efforts. 

Douglas Bell was formerly senior editor at Canadian Business magazine and is now features editor at Shift magazine.


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