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.