The Fam­i­ly: Three Jour­neys into the Heart of the Twen­ti­eth Century

  • Review
By – October 10, 2013

Jew­ish fam­i­ly his­to­ries are often inspir­ing, full of plucky ances­tors who left the oppres­sive Old World to start suc­cess­ful lives in new places. Laskin opens his family’s sto­ry with an account of its patri­arch, Shi­mon Dov HaKo­hen, a late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry scribe from Volozhin, an impor­tant yeshi­va town on the road between Vil­nius and Min­sk. As Laskin details the life of this devout scribe and his extend­ed fam­i­ly, the shtetl comes alive — we can almost smell the Shab­bos loaves bak­ing, hear the din of shul prayer, feel the intense per­son­al­i­ties in this very close-knit com­mu­ni­ty. While these Jews had a hard life — anti-Semit­ic reg­u­la­tions, wars, pogroms — they had learned to man­age. The world around them was hos­tile, but when had it not been? Still, the younger gen­er­a­tions looked for new options, and before long, Laskin has three dis­tinct fam­i­ly threads to follow. 

Migrat­ing to Amer­i­ca, some of the family’s men built a suc­cess­ful whole­sal­ing com­pa­ny; a dress­mak­ing daugh­ter spe­cial­ized in brassieres and found­ed the Maid­en­form empire. A sec­ond strand fol­lowed the Zion­ist dream and migrat­ed to Pales­tine, where they strug­gled with both their Arab neigh­bors and the stub­born soil of Kfar Vitkin. Final­ly, there were those who stayed behind, keep­ing the tra­di­tions but liv­ing in anx­ious uncertainty. 

Then Hitler came to pow­er, and this promis­ing, upbeat fam­i­ly saga turns dark. Ten­sions in Pales­tine wors­ened, but at least the pio­neers were aware of their ene­mies and risked their lives to smug­gle in refugees. By con­trast, the Amer­i­can fam­i­lies were so pre­oc­cu­pied with their busi­ness­es, so relieved to have sur­vived the Depres­sion intact, they could not address the dis­as­ter unfold­ing in East­ern Europe. As Laskin describes in unspar­ing detail the Nazi/​Lithuanian slaugh­ter of inno­cents, the silence from the Amer­i­can side of the fam­i­ly is almost incom­pre­hen­si­ble. Laskin pass­es no judg­ments here, clos­ing instead by dis­cussing the val­ue of shar­ing fam­i­ly sto­ries. It’s a com­pelling, well-writ­ten, and well-researched nar­ra­tive, which makes it all the more dis­turb­ing. Fam­i­ly tree, index, maps, notes.


Read Elise Coop­er’s inter­view with David Laskin here.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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