The Family: A Journey into the Heart of the Twentieth Century

The Family: A Journey into the Heart of the Twentieth Century

by David Laskin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143125891
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/02/2014
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 193,679
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

David Laskin is the author of The Children’s Blizzard, which won the Washington State Book Award and Midwest Booksellers’ Choice Award for nonfiction. The author of several other works of nonfiction, Laskin writes for The New York Times and The Washington Post. He and his wife, the parents of three grown daughters, live in Seattle.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter One Volozhin 9

Chapter Two The Move to Rakov 19

Chapter Three The Making of a Revoluntionary 28

Chapter Four The Boys 44

Chapter Five Lower East Side 52

Chapter Six The Birth of a Business 63

Chapter Seven Socialist in a Black Satin Dress 70

Chapter Eight First World War 76

Chapter Nine Pioneers 111

Chapter Ten The Depression 147

Chapter Eleven "We will be Glad to take you back" 154

Chapter Twelve In Love in the Land 161

Chapter Thirteen Return to Rakov 187

Chapter Fourteen "The World of Tomorrow" 199

Chapter Fifteen Second World War 208

Chapter Sixteen Under the Big Ones 228

Chapter Seventeen "They Snatch Whole Streets" 238

Chapter Eighteen "Aktion" 248

Chapter Nineteen Vilna Ghetto 255

Chapter Twenty Yom Kippur, 1941 259

Chapter Twenty-One Wonder Girl 272

Chapter Twenty-Two Breakdowns 276

Chapter Twenty-Three Despairing People 285

Chapter Twenty-Four Klooga 297

Chapter Twenty-Five Postwar 309

Epilogue 309

Acknowledgments 331

Glossary 339

Notes 341

Index 373

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for The Family:
“The Family is as rich and poignant as any novel, only all true and impeccably researched.”—Erik Larson, New York Times bestselling author of In the Garden of the Beasts
“A true triumph of historical storytelling…. David Laskin is a magical searcher into the past….His generations of Cohens could be your Johansens, Smiths, Lopezes, Schmidts, O’Houlihans, even my Scottish peasant forebears….. The Family will touch you, heart and soul.”—Ivan Doig, National Book Award finalist for This House of Sky
“I read The Family without stopping, except sometimes to weep (and occasionally to chuckle). Through the stories of members of David Laskin’s large, dispersing family, history sharpens into individual lives and deaths and losses and becomes personal and vivid and tragic.”—Edith Pearlman, National Book Critics Circle Award winner and National Book Award finalist for Binocular Vision
“David Laskin’s The Family is a vivid, utterly compelling exploration of the forces that have shaped modern history.  We often view these forces— capitalism, fascism, mass migration, assimilation, and the like—only from a distance, as vast, impersonal abstractions.   But in Laskin's magnificent book we see them in the intimate details of actual lives, deftly followed through a tangle of triumph, accommodation, and often unbearable suffering.  An extraordinary achievement.”—Stephen Greenblatt, New York Times bestselling author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
“I was utterly entranced by David Laskin’s The Family. Tracing three strands of his fascinating ancestry, Laskin takes us on an epic journey deep into the heart and soul of the twentieth century. The story is haunting, heartfelt, and deeply moving. And in the end—as Laskin eloquently points out in a beautiful, almost mystical, epilogue—his telling of it weaves another bright silver thread into the fabric that binds all of us together.”—Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat
“‘Fate and chance and character make and break every generation,’” David Laskin tells us in this personal, highly moving history of his family. At once heartbreaking and gloriously triumphant, it’s finally a story of love. Yes, a big unyielding, often rollicking and humorous history of one generation’s prevailing love for the next. A wonderful achievement. “—Philip Schultz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Failure
"David Laskin's The Family is an elegantly evocative meditation on the Jewish diaspora of the twentieth century. Deeply emotional at times, The Family is both harrowing and uplifting. Highly recommended!"—Douglas Brinkley, author of Cronkite.
“What a story! Scholars and scribes, Zionists and revolutionaries, Holocaust martyrs and the inventors of the Maidenform bra all march through these pages.  The Family is the twentieth-century history of the Jews writ small.”—Jonathan D. Sarna, Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University
“A banquet of Jewish history, as lived by one exceptional American family, across four generations and on three continents, the worst things endured and the best things relished.”—Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family
“Beautifully written, densely textured and at times heartbreaking.”—The Seattle Times

"A fantastic book...This is a great, big-hearted book about how time and place modifies family, whatever or wherever its roots."—Amazon

“A metaphor of sorts for the 20th century, one in which incredible good fortune was granted to some and incomprehensible agony to others….No matter how many times the tale is told, it demands to be read.”—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“Laskin’s chronicle could have been written in tears…at once anguishing and inspiring.”—The Wall Street Journal
"[Laskin] make[s] history intimate by telling it through the eyes of ordinary people....Reads like a historical novel."—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"[David Laskin] urges us to see the workings of history not merely as a list of dates, places and events, great men and great ideas, but as a tapestry whose threads include the lives of flesh-and-blood human beings….[He is] a storyteller who has given his own family chronicle all of the depth and detail of a great novel while, at the same time, honoring the truth of their lives.”—The Jewish Journal 

“[A] saga….[Laskin] assumes the prerogatives of a novelist.”—The Jewish Daily Forward

Reading Group Guide


David Laskin has written the story of his family, and in doing so he has given us a sweeping historical account of the Jewish experience in the twentieth century. Opening on the western edge of the Russian Empire at the turn of the last century, The Family tells the story of a Torah scribe and his wife, and how their descendants took three dramatically different journeys spanning multiple continents and two world wars. In following his family’s triumphs and hardships with rapt concern, Laskin has crafted a diaspora story that is at once intensely personal and resoundingly universal.

