NONFICTION: The Jewish experience in the 20th century, from the Holocaust to life in America.
The three distinct fates chronicled in author David Laskin’s panoramic “The Family” trace the Jewish experiences of success, dislocation and tragedy in the 20th century through the lens of immigration, Zionism and the Holocaust.
“My grandfather and his first cousins fought in two world wars,” Laskin writes, “ran two successful businesses, copied Torah scrolls, planted citrus groves in Palestine, lived in a mansion by the sea on Long Island, and watched tanks draped in swastikas grind through the boulevards of Vilna.”
Laskin’s deft handling of historical narrative is evident from the first pages, when he commences his ancestral quest in the late 1800s with his great-great grandfather, Shimon Dov HaKohen, a renowned Russian Torah scribe. This sensitive portrayal of a man respected for his patience, reverence and ritual sets a tone of quietude that contrasts with the upheaval that follows.
Shimon’s granddaughter Itel broke the mold of a dutiful Jewish girl. She was neither “sweet, pious, yielding [nor] obedient.” Instead, Itel and her future husband, Wolf, were attracted to the revolutionary movements of the time, including the socialist Jewish labor organization known as the Bund. Her adventureous spirit led her to follow her lover to America and to unimagined prosperity.
“Together, Itel and Wolf would bring revolution to America — though it proved to be a very different kind of revolution than the one they had fled.” In America, Itel would establish the Maidenform Bra Co., while creating an American outpost for their European relatives.
Itel’s cousin Chaim blazed a different path when, in 1924 at 18, he embraced Zionism and left for a pioneer life in Palestine. “Malaria was epidemic, the summers were long and torrid, the work never ending, the isolation deadening.” Yet, he stayed, married his cousin Sonia, and together they helped create the modern state of Israel.
For those family members who stayed in Russia and Poland, World War II horribly decided their fates. Here Laskin’s story changes dramatically from the upward trajectory of accomplishment to the senseless carnage of the Holocaust.
On Sept. 19, 1944, as the Red Army was closing in to liberate the Nazi concentration camp of Klooga, 2,000 prisoners were butchered. Among them, “Shimon Senitski, the great-grandson and namesake of the priest and scribe Shimon Dov HaKohen, was the last of his family to live and die in Europe.”
The loss of that life, along with so many others, becomes even more heartbreaking when juxtaposed against the stories of the two surviving branches of the family.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of three books, most recently “The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River.”