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The Family Author David Laskin on Embracing the Present through Exploring the Past

The Family Author David Laskin on Embracing the Present through Exploring the Past

Spertus Institute's own Brian Zimmerman interviews
David Laskin, a former Washington Post travel writer and the author of two award-winning books of nonfiction. His latest book, The Family, is a personal history that follows the author's courageous ancestors across the tumultuous sweep of the 20th century. Characters include a Torah scribe on the fringe of the Russian empire, the brilliant woman who founded Maidenform bras, and a young risk-taking couple fighting for the birth of the State of Israel. With clear, penetrating prose and a gift for narrative, Laskin weaves these three stories together to create an homage to a generation of Jews at the cusp of modernity.

In June of this year, Laskin’s The Family was chosen by Chicago’s Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership as the official selection of their One Book | One Community initiative, in which a single Jewish book is selected as the focus of discussions and programs for the Greater Chicago Jewish community. In this interview, Laskin describes the many surprises he encountered while compiling research for his book, his techniques for bringing his family’s history to life, and the importance of reconnecting with the past.

Q: How did this book come to fruition? Did you start by researching your family’s history and then decide to write a book, or did you know you wanted to write about your family’s history from the outset?

A: Both. I had just finished a book about World War I and was looking for another topic to write about. I knew that my Aunt Itel was founder of the Maidenform Bra Company and I thought she would make for an interesting story. I started to pull at this one strand, and the more I pulled the more I wanted to know. That was the first time I thought “You know, it would be really interesting to write about my family.” I started doing some research, just talking to family members, and things caught fire. I discovered this amazing family history, with three divergent branches – some that came to America, some that went to Israel, and some that stayed in Europe – and I knew it would make a great book.

Q: Of your family’s three divergent paths, which one were you most excited to write about?

A: Writing about Israel was eye-opening for me.

Q: How so?

A: Well, prior to writing this book, I’d never been to Israel. It just wasn’t on my list. I knew I had relatives there, but I was really not that curious about what it was like to live there. But as I started to dig into my family’s history, I discovered that Israel – and Zionism –played a huge role (in what?). When I went there shortly after I signed my book deal, I was surprised to discover how much family I had over there – more than 100 relatives. Once I met one, I just had to meet the others.

Q: Was there anything else that took you by complete surprise when compiling research for this book?

A: One whole are that took me by surprise was doing research in the Holocaust. I think one of the big misapprehensions many of us, myself included, have about the Holocaust is that the majority of Jews were killed in death camps like Auschwitz. But in fact, more were killed the way my family is described in the book: They were shot in mass shootings, burned in synagogues, killed by their neighbors. That, to me, was shocking.

The letters were probably the second biggest discovery and revelation. I know my cousin Benny, in Israel, to whom this book is dedicated, had in his possession 281 family letters written in Yiddish. Most of them were written by relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. I think the biggest discovery that came from the letters concerning the beginning of WWII, when the Soviets and the Germans divided Poland between them. My family lived in the Soviet sector, and their lives were not so bad during the Soviet occupation of their sector of Poland. They were doing well enough that one decided to have a baby. They were in touch with their family in Palestine and the US. They didn’t ask for money.

I think the biggest surprise in my research was the finding of my cousin, Simon, the then-16-year-old boy who was the only living Holocaust survivor in my family. Nobody knew he ended up at Klooga, a labor camp in Estonia. I tracked that down, and I couldn’t find a lot about him, but just the fact that they found his name on the list of prisoners was kind of shocking to me. I found a couple of documents the Germans left with certain work details – that was a real surprise, a real revelation.

Q: What do you think it is about the story of your family that people attach to? What about the immigrant experience inspires people?

A: A lot of people have said to me – and this something I thought myself – “Wow, these people are so brave, they were teenagers in the early 1920s who just picked up and left their country of origin.” I think that is what people find moving. Another big thing people have said to me is that they were kind of exhausted by reading about the Holocaust. Exhausted in the sense that they felt there was nothing left to learn. They’ve told me that they’ve seen all the movies, read all the books. But then they said that reading The Family was different. My only guess that they became more emotionally involved because the book brings the Holocaust to the level of the individual. It’s one thing to read that 20,000 Jews were killed in July 1943, but it’s another thing to read about one Jew who died on one particular day, and to feel that you’ve gotten to know this person, to admire him and feel that he could be part of your family. It brings history alive through narrative. I think that’s what readers respond to.

Q: That narrative element is undoubtedly one of the book’s strongest assets. How did you manage to turn the historical, data-driven research into scenic action?

A: Well, let’s take for example the Klooga slave labor camp that my cousin Simon ended up in. What I said to the reader was “I knew he was there, and I have a couple of documents that indicate his work with a couple details he was assigned to. And that was pretty much it. So my dilemma became, “How do I create scenes? How do I make this novelistic?” The way I did it was to immerse myself in everything about I could find about Klooga. One thing I found was a diary, by Herman Cook, who was a very well-known journalist and librarian. He lived in the Vilna ghetto and was liquidated and taken to Klooga, but his diary was miraculously saved.

