Review

The Family: A Journey into the Heart of the Twentieth Century

by David Laskin

The family's story begins in 1835 on the western edge of Russia in the village of Volozhin, where Shimon Dov HaKohen, author David Laskin’s great-great grandfather, was born. Shimon Dov, a Torah scribe, and his wife Beyle raised six children, living a quiet life in their pious community. Like parents everywhere, Shimon Dov and Beyle hoped their offspring would stay nearby and lead the same quiet lives they had chosen. 

THE FAMILY follows several generations of that Russian Jewish family through decades of births, marriages and deaths. Each person born in each generation has his own ideas, hopes and dreams. And each must work and search to find the life to which he believes he wants. Rather than trace each generation, this review will trace the three main paths.

"THE FAMILY is not only an important history book. As it traces the roots of just one family, it clearly shows that decisions of where to live and how to live often greatly affect the lives of our descendants in ways we cannot begin to imagine."

One popular path some descendants took was entrepreneurship. Those folks settled in America and, through much hard work and sacrifice, succeeded in business beyond their wildest dreams. The author’s aunt Itel ran a very successful dressmaking business. When the flapper look became popular, she branched out into the bra business and enjoyed great success as the founder of Maidenform Bra Company. Three of Itel's brothers --- Harry, Sam and Hyman --- settled in the Lower East Side of New York, where they operated a wholesale business that also thrived. 

A second path led to the Holy Land for family members who became Zionist pioneers. The first to settle in the Holy Land was Chaim in 1924. He joined a moshav, a cooperative farming village that gave him more autonomy than he would have living on a kibbutz. Life was hard, working the arid land and dealing with complicated problems of who owned the Land. Sonia, a cousin of Chaim's, left home in 1932 with four friends. Their circuitous route eventually landed them in Hafia, where Sonia traveled alone to Herzliya and met up with Chaim, whom she married the following year.

The family had already endured a world war and a depression. The folks who chose to stay behind or who were not able to immigrate to safety when they needed to became part of the horrible ethnic cleansing known today as the Holocaust that occurred during the Second World War. That tragic path led to brutality and death.

David Laskin, a modern-day scribe, met his cousin Benny, Sonia and Chaim's son, who shared his treasure trove of 281 family letters. Those letters, written and cherished over the years, sent from the Old Country to America and the Holy Land added much help to the massive, lengthy and tireless research that then led to this book’s publication. One family and three very different paths. THE FAMILY is not only an important history book. As it traces the roots of just one family, it clearly shows that decisions of where to live and how to live often greatly affect the lives of our descendants in ways we cannot begin to imagine.

Reviewed by Carole Turner on October 17, 2013

The Family: A Journey into the Heart of the Twentieth Century
by David Laskin

  • Publication Date: September 2, 2014
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0143125893
  • ISBN-13: 9780143125891