Word of mouth is the real maker of best sellers in the publishing world, and I can think of few books with quite as much buzz as David Laskin’s remarkable family chronicle, “The Family: Three Journeys Into the Heart of the Twentieth Century” (Viking, $32).
Laskin tells a story — or, rather, three stories — that are emblematic of the Jewish experience in the previous century. His book follows three branches of the Cohen family, all born in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in tsarist Russia, as they struggle to survive amid the historic upheavals of the last century. One strand of the family finds its way to America and makes a fortune in the shmatte business; another makes aliyah to Palestine and pioneers the Jewish homeland; the third remains in Russia and suffers the horrors of the Shoah. Many of Laskin’s readers will have the same or similar stories to tell, but it is rare to find a family historian who is able to gather the family lore, sort out fact from fiction, and deliver a story with such color, sweep and impact.
“History made and broke my family in the twentieth century,” Laskin explains. “Their daring, their drive, their inventiveness, and ambition, and confidence and secret melancholy strike me now like something out of Dos Passos or Isaac Bashevis Singer. They gave me so much, these fierce, passionate immigrants — my life, my freedom and privileges, my education, my identity, my country. The least I can do is give their stories back to them.”
The story begins with Shimon Dov HaKohen, a member of a little dynasty of scribes at work in the shtetl of Volozhin, in what is now Belarus, but “The Family” is quickly caught up in the currents of history. Shimon’s daughter, Itel, started out as a member of the Jewish socialist movement known as the Bund, but ended up in America as one of the owners of the Maidenform bra and girdle company: “The daughter and granddaughter of scribes had stumbled upon one of the pure products of America,” Laskin writes, “seemingly frivolous but in fact eminently practical and instantly indispensable.”
Itel’s brother, Chaim, by contrast, was an ardent follower of the martyred Zionist leader Joseph Trumpeldor, and he aspired to join the other young men and women who were pioneering the Jewish homeland in Palestine. “In his dreams, Chaim would take the hero’s place,” Laskin writes. “But first he must learn how to work. Not the degrading Diaspora work of keeping shop, peddling merchandise, brokering, smuggling. Chaim must master the noble labor of the halutz.” He finally reached Palestine in 1924, and he served in the Haganah during the fateful year of 1929, when the simmering tensions between Arabs and Jews boiled over.
“Chaim had been little more than a boy when he arrived in the Kinneret in 1924, a teenager buoyed by boundless hope and idealism,” the author explains. “Idealism alters when it has to bear a sidearm. The tragedy of the twentieth-century Palestine was that farmers like Chaim had to learn to beat their plowshares into swords.”
A precious remnant of the family remained in the Old Country. When Sonya, a cousin to Itel and Chaim, who had made aliyah, returned to visit the family in Raskov in 1938, she saw that they were “frightened and desperate,” but lacked the wherewithal to get out. A relative in America offered to assist them, and “we hope that something will come of out,” as Doba, Sonya’s sister, wrote. “But nothing did come of it,” Laskin writes. “Some link in the chain broke.” Doba and the rest of the family were trapped at ground zero of the Holocaust: “We met some wise people,” Doba wrote, “who are aware that we are sitting on the mouth of a volcano.”
Inevitably, the saga ends with a measure of joy but also a measure of pain and loss. Laskin mourns those who stayed behind, and he celebrates the fact that 101 of his relatives survive in America and another 32 in Israel. Above all, he urges us to see the workings of history not merely as a list of dates, places and events, great men and great ideas, but as a tapestry whose threads include the lives of flesh-and-blood human beings.
“The pulse of history beats in every family,” he concludes. “All of our lives are engraved with epics of love and death.” But it is also true that few families produce a scribe as gifted as Laskin himself, a storyteller who has given his own family chronicle all of the depth and detail of a great novel while, at the same time, honoring the truth of their lives.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.”