The Family: A Journey Into the Heart of the Twentieth Century, by David Laskin
NY: Penguin, 2013
A strange, unlikely, and in the end a false family legend sends David Laskin back into his family’s past, the legend quickly abandoned for a true story – or rather, several true stories -- much more complicated and compelling. His great-great-grandfather, Shimon Dov HaKonen, a scribe in the village of Volozhin in the Pale, in the part now called Belarus, is the beginning of a dynastic trail that branches in three different directions. One leads to the United States, another to Israel, and the third ends there at the place of beginning, as the branch of the family that stayed in place is overcome by the Holocaust.
How can one review such a book? It is well written, with fully dimensional, engaging characters (i.e., real people), but with every page we turn, we know what is coming. It’s not like reading a novel or even the personal memoir of someone whose life is unfamiliar to us. We are told from the beginning that the family members in the Pale did not survive, and we have read and heard accounts of the atrocities committed in those places and those times. And yet there is a strange, irrational hope as one reads, as one turns pages, that maybe a miracle will --. But no, what’s past is past, and all of them died, perishing in ghastly, unspeakable circumstances. But it is precisely in speaking—and then writing--of the circumstances, of the lives and deaths, that the author reconstructs what happened to these lost relatives, in order that the stories of their lives and deaths will not be lost.
The American stories are of success, for the most part, most notably in the case of Itel, who became in America Ida Rosenthal, founder of the legendary Maidenform Bra company. At last count, the author tells us in his epilogue, the American branch of the family numbered 101. Stories from Israel tell of the founding of a pioneer family, which numbered 32 at the time the book was written.
The further I read in The Family, however, the more I found myself becoming still, willfully contained, trying physically I suppose to barricade myself, so to speak, against the shocking reality both of the historical past and so much of the world’s present. The maps in the book of Eastern Europe and the Middle East focus on places once again torn by hatred and cruel strife.
Is it the privilege of having grown up in the United States that allows David Laskin to cast the stories of his family in universal terms? For me, this “journey into the heart of the twentieth century" reveals a heart broken time and time again. As Stephen Daedalus said to the dreadful Mr. Deasy, the pompous, self-confident, anti-Semitic headmaster in James Joyce’s Ulysses, “History ... is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” It was the more astonishing to read Laskin’s even-handed last pages since I was going back and forth between the book and, drawing deep breaths and trying to sort out current events, an article called “The Liberal Zionists,” by Jonathan Freedland in the August 14 issue of the New York Review of Books. What Laskin writes in his epilogue is undeniably true but can be difficult to acknowledge when one’s relatives have suffered horribly for religion or ethnic background, and as I read the following paragraph again, I am once more astonished by it.
The pulse of history beats in every family. All of our lives are engraved with epics of love and death. What my family gained and lost in the twentieth century, though extreme, was not unique. War has touched all of us. Fate and chance and character make and break every generation. The Shoah was not the only genocide America is not the first land of opportunity nor will it be the last. Warring peoples have fought over the Holy Land for thousands of years, all of them claiming to have God on their side. In a family history written by Palestinian Arabs, Chaim and Sonia and their fellow Zionists would be oppressors; the Koran, not the Torah, would be the holy book; Jerusalem would be a besieged, stolen city. Open the book of your family and you will be amazed, as I was, at what you find.
Now, will I have the courage to read Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel?
It's a soft, rainy, late summer morning. I'm here now. Wherever you are, you're there now.