The Family

The Family

I have just finished reading “The Family” by David Laskin. It is about one Jewish family that took three directions as a result of revolutionary events in the Jewish Pale of Settlement at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The family are Cohens (the Priest group that are supposed descendents of Moses’ brother Aaron and were the Priests and Scribes throughout Jewish history).

Laskin uses his own mother’s family who descended from Shimon Dov Hakohen and his wife Beyle Shapiro. Shimon Dov is a scribe, who spends his time writing the sacred books of the Jews (The Five Books of Moses) and sometimes the tiny parchments that  go inside a “Mezuzah” that hangs outside every door in an orthodox Jewish house.

The book covers how his family in the twentieth century split three ways. There were those who stayed in the Stetls and towns of Belarus where they faced pogroms, war, revolution and ultimately total destruction in the Holocaust.


Another branch went to America where they joined thousands of refugees coming through Ellis Island into the overcrowded tenements of the East Side of New York where they peddled goods, made clothes in sweat shops and became street traders.

These people learned to speak English and slowly became upwardly mobile. Laskin gives the extraordinary example of his aunt Ida Rosenthal who founded The Maidenform Bra Company which became one of the largest family companies in the United States.

The third branch of the family followed the Zionist Movement that became very powerful in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and made “Aliya” by going from the violence and discrimination of their Eastern European home to a largely barren and under-devoloped land in the Middle-East that had once been the home of their ancestors but was now run (as it had been for many years) by Arabs.

They came into pockets of contested land and by sheer hard work managed to make the desert into a rich agricultural area. They founded new towns and cities like Tel Aviv and Hertziliya and formed socialist/communist cooperatives that were called Kibbutzes.

They were not accepted with open arms by the Arabs and Laskin shows how hard it was to settle into a land that was very different from the settled agricultural lands that they left to become pioneers in the would-be Jewish nation.

It was though, the ones who did not leave that perished in so many horrible ways at the hands of the Nazis and, as Laskin so vividly points out, local people, who used years of anger and envy to “ethnically clean” their land.

Laskin pulls no punches. He describes the death of old, middle aged and young in great detail. It was difficult to read at times but showed why a whole section of his family, like those of so many other Ashkenazi Jews, was literally wiped out in the early 1940’s.

I was so impressed with the book that I wrote to the author. This was our correspondence:

Dear  David,

I just wanted to say how much I got from reading your excellent book.

I came upon it as a recommendation as I have been taking the early steps of researching my family history with

As it happens my family on my father’s side were Cohen but finding out about Cohen’s from Bucharest is a bit of a thankless task!

I have had more success with my mother’s family and have found a possible second cousin who was a scientist on the Atom Bomb project at Los Alamos and later  became a peace campaigner!

For many years I believed that my family on both sides, having finished up in the U.K. had escaped the horrors that you so graphically write about in your book but some research on Jewish Gen has shown a whole branch that died in what was Poland and is now the Ukraine.

I felt that I got to know your family so well reading the book. I cried a lot but I also learnt so much.

Well done and thank you.

The reply was:

Dear Malcolm,

Many thanks for the message and for your kind words about the book.  I really appreciate your taking the time and trouble to write.

Strange how we both grew up believing our families had “escaped” the horrors of the Holocaust only to discover that an entire unknown branch had been murdered.  These discoveries are why I never tire of family research.

I cherish your last line: “I cried a lot but I also learnt so much.”  I have done my job!

I wish you continued success with your own search into the past.

Best wishes, David

I shall be continuing to try and  piece together my family’s history.  I do not think it will be easy and I will come across a lot of false trails but, like so many, it will be a worthwhile persuit. My ancestors are how I came to be. One change in the pattern and I would not exist. When you think of it the whole thing is amazing and somewhat unlikely.

David Laskin’s book is a great read and, if you are a would-be genealogist like me, a great example in how to go about getting the pieces put together.

His family (like mine) are not just sections of a diagram. They had lives of joy, hatred, despair, elation. They loved, they sang, they danced, they had their dreams and they lost loved ones.

Ultimately, they disappear from the Earth and become just names on a diagram. But the power of Laskin’s book is to bring all of these people so vividly to life. If you want to understand the Ashkenazi Jewish experience of the twentieth century, indeed the impact on all of us of  the enormous changes that revolution, financial collapse and war then you can do no better than read this excellent book.



About malbell

I am a retired Teaching and Learning Consultant. Previously I was a Primary school headteacher and deputy headteacher. I enjoy reading, doing MOOCs and learning new things.
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