Reviews for Family : Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century

Booklist Reviews 2013 September #2
This interesting and often moving family saga spans a century and a half, and three continents and touches most of the critical historical trends and events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Laskin's great-great-grandfather was a Torah scribe who raised six children in a nineteenth-century shtetl on the fringe of the Russian Empire. Eventually, those siblings and their descendants split along three different paths and destinies, and the recounting of their individual experiences also tells us much about Jewish history. One stream led to the U.S., where family members found great material prosperity. A second stream included those captivated by the ideal of Jewish redemption, and they pursued the Zionist ideal in Palestine, taking an active role in the creation of Israel. The remaining group stayed in Europe and was devastated by the Holocaust. Laskin (The Children's Blizzard, 2004) is a gifted writer who effectively blends family and world history in a deeply felt story filled with the joy and sadness that has characterized Jewish life in this period. Copyright 2013 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2013 October
A family defined by the 20th century

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.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2013 July #2
A Jewish writer explores his heritage in a speculative family history that mirrors the triumphs and tragedies of the 20th century. Laskin (The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War, 2010, etc.) stays firmly within his characteristic style of anecdotal guesswork in chronicling the fates of three branches of his family tree. While his journalistic consistency may be a bit dubious, the author knows how to zero in on a good story. Starting with a rumor that Joseph Stalin's enforcer Lazar Kaganovich might be a distant relation, Laskin dives deeply into the lives and times of his relatives, dating back to the late 19th century in Volozhin, Russia. It's after the family's move to Belarus that the narrative gets really interesting. One branch, largely led by Maidenform Bra founder Ida Rosenthal, landed in New York and Americanized everything about themselves, abandoning names, homes and traditions. "Others step off the boat, fill their lungs with the raw unfamiliar air, and get to work. They never look back because they never have a moment to spare or an urge to regret," writes the author. Another couple, Chaim and Sonia, became hard-core Zionist pioneers in the wilds of Palestine. Another entire branch was lost to the Holocaust, a richly imagined tragedy but one that Laskin has largely plucked from history books. Were this fiction, it would read much like the novels of Leon Uris and other spinners of historical sagas, as Laskin ties his relatives to events ranging from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to Black Friday to the establishment of Israel. The telling of the tales and the recollection of history eventually breaks the author's assumptions that his family was all about business. "Now I see how wrong I was," Laskin writes. "History made and broke my family in the 20th century." An ambitious, experimental look at exodus, acclimatization and culture with a cast as diverse as any family photo album. Copyright Kirkus 2013 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2013 May #1

World history via personal history: the family of Laskin's great-great-grandfather Shimon Dov HaKohen split three ways, one branch going to America (and founding the Maidenform Bra Company), another branch going to Palestine, and the final branch remaining in Europe to endure the Holocaust.

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Library Journal Reviews 2013 August #1

Laskin (The Children's Blizzard) conveys major events of 20th-century history and the Jewish experience through the individual lives of several generations of his mother's family from Russia. One branch immigrated to America and strove to live the American dream (one member founding the Maidenform Bra Company), one branch immigrated to Palestine to help create a Jewish nation, and one branch remained in Eastern Europe only to be wiped out during the Holocaust. The HaKohen family, which included several generations of Torah scribes, became the Kaganoviches in Russia and the Cohens in America. Through family letters and travel to ancestral homes, Laskin fleshes out the stories he was told (and not told) over the years. For example, his family never mentioned relatives killed in the Holocaust. Laskin's goal, as a storyteller, is to give his family's stories back to them. His compelling narrative brings these individuals to life as we witness their triumphs and tragedies in vivid detail and at times in their own voices. VERDICT Recommended for readers of 20th-century history, the Jewish experience, and family sagas. [See Prepub Alert, 4/29/13.]--Leslie Lewis, Duquesne Univ. Lib., Pittsburgh

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2013 July #5

Frequent newspaper contributor Laskin's relatives provide ample material for a gripping epic narrative, beginning in 1875 and spanning over a century. This readable and absorbing book looks at the experiences of Jews--in this case all members of Laskin's family--finding a fresh start in the United States, of those working to form a new country in Palestine, and of those trapped in Nazi-controlled Europe. His American ancestors' experiences were highlighted by his great-aunt, Itel, who founded the Maidenform Bra Company in 1922. And that quintessential American success story of a hard-working immigrant who makes good contrasts well with the account of her cousin Chaim's life in Palestine around the same time--he found disillusionment there, rather than a land of milk and honey. The sections dealing with the grim toll that the Holocaust took on the family don't provide new insights into the Nazis' inhumanity; the horrors of the time gain more impact when conveyed through the stories of individual lives. Laskin (The Children's Blizzard) makes the most of the rich array of stories his research unearthed. Agent: Jill Kneerim, Kneerim, Williams, and Bloom Literary Agency. (Oct.)

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