What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home

What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home

by Mark Mazower


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A warm and intimate memoir by an acclaimed historian that explores the European struggles of the twentieth century through the lives, hopes, and dreams of a single family—his own.

Uncovering their remarkable and moving stories, Mark Mazower recounts the sacrifices and silences that marked a generation and their descendants. It was a family which fate drove into the siege of Stalingrad, the Vilna ghetto, occupied Paris, and even into the ranks of the Wehrmacht. His British father was the lucky one, the son of Russian-Jewish emigrants who settled in London after escaping the Bolsheviks, civil war, and revolution. Max, the grandfather, had started out as a socialist and manned the barricades against Tsarist troops, never speaking a word about it afterwards. His wife Frouma came from a family ravaged by the Terror yet making their way in Soviet society despite it all.

In the centenary of the Russian Revolution, What You Did Not Tell revitalizes the history of a socialism erased from memory--humanistic, impassioned, and broad-ranging in its sympathies. But it is also an exploration of the unexpected happiness that may await history's losers, of the power of friendship and the love of place that made his father at home in an England that no longer exists.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590519073
Publisher: Other Press, LLC
Publication date: 10/17/2017
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Mark Mazower is a historian specializing in modern Greece, twentieth-century Europe, and international affairs. He is currently the Ira D. Wallach Professor of History at Columbia University. His books include Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430–1950, winner of the Duff Cooper Prize and the Runciman Award; Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe, winner of the LA Times Book Prize for History; Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century; and Governing the World: The History of an Idea, a Financial Times Best Politics Book. His articles and reviews on history and current affairs appear regularly in the Financial Times, the Guardian, the London Review of BooksThe Nation, and the New Republic. Born in London and educated at Oxford, he lives in Manhattan.

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The Bundist

At the time Dad was born, his father was doing well. Max was a company director several times over, and he ran the Engineering and Mercantile Company Ltd, which exported Sheffield-made machine tools to Eastern Europe. In the photograph, the three-piece suit, the tightly buttoned jacket, the cuffs, and the lightly held cigarette convey respectability, the poise of someone comfortable dealing with balance sheets, trading positions, and capital.

But his air of latent watchfulness hints at a man on his guard, and the wary glance off to the side suggests that his careful appearance concealed as much as it revealed. A leading anarchist named Rudolf Rocker once wrote in his recollections of the political exiles he had known in turn-of-the-century London that they were taciturn men, disinclined to talk much, and Max was of that kind: His wife, Frouma, called him zhivotik — "little stomach" — because words stayed down there and rarely made their way up into his mouth. He had no difficulty with languages — he spoke four fluently and his English was impeccable, with no trace of an accent. But Max had learned to say no more than was necessary in any of them.

He belonged to the same generation as Vladimir Lenin, the Menshevik leader Julius Martov, and the future Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, and his path had almost certainly intersected with theirs because when he had entered business in the years before the First World War, working for a Russian shipping firm in the city of Vilna, he had simultaneously been involved in running an underground socialist movement. Its full name was Der Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Lite, Poyln un Rusland (the General Jewish Workers' Union in Lithuania, Poland and Russia), but it was known simply as the Bund. Today it has been almost entirely forgotten: Its language, Yiddish, barely survives, and the people who supported it — the Jewish working classes of the Russian Pale of Settlement — were mostly wiped out in the war. Yet in its time the Bund played an absolutely critical role in the birth of left-wing party politics in the Tsarist empire. Leading a double life as a merchant's bookkeeper and revolutionary agitator, Max had learned early on the value of those habits of caution, silence, and mistrust that were necessary for survival. He never forgot them — or the loyalties he grew up with. To the end of his life Max was not just a man of the Left: He was a Bundist.

To be a Bundist. It all started, perhaps, with a feeling — a feeling of outrage at the enduring divide between rich and poor:

Beneath the salt sea of humanity's weeping A terrible chasm abides It couldn't be darker, it couldn't be deeper —
On the one side, the suffering worker, the pauper, the slave; on the other, the emperors, the barons, the exploiting classes. The Bund's anthem, a kind of proletarian "Marseillaise" for a future revolution, was a call to rise up in anger, to choose the side of justice, to fight under the red flag of socialism. Brider un shvester, it opened — "Brothers and sisters in toil and struggle": A desire to combat the millennial injustice of the world was matched by a deep sense of comradely solidarity. From the start, the Bund generated a remarkable warmth of affection among its militants, an almost unrivaled fealty to one another and to the Bund as a whole, as though the thing itself was more than a mere party or an organization, something living and beloved. In Yiddish, the word was mishpokhedikayt, the sense of family. Perhaps this feeling that it seemed to engender was responsible for allowing it to prosper as long as it did in a world of far more ruthless enemies, and to linger in people's hearts long after.