In the pages of The Family, we learn how some of Laskin’s ancestors voyage west to the crowded tenements of New York City’s Lower East Side, some stay in the yeshiva town of Volozhin in the midst of bitter Tsarist pogroms, and some struggle to establish a burgeoning agricultural village in Palestine’s Hefer Valley. Using sources that range from gripping family letters to U.S. Census records to archival Holocaust testimony, Laskin masterfully animates one family’s journey with skill and ingenuity. The Family is the dazzling product of impeccable research and expert storytelling.

Though they descended from a long line of Torah scribes, Laskin’s relatives went on to become entrepreneurs in a new world, warriors at the frontlines of World War I, pioneers at the frontier of a spiritual homeland, victims among the millions that tragically perished under Nazi rule. There is even a tycoon on the family tree—a four-foot-eleven-inch immigrant named Ida Rosenthal who was the dynamo behind the Maidenform Bra Company. Laskin’s exploration stands as a testament to the tangible ways in which we all, inevitably, are shaped by history. A love song to the art of genealogy, The Family will inspire readers to investigate their own origins.


David Laskin was born in Brooklyn and raised in Great Neck, New York. He is the bestselling author of The Children’s Blizzard, which won the Washington State Book Award and Midwest Booksellers’ Choice Award for nonfiction. The author of several other works of nonfiction, Laskin writes for the New York Times and the Washington Post. He and his wife, the parents of three grown daughters, live in Seattle.

  1. David Laskin writes in his introduction that as he conducted research for The Family,he came to discover that many of his family stories weren’t exactly accurate (for example, the claim that Stalin’s henchman Lazar Kaganovich was a relative of theirs). How and why do you think family myths originate? Are there legends or oral histories in your own family that you’ve come to question? Discuss some of the ways family stories can be corroborated or debunked.
  2. 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.” What role does tradition play in binding your own family together? What are some of the unique traditions that your family honors? What is lost without tradition? What is gained when tradition is preserved?
  3. On the eve of the Nazi push into Russia in June, 1941, Doba wrote one final postcard from Vilna, the last line of which reads, “May there be peace and then we could see each other” (p. 237). Do you think the American relatives could have done more to get Doba and her husband and children out of Europe? Discuss how the family members on both sides of the Atlantic coped with their helplessness in the face of war and genocide.
  4. In the chapter “Socialist in a Black Satin Dress,” we see Itel on the verge of financial success balancing American capitalism with the socialist ideals that shaped her as a young woman. Is it even possible to reconcile these ideas? Was Itel fooling herself—or was she being hypocritical? What are some of the ideological contradictions that you have wrestled with in your own life?
  5. All three of the Cohen brothers were eligible for the draft when America entered the Great War in 1917, but only Hyman became a soldier. How do you suppose this experience affected his relationship to America? To Germany? Do you think his service in the First World War influenced his views on America’s role in the Second World War? All of the relatives who immigrated to the United States enjoyed some version of the American Dream. What does The Family have to say to today’s immigrants? What is different about the American Dream that many immigrants aspire to today?
  6. How does Laskin’s writing about early battles between resident Arabs and Jewish settlers in the Middle East help to contextualize the ongoing conflict in the region?
  7. Discuss the style and structure of the book. Did you think the language in which Laskin tells the story is well-suited to the subject? What about the way the narrative shifts from one branch of the family to the other? Did this tripartite structure work or did you find it confusing? Choose a paragraph to read aloud and analyze.
  8. There are a number of compelling, memorable figures in the book—Itel, Sonia, Doba, Avram Akiva, Shalom Tvi. Which one did you relate to most intensely and why? If you had the opportunity, which one would you most like to meet? What would you ask him or her?
  9. The Family explores the author’s maternal grandmother’s lineage. Which side of your family might you like to study further and why? Where in your ancestry would your own book begin? Where would you end it?

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The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
mobile More than 1 year ago
It was slow getting into "The Family" but once I was about 100 pages in it picked up and I couldn't put the book down. I enjoyed it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed this book very much.
RebeccaScaglione More than 1 year ago
I received this book from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.   "The Family is as rich and poignant as any novel, only all true and impeccably researched." - Erik Larsen, author of In the Garden of Beasts & Devil in the White City The Family by David Laskin describes Laskin's family tree, in three intermingled stories.  The stories of his family members from Europe (Russia and Poland), Israel, and America are told in chronological order, through WWI and WWII, over the course of approximately 150 years. His family has some interesting characters!  For instance, one of his relatives, Itel, was a founder of Maidenform (you know, bras!).  Laskin also had relatives in Israel who helped form the beginning of the Jewish nation, trying to go from "city" people to farmers.  And unfortunately, the European members were victims of the Holocaust. I enjoyed this tale, but it was research and history heavy.  There were times that I got a little lost with the historical parts, but I've always had a tough time keeping track chronologically of history in detail. Do you have any interesting family members? Thanks for reading,  Rebecca @ Love at First Book