David Laskin’s family experienced the most important events of the 20th century: the Russian Revolution; World War I; the Great Depression; the Holocaust; World War II. But this Zelig-like existence was unknown to Laskin for years, as he grew up in a bucolic suburb of New York City, graduated from Harvard and went on to become an accomplished author. It wasn’t until he began to probe the history of his family that he discovered its remarkable background. These discoveries became the basis for his fascinating new book, The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century.
Early on in The Family, Laskin establishes the premise with this simple, elegant sentence: “History made and broke my family in the twentieth century.” Consider what three separate branches of his mother’s family experienced: One branch emigrated from Russia to the U.S. and went on to build a fortune by creating the Maidenform brassiere. Another branch found its way to the Middle East, where it was part of the establishment of Israel. The third branch remained in Europe and suffered through two world wars and the Holocaust.
Laskin is honest about his place of privilege and how he once ignored his Judaism and his family history: “I forgot the Hebrew that had been drummed into me. I belonged to Greenwich Village, London, Paris, Rome, maybe James Joyce’s Dublin—certainly not to Jerusalem, Vilna, Minsk.” But on a whim he started corresponding with distant relatives and began to learn about the astounding evolution of his family. The success that the American branch experienced in creating the Maidenform bra is poignantly contrasted with the struggles of the Israeli branch in helping to establish a new country. But even more gripping is the pain felt by family members who remained in Russia, enduring the horrors of both Hitler’s Final Solution and Stalin’s purges.
The Family is a thoroughly researched, deftly written book that will help readers appreciate the struggles and successes of Jews as they sought safe harbors and places to call home during the 20th-century diaspora. It is a journey worth taking to see an educated and talented author come to appreciate how his ancestors helped him to find his home in the 21st century.