What You Did Not Tell: A Russ­ian Past and the Jour­ney Home

Mark Mazow­er
  • Review
By – August 27, 2018

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.

Inger Saphire-Bern­stein is a health pol­i­cy pro­fes­sion­al with exten­sive expe­ri­ence across mul­ti­ple health care deliv­ery set­tings and the insur­ance indus­try. She has pub­lished a num­ber of arti­cles and papers in the health pol­i­cy field.

Discussion Questions