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The Family: Three Journeys Into The Heart Of The Twentieth Century by David Laskin

I was between books, and it wasn't looking good for finding a new one that would keep my attention.  However, I recently saw this one on the new books list for the library, and it sounded interesting--the family history element combined with the two world wars grabbed my attention.  At its heart, The Family is an in-depth study of the author's mother's paternal ancestry.  It begins with Laskin's great-great-grandfather in an area of Eastern Europe called the Pale where Russia required its Jewish citizens to live and traces the families of his great-great-grandfather's children and grandchildren through the years.  It is a riveting, at times heartbreaking, read.

Laskin opens the story of his Kaganovich/Cohen ancestors in the late nineteenth century in the old country in an area of Eastern Europe that was Russia at the start of the book then became Poland and Lithuania before becoming Russia again and so on.  It is here that his Jewish ancestors made a comfortable living in the midst of the state sanctioned persecution and the continually erupting pogroms that Jews in this particular area of the world suffered.  This is the story of the original Kaganovich patriarch's descendants, specifically his son's family who all eventually emigrated to America where they assimilated and built a successful business empire and where they escaped the violence of the endless pogroms that claimed the lives of countless Jews in the old world.  However, another son's family remained in the old country, choosing instead to continue building their lives in the towns and cities of the land of their birth where by the time war erupts (again), it is too late for any of them to get out.  A daughter of this branch of the family emigrates to Palestine where she weds a cousin with whom she will help build the Jewish nation that became modern day Israel.  Across miles, years, generations, economic and political upheaval, two world wars and a massive genocide, the reader is made witness to the push and pull of history and world events upon a family, who, though separated by an ocean, two continents, and culture, remain bonded by familial ties and written correspondence.

Ultimately Laskin is more storyteller than genealogist and as such he focuses more on telling the story of the travails and tragedies of his ancestors than on the genealogical hunt for clues and details regarding the fates of his ancestors and relatives.  While the genealogist in me craved more of an account of the family genealogy and history hunt, the story kept me reading and was in many instances hard to put down.  The accounts of the fates of the family members left trapped in the Pale after the eruption of World War II are horrifying and hard to read; in all of these instances the tragedy is only compounded by the fact that for all of these relatives murdered, there is no definitive proof of exactly how they met their end, there are no definitive dates of death and there are no graves. Unfortunately they have this in common with no doubt many more thousands and millions of others who fell victim to the Nazis' final solution.  This is book that anyone with an interest in history, World War II, the building of America, or family stories will have an interest in reading, and I highly recommend that you check it out the next time you're in the library.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie


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