by Elise Coop­er

David Laskin’s book, The Fam­i­ly: Three Jour­neys Into the Heart of the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry, is a grip­ping tale that traces the roots of the author’s Jew­ish ances­tors. Although it is non-fic­tion, it reads more like a nov­el, with inter­est­ing, well devel­oped char­ac­ters. Amer­i­can his­to­ry buffs will enjoy this sto­ry, as it cap­tures the time peri­od from the late 1830s to the late 1940s and the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of the era. 

The sto­ry begins with the birth of Laskin’s great-great-grand­fa­ther in Rus­sia. It traces how the fam­i­ly sep­a­rat­ed into three branch­es. One branch immi­grat­ed to Amer­i­ca, includ­ing a for­mer Russ­ian revolu­tionary who end­ed up found­ing the Maid­en­form Bra Com­pa­ny. Anoth­er branch went to what was then Pales­tine and par­tic­i­pat­ed as pio­neers in the birth of Israel. The third branch, sev­en­teen mem­bers, unfor­tunately remained in Europe and was killed dur­ing the Holocaust.

Elise Coop­er: Why did you decide to write about the roots” of your family? 

David Laskin: I real­ized, after get­ting in touch with my Israeli rel­a­tives, that my family’s his­to­ry was a his­to­ry of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. They had immi­grat­ed to the US and Israel as well as being a part of the Holo­caust. My fam­i­ly reflect­ed these move­ments. It is a book of how his­to­ry swept up my fam­i­ly and changed us. 

EC: Since it is a non-fic­tion book how did you make sure the informa­tion and the rec­ol­lec­tions were accurate? 

DL: Since this book is par­tial­ly based on my family’s mem­o­ries, I cor­roborated it with research. I used accounts giv­en to me and com­pared them with peo­ple who wrote books and had sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences. I inte­grat­ed and syn­the­sized var­i­ous sources. 

EC: In the Jew­ish reli­gion, women are in charge of the house­hold, so does this quote from the book con­tra­dict that: In the Russ­ian annals of the fam­i­ly, the wives were all but silent. They worked, they sacri­ficed, they looked after their fam­i­lies, they fad­ed into their hus­bands’ shadows.”

DL: What I meant is that in the annals that is what has been record­ed. The Russ­ian annals of soci­ety had the women all but silent. I think this shows how there is a cer­tain amount of sex­ism in the way his­to­ry was told. It’s that their role was unher­ald­ed and underap­preciated. But I also point out Jew­ish moth­ers in the Pale were effi­cient man­agers, bril­liant impro­vis­ers, shrewd nego­tia­tors, prac­ticed schmooz­ers, nim­ble stretch­ers of every kopek. They jug­gled mul­ti­ple tasks.’ In oth­er words, while the men were doing G‑d’s work, women were run­ning the house­hold eco­nom­i­cal­ly and socially. 

EC: You point out the dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences your fam­i­ly went through dur­ing the World War I era depend­ing on where they lived. Can you explain? 

DL: Just look at how they were treat­ed with­in the army of each coun­try. In Amer­i­ca and Ger­many, Jews were allowed to climb up in rank and become offi­cers, which was not per­mit­ted in the Russ­ian army. Many Jews were tak­en and marched off to die as they fought for Rus­sia, the land of the pogrom. When Ger­many con­trolled the lands of Rakov and Volozhin there was lit­tle rape, plun­der, or des­e­cra­tion of syn­a­gogues, and more tol­er­ance for Jew­ish cus­toms. The Ger­mans were more hu­mane and more accept­ing of Jew­ish rights at that time. 

EC: Yet many of these same fam­i­lies end­ed up dying in the Holo­caust. Is it because the wealthy Amer­i­can con­tin­gent did nothing? 

DL: It was a com­bi­na­tion of things.The US State Depart­ment and the British placed restric­tions on Jews immi­grat­ing to the US and Pales­tine. Once the war start­ed, inter­na­tion­al trav­el became dif­fi­cult to arrange. I state in the book that Amer­i­can rel­a­tives were blamed by their East­ern Euro­pean rel­a­tives for refus­ing to invite them and there is no evi­dence that the rel­a­tives tried. But even had they done so, it’s unlike­ly they would have suc­ceed­ed.’ I felt con­flict­ed. There was a piece of me that thought my rich fam­i­ly should have done more, but I don’t think they turned their heads away com­plete­ly. The ques­tion that comes to mind is Did any­one real­ly under­stand what was com­ing and know the real threat?’ 

EC: For your fam­i­ly that did immi­grate ear­li­er, were there two forks in the road, going to the US or Israel? 

DL: My fam­i­ly per­fect­ly embod­ies the divide. Those com­pelled by oppor­tu­ni­ty, com­fort, and mate­r­i­al suc­cess went to Amer­i­ca. Those who were com­pelled by the ide­ol­o­gy of want­i­ng a Jew­ish home­land and that com­mit­ment went to Israel. Although my fam­i­ly in New York had a bet­ter stan­dard of liv­ing, Sonia, a rel­a­tive who did make aliyah to Israel, said how rich she became by liv­ing her dream and expe­ri­enc­ing the re-birth of Israel. In writ­ing this book, I became deeply moved by what the Jews had done in Israel. 

EC: What do you want the read­ers to get out of The Fam­i­ly?

DL: For my Amer­i­can Jew­ish read­ers I wish they would get an under­standing of what our ances­tors had to go through, espe­cial­ly the pio­neers in Israel, their huge and inspir­ing ide­al­ism that spurred them to make sac­ri­fices. The book Exo­dus by Leon Uris comes to mind. My hope is to inspire read­ers to research their own fam­i­lies’ roots.

Elise Coop­er lives in Los Ange­les and has writ­ten numer­ous nation­al se­curity arti­cles sup­port­ing Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A’s for many dif­fer­ent out­lets includ­ing the Mil­i­tary Press. She has had the plea­sure to inter­view best­selling authors from many dif­fer­ent genres.

Elise Coop­er lives in Los Ange­les and has writ­ten numer­ous nation­al secu­ri­ty arti­cles sup­port­ing Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A’s for many dif­fer­ent out­lets includ­ing the Mil­i­tary Press. She has had the plea­sure to inter­view best­selling authors from many dif­fer­ent genres.