While making arrangements for his father’s funeral, historian Mark Mazower realized how little he actually knew the man. In What You Did Not Tell, Mark chronicles the lives of his beloved father and mysterious grandfather. His recognition of three intertwined losses — his father’s death, the vanishing of the London he knew as a boy, and the vacuum of his paternal grandfather’s life — appears to be the catalyst for this fascinating memoir. Themes including the nature of home, the importance of family as an anchor against the unpredictable tides of history, and the value of fighting for others and “being of use” shape the narrative.
In describing his grandfather Max’s double life as a bookkeeper and revolutionary agitator and organizer, Mark provides revelatory detail about one of the largest revolutionary forces in Tsarist Russia: the General Jewish Labor Bund. Formed in 1897 and centered primarily in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, the Bund was the first “mass Marxist party in Russian history.” By 1907, the Bund was “the largest and most powerful labor movement in the Russian Empire.” By the mid-1920s, however, Bolshevism had triumphed and the Bund wasa remnant of its former strength.
Mark shows how the lives of his grandparents and their siblings were shaped and buffeted by revolutionary activism in Tsarist Russia, the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, and the Russian Civil War. Max was imprisoned in Siberia twice between 1901 and 1907. After escaping, he took a job with the English office of an American typewriter firm. He later returned to Russia as a businessman to open the Russian market. For a man with little formal education, Max was remarkably successful. In the years after 1907, he focused not on revolution but on building a new life and home in England.
The Mazower home in Highgate (London) was a meeting place for old colleagues and family who had escaped from Russia. The Mazowers were described as a good Bundist family with a warm socialist home. Max, his wife, Frouma, and their son, Bill, always identified with the Left, and Bill was a Labor activist in his youth. Mark considers his family to have been Russian-Jewish intelligentsia, moving freely from one level of non-Jewish society to another like aristocrats.
Mark takes pains to distinguish the ideology of the Bund as shaping the intellectual and social life of the Mazowers. The family was Jewish but completely secular, enjoying Christmas trees and Easter feasts, and avoiding synagogues. Although intermarriage was common in their circle, Mark’s grandmother had a Jewish wedding and lit a candle on her mother’s yahrzeit.
The author writes very little about his siblings or his mother, whose name is mentioned once. Despite this puzzling deficit, What You Did Not Tell provides a compelling look into the life of a Bundist, socialist pioneer and the English family he nurtured in his second life beyond the fray of revolution.