Sunday, December 1, 2013

One Jewish Family's History

The 20th Century


Arriving at Ellis Island in New YorkPhysicians examine a group of Jewish immigrants who are gathered in a small room, two with their shirts off. Note the eye chart with Hebrew letters that hangs on the wall.  
Photo CreditUnderwood & Underwood; 1907
Source: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div.

A book review article, by James McAuley, in The Daily Beast recounts the particular history of each of the three branches of one Jewish family and the choices they made in the 20th century against the general backdrop of the rise and fall of European Jewry; this is told in David LaskinThe Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century.

McAuley writes:
This is the essence of the writer David Laskin’s investigation of his own family tree, a family of Belorussian Kohanim—the Jewish priestly caste—caught in the chasms of the twentieth century and uprooted from their native Volozhin to the antipodes of the modern Jewish world.
In the wake of the brutal Tsarist pogroms in the Pale of Settlement and the Russian Revolution that followed shortly thereafter, one of the tree’s branches immigrated to tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side while another made aliyah to Kfar Vitkin, what was then a fledgling moshav in Palestine’s Hefer Valley. The third and final branch of the Kaganovich clan remained in Europe as European civilization burned to its bitter end: seventeen members of the family were murdered by the Nazis—two asphyxiated in gas chambers, the rest gunned down into ditches or incinerated in burning synagogues.
In that sense, The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century is Laskin’s own personal history, but it is also a local, microcosmic study of what he calls the three “great Jewish upheavals of the twentieth century”: the influx of some 23 million Eastern European immigrants to the United States between 1880 and the 1920s; the rise of Zionism against the tumultuous establishment of the state of Israel; and, of course, the Shoah in all its arresting finality.
“The historian’s essential creative act,” Dubnow wrote, “is the resurrection of the dead.” “History made and broke my family in the twentieth century,” Laskin writes. “My grandparents and their cousins were born into a world of tradition and religion that had lasted for centuries and died in the course of four years.”
Such became a common narrative for many families; and this one can serve as one story, among many, for the many others who have told similar stories to their families. Or for those who could not. The memories of immigrant experiences are important to collect and recollect; without memory, there is no history. Dubnow’s assertion of what historians do in their writing down history is both an accurate and a chilling account of what history is often about: death and resurrection, whether in a figurative or literal sense.

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You can read the rest of the article at [DailyBeast].