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Book Review - David Laskin's "The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century"

The following book review is a special provided for BlackFive readers by Elise Cooper.  You can read all of our book reviews by clicking on the Books category on the far right sidebar.

51MauJtqkXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_David Laskin’s book, The Family:  Three Journeys Into The Heart of the Twentieth Century, is a gripping tale that traces the roots of his ancestors.  Although it is a non-fiction book it reads more like a novel, with characters who are interesting and well developed.  Any American will enjoy this story since it is really a history of the period from the late 1830s to the late 1940s.  Amazon has chosen it as its book of the month for October.

The story begins with the birth of Laskin’s great-great-grandfather in Russia.  It traces how the family separated into three branches. One branch immigrated to America, including a former Russian revolutionary who ended up founding the Maidenform Bra Company.  Another branch went to what was then Palestine and participated as a pioneer in the birth of Israel.  The third branch, seventeen members, unfortunately remained in Europe and was killed during the Holocaust.

Laskin told blackfive.net, “My family reflected these movements of the early twentieth Century.  It is a book of how history swept up my family and changed us.  I believe every family has a story like this.  I hope the readers care about the individuals and see how they were touched by history.”

The book will remind readers of the “Fiddler on the Roof ” story, especially with his great aunt Itel who became a revolutionary and feminist, making sure she chose her own husband.  She is by far the most interesting character because of her many different views.  After coming to America she maintained her socialistic ideology while becoming a very rich industrialist, the owner of Maidenform.  In explaining the quote, “Itel, the socialist capitalist,” who eventually bought a house that he described as a palace, Laskin commented to blackfive.net, “Itel was a socialist in views but a capitalist at heart.  She is not utterly consistent, but that is how many people were back then.”

Besides the interesting characters Laskin also fascinatingly describes how different historical events affected his family.  The description of World War I as seen through his family’s eyes is very potent. Hyman, a great uncle, became an American GI who was attacked with mustard gas, and luckily lived to tell about it.  This scene was described with great thought-provoking detail.

Yet, those in his family who remained in Eastern Europe had to endure the Russian Revolution and a war fought in their backyard.  People forget that the Germans of WWI were not the Nazis of WWII.  After the peace treaty with Russia many of Laskin’s family fell under German control.  They were treated with more respect, did not have to endure the Russian reign of terror, and for the most part had their Jewish customs accepted.  Laskin hopes to show, “The Germans in WWI were more tolerant.  The Pogroms, attacks on Jews, came from the Russians.  Also, Jews were able to climb up in the German and American armies to become officers which was not permitted in the Russian army.”

In tracing the backgrounds of his family from the late nineteenth to mid twentieth centuries Laskin captures the historical significance of the eras.  The Family enriches the reader to see how history plays a role in many amazing and disturbing ways.  It reminds people that the past should never be forgotten with a very riveting story.

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