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.