But of course the Bund was not just a matter of sentiment — it would never have appealed to a realist like Max if it had been — it was also a serious vehicle for ideas about political transformation. Late nineteenth-century revolutionary socialism was an argumentative milieu preoccupied with doctrinal differences, a world in which parties split and amalgamated, and factions formed and reformed in an endless debate about the lessons the past held for the future of mankind. Inside the broad tent of Russian social democracy, Mensheviks quarreled with Bolsheviks and both of them argued with the Bund. They all met under the stern gaze of Karl Marx, whose writings inspired them. But while the Bolsheviks adulated Lenin with his conception of the tightly controlled and centralized party, the Bund had no Lenin and wanted no single leader. Mensheviks and Bolsheviks both claimed to speak on behalf of all the inhabitants of the Russian Empire; the Bundists regarded themselves as the voice of Russian Jews in particular. For them, national, cultural, and linguistic differences needed to be acknowledged, not ignored. But the Bundists were not nationalists, and far from being solely concerned with a Jewish future, they thought that the Zionist idea of establishing a national home for the Jews in the Middle East was a fantasy, and a dangerous one at that. Being a Bundist meant focusing on the here and now, participating with others in the socialist movement's common struggle for a better future, and working to overthrow the autocracy in Russia as a part of that struggle. At least that was the dream as the twentieth century began, when Max had been active and when the Bund was the largest and most effective revolutionary force in the Tsarist empire. By the 1920s, the Bund was a shadow of its former self; its heartlands had been torn apart, Bolshevism had triumphed in Russia, and the dream lay in the past.

Max was more than fifty when Dad was born, so the hidden book of his former life was a thick one, and the few anecdotes he imparted to his young son raised as many questions as they answered. He was, Dad said much later, an enigma, a man who kept to himself. To one of Dad's childhood friends, he seemed to be a figure of mystery, reading quietly upstairs, descending for his evening drink. It was easy to imagine stories of espionage, the plotting of exiles, secret contacts with government ministers. Silence invites speculation, and Max's silences were manifold.

Frouma did not know a lot more because she had only met her husband at the start of the 1920s, after he had put his activist years behind him, and even though they had a loving relationship, he spoke little about his past. When he died in 1952, Frouma received a letter in Yiddish from a New York publishing house, the Ferlag Unzer Tsayt, an outpost of Eastern European Jewish political life that had implanted itself on the Upper East Side. After the Second World War it was one of the main outlets for what remained of the once powerful Bund, and it was run by an erstwhile comrade of Max's who wanted to write his obituary. In response to his queries, Frouma confessed that she knew almost nothing about what Max had been doing in the period before she met him: "As an old member of the Bund, which during the period in which he was active was an illegal organization, my husband even in his later life never liked to speak about his share in it." It was not only about his activism that Max kept his lips sealed. She went on to say that both of his parents had died by the time she married him and she did not even know the name of his mother. She had never met any of his relatives and so far as she knew, his closest friends were dead. His precise date of birth, she said, Max had not even been sure of himself. The best she could do was to send them a photograph of him that appeared with the caption: "Mordecai Mazower. A leading Party worker in Wilno, Lodz and other cities during Tsarist days."

During Tsarist days. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Vilna was one of the largest cities in the Russian Empire, positioned at the intersection of the railway lines to Europe and the Baltic and a key hub for the imperial communications system. It was there that on April 12, 1901, customs officials caught sight of a young man staggering out of the train station under the weight of a suspicious-looking sack. As he began to load it into a horse-drawn cab, they asked him to open it. It turned out to contain bundles of illegal Yiddish newspapers and leaflets. A search also revealed a note with instructions scrawled in Russian: "Corner of Ignatievskaya Lane and Blagoveshchenskaya Street facing the Polish church where there's the office of the dentist Katz, on the third floor ask for Mazower, and then for Max — if he's not at home, then go to the Nadezhda Co. office on Bolshaya St. and ask for him there."

The Vilna police quickly established the seditious nature of the material. The newspaper, The Worker's Voice, was, in their words, "openly antigovernment in its content." It argued for the need to replace the existing capitalist system with a socialist one, and in favor of the workers' struggle against the Russian government which it described as "the most savage in the civilized world." It was published by the Bund. There were also pamphlets for the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party, calling for demonstrations on May 1 — a date of special anxiety for the police, only a few weeks away — and highlighting the slogan "Down with the savage Asiatic autocracy, the enemy of democracy and socialism."

When the young man was charged with belonging to "a secret society that calls itself the General Jewish Labor Bund of Russia and Poland," he claimed never to have heard of the organization; he had merely been carrying the parcels as a favor to someone he met in the street. The Ignatievskaya apartment belