coverThe Family.  Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century.  By David Laskin.  Published by Viking Adult.  2013.  400 pages.

This is the story of three branches of one Russian Jewish family, the author’s maternal grandfather’s family.  Although we often think that such family lines cannot be traced back into the “old country”,  Mr. Laskin was able to track many of the individuals in this family back to early in the 1800s, to his great great grandparents Shimon Dov HaKohen and Beyle Botwinik HaKohen.  From a variety of sources which included much help from a couple of cousins, interviews with various family members, transcriptions of old letters, and the historical timeline, Mr. Laskin has pieced together the story of his mother’s father’s family.  With a family tree laid out for the reader right after the table of contents, how could a genealogist resist?

David Laskin started where many family historians begin: with some memories from his childhood, some few pieces of information, and a family rumor.  Although he grew up in a Jewish family, and knew his older relatives were immigrants, he knew little more.  As he described:  “I grew up hearing stories that my immigrant Jewish grandparents told about the “old country” (Russia) that they left at the turn of the last century. When I was a teenager, my mother’s parents began making yearly trips to visit our relatives in Israel, and stories about the Israeli family sifted down to me as well. What I never heard growing up was that a third branch of the family had remained behind in the old country – and that all of them perished in the Holocaust.“

One piece of information and one family rumor seem to have started Mr. Laskin on the road to tracing his family story.  The information was that an great aunt, Itel or Ida Rosenthal, had been instrumental in starting and developing the Maidenform company.  The rumor was that Lazar Kaganovich, the “wolf of the Kremlin”, was a relative.  In trying to track the truth of the rumor, Mr. Laskin re-connected with an Israeli cousin who was the family historian.  The cousin was able to say definitely that Lazar Kaganovich was not part of the family.  However, this left the question for the author of who was part of the family.

Mr. Laskin’s great great grandfather, Shimon Dov Hakohen,  was a Torah scribe as was his father before him.  His family lived in the Pale of Settlement which was on the western edge of the Russian Empire in the early 1800s, in a town between Minsk and Vilna.  The town was known for its yeshiva, institute of Talmudic study, and Shimon Dov’s sons were educated there.  For at least several generations the town was a center of Jewish life, religion and scholarship.  However, no one was exempt from the forces that shaped modern history.  Shimon Dov and Beyle and all their children felt the changes around them and responded in different ways according to their personalities and ages.  When the Tsar, Alexander II, was assassinated in 1881 it led to a round of ethnic cleansing against the Jews.  This in turn led some of the Jewish youth in the country to social activism and to join with others in the Bund.  By 1901 family members, led by Itel and her husband William Rosenthal, began migrating to the US.  The unrest in the Russian Empire, culminating in the 1905 revolution convinced more of the family to leave.   Oldest son, Abraham and his sons followed Itel to the US.  Two young cousins, instead of going to the US went to Palestine (or the Land as Mr. Laskin termed it) to help build a home for the Jews.  And the rest of the family stayed in place fighting for their freedom and lives in Russia.

This is not an uncommon family trajectory or story among many Jewish families, however, Mr. Laskin’s ability to piece together the various lines is less usual.  Using all the resources at his disposal and historical storytelling he was able to link the social forces to individual people and families.  His family’s story might have been my husband’s.

Disclaimer: I am not connected with the author or the publisher in any way.  I discovered this book via something online (a blog probably, but I can’t remember whose) and was intrigued enough to get my library to find it for me.  I learned many things about modern history and the Jewish experience from reading it.

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