This gave me very vivid accounts of what happened – what survivors ate, how they felt, what the last day was like when the surviving prisoners were killed. So even though I didn’t have any letters or photographs from Simon himself, I knew what was happening around him. I gave myself that liberty because I felt it was important to dramatize this moment and make it vivid.

By the time we get to the war, I didn’t really need a lot of details about how Simon was on a train, what his number was, what was happening to him at camp, because at that point the readers were emotionally invested in him. They care about him because they know he celebrated his bar mitzvah just a few years earlier, that he loved to play chess with his dad, that he was good at singing and that he had malaria as a kid and went partially deaf. This creates a picture of a real human being, and you’re like “Oh, he kind of looks like my cousin or a kid I went to school with.” I wanted to make people feel history rather than just read about it.

Q: What other forms of research do you use while writing this book?

A: One hugely helpful internet research site was JewishGen []. I would recommend it for anyone who is doing Jewish historical research. It’s an incredible website, with great for information about the shtetls my family lived in, and excellent resources for looking up lists of Holocaust survivors. The other extremely helpful thing about JewishGen was the listserve where you could post questions about family history. While writing the book, I was posting almost daily. Little picky things like “How did immigrants get from the port at Ellis Island to their first apartments? Did they walk? Did they take a horse-drawn carriage?” For these little details, the internet was supremely helpful.

But really, the root of my research was travel. I travelled to all the places where members of my family had lived and died. I was in Vilna, Lithuania; I was in Belarus; I saw a shtetl in Rakov, Russia; I interviewed my Israeli relatives. Obviously, a huge amount of reading was involved, too. At first it was intimidating. I’d have piles and piles of books and would be thinking to myself “How am I going to do all this research?” But I had to remind myself that I wasn’t writing a book about the entire Holocaust, just the Vilna ghetto, and Klooga – those places my family experienced. I did some archival research at Yad Vashem in Washington, DC, and at the Ghetto Fires Kibbutz in Israel. But the best information came from talking to everyone in my family. People often think, “I’ve heard all my family’s stories before. There’s nothing left to learn.” But that’s just not the case. Once I really sat down with them and got them talking – and once I really, truly listened – all this new stuff would come out.

Q: I think it’s safe to say that some readers, if they’re not already interested in genealogy, will be after they finish the book. Do you think it’s important for people to reconnect with their pasts like you did? And do you think that notion of reconnection is more important for Jews?

A: When I was young, I really wasn’t interested in my family. I wanted to be unique, to distance myself from them in some kind of teenage rebellion. Besides, I just didn’t think my family was that important. But I think as you get older you realize how much you have inherited both literally and figuratively from your family. You begin to see how much like them you are, how much you have in common and how much you learn from them. And if we can come back to Judaism, I think the survival of the Jewish people, the culture and the religion, its lore – is miraculous. The more we can discover about our little piece of that huge tapestry of Jewish history – why wouldn’t you want to do that? Really, what is more important?

So to me, the past is the most important part of my Jewish identity. It’s amazing when you realize how long and deep our history is, and how vivid it can become when expressed through the story of an individual. It’s a little bit like The Family itself. You know, reading history about the Jewish people is very moving and illuminating, but it can be a little abstract. But when that history is of your own family, your own genealogy, you enter into it in a very gripping, emotional way.

Q: Did writing this book change the way you think about your religion?

A: Absolutely. As I said earlier the continuity of the Jewish generations brought me closer to my Jewish side, my family, my heritage. But I also think going to Israel, particularly to Jerusalem, has been an uplifting, spiritual experience. There’s something about standing by the Western Wall that is just unlike anything else I have ever experienced. You feel this sense of ancient sacredness, ancient reverence. I remember putting my hand against the wall and feeling like I was touching my heritage, my people, our dreams, our faith. You know, I mention at the end of the book that I descended from a long line of Torah scribes. And I truly feel that I’m continuing that tradition.

Q: How does it feel to have your book selected for Spertus Institute’s One Book | One Community program? Are you excited to have all of Jewish Chicago reading your book?

A: First of all, I love Chicago. Chicago is a kind of late-in-life passion for me, but I love it nonetheless. The first time I ever went there was probably in my 50s, but I remember thinking that the city had such great architecture, great people, a great spirit. So to me it was like a dream come true to go back to Chicago. This is wonderful, energetic, unpretentious beautiful and striving city, and be able to connect with the Jewish community there is just, wow. That’s what I’m looking forward to most. It’s almost as if all my stars have aligned.

For more information on Spertus Institute’s One Book | One Community initiative, including a Readers’ Guide, Jewish genealogy resources, and full schedule of One Book programming, visit One Book | One Communityis supported, in part, by the Robert & Toni Bader Charitable Foundation. JUF News is the official media sponsor.



Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Brian Zimmerman
Brian Zimmerman