History Broke Us: One Jewish Family’s 20th Century

How to tell the story of the rise and destruction of European Jews? Perhaps the most compelling way is through family history, as David Laskin does in his fascinating new book.

Edwin Levick/Getty

“The pulse of history beats in every family.”

This is the essence of the writer David Laskin’s investigation of his own family tree, a family of Belorussian Kohanim—the Jewish priestly caste—caught in the chasms of the twentieth century and uprooted from their native Volozhin to the antipodes of the modern Jewish world.

In the wake of the brutal Tsarist pogroms in the Pale of Settlement and the Russian Revolution that followed shortly thereafter, one of the tree’s branches immigrated to tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side while another made aliyah to Kfar Vitkin, what was then a fledgling moshav in Palestine’s Hefer Valley. The third and final branch of the Kaganovich clan remained in Europe as European civilization burned to its bitter end: seventeen members of the family were murdered by the Nazis—two asphyxiated in gas chambers, the rest gunned down into ditches or incinerated in burning synagogues.

In that sense, The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century is Laskin’s own personal history, but it is also a local, microcosmic study of what he calls the three “great Jewish upheavals of the twentieth century”: the influx of some 23 million Eastern European immigrants to the United States between 1880 and the 1920s; the rise of Zionism against the tumultuous establishment of the state of Israel; and, of course, the Shoah in all its arresting finality.

“History made and broke my family in the twentieth century,” Laskin writes. “My grandparents and their cousins were born into a world of tradition and religion that had lasted for centuries and died in the course of four years.”

Granted, the finite “century” as a unit of historical analysis is somewhat of a blunt instrument: neither the small ripples nor the great thematic continuities in modern history begin and end within the contained frame of an even 100 years, and the themes that came to define the “twentieth century” so understood are no exception. Yet, as a whole, the events that transpired between 1900 and 2000 B.C.E. still manage to confound the contemporary imagination. The systematic, mechanized carnage of the Shoah in particular and the Second World War in general continues to demand an explanation of the “century” during which these events both could and did occur.

Yet providing any such explanation is far more difficult than it would seem. As Theodor Adorno famously cautioned, coming to terms with those events—“poetry after Auschwitz”—risks a return to the same barbaric mindset that enabled them: going on living with any peace of mind after the war, he wrote, “calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz.”

Adorno’s words are wise: how, after all, can one explain the shock of the twentieth century without a narrative that rationalizes the crises it contained as inevitable or even in some way as necessary?

This is a question that continues to challenge every historian of the twentieth century, but one promising answer is the family history of the sort Laskin has written, a history that seeks not to interpret or explain cataclysmic events per se but rather to trace and measure their influence on a group of individuals with names and voices and lives of their own.

These facets of individual personhood were denied and effaced in the course of the events themselves, and they are all too often ignored in narratives that tell only the story of nations and the abstractions for which they went to war. Although just a single unit marked by “the pulse of history,” the Kaganovich family nevertheless provides a window into the enormity of the events that is comprehensible but also fundamentally humane.

Reading Laskin’s pages, one is reminded of perhaps the most moving line from Simon Dubnow, a Jewish historian from the Pale of Settlement who died in the Riga Ghetto in 1941, at almost exactly the same time as the remaining Kaganoviches were murdered in Volozhin and Vilna. “The historian’s essential creative act,” Dubnow wrote, “is the resurrection of the dead.” The Family is nothing if not such a resurrection.

Of course, Laskin’s is only the latest in what appears a budding genre of family stories—and, specifically, Jewish family stories—told against the grain of twentieth-century catastrophe. In a similar vein, Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010) is a beautiful elegy to his own family, the inimitable Éphrussi clan, and its experience with assimilation, aspiration and loss in the grand salons of Paris and Vienna. Tim Bonyhady’s Good Living Street (2011) is an evocation of his mother’s opulent childhood amid the Jewish haut-bourgeoisie on Vienna’s storied Ringstrasse, a milieu that came to a painful halt with the Anschluss of 1938 and the subsequent arrival of the Nazis. Alexander Waugh’s The House of Wittgenstein (2009) does much the same—although for another illustrious family of intellectuals besides his own.

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In each case, the family as a unit of consideration furnishes a web of individuals scattered across time and place, a kind of micro-history well suited to the complex macro-historical circumstances that governed the even more complex lives of ordinary Europeans in the twentieth century.

The family history can show the curious intersection of identities often forgotten in the checkerboard narrative of nations at war. People are complicated, exist in innumerable different contexts, and can claim an even larger number of identities, both elected and enforced. As Laskin shows, the family can be a means of restoring that complexity, of illustrating the interconnectivities that bind together a Zionist farmer, victims of the Shoah, and none other than Ida Rosenthal, the inventor of the Maidenform bra and one of the most successful American businesswomen of her day. In his words: “The three stories—the three branches of the family—belong together. They twine one inextricable strand.”

That strand, however, also includes Laskin, and perhaps the greatest weakness of The Family is that he often ignores the personal dimension of this decidedly personal history. De Waal and Bonyhady both attempt to grapple with their own place in the narratives they weave, straddling the permeable barrier between history and memoir as they attempt to articulate their own sense of identity, Jewish and otherwise, against what has come before.

Laskin does acknowledge these questions, but only briefly and in somewhat of a rush. “My ancestors believed that the book that sustains the Jewish people is the Word of God, but it was they who copied God’s words and kept the book alive,” he writes. “Long ago, I walked away from their book, their faith, and their traditions, but in middle age I have come back to their stories.” More than a paragraph on that transformation might have added to the power of his story as a book but also as a meditation on the value of the family as a means of historical analysis in general.

In any case, The Family contains multitudes—the fabric of a dark and bloody century most of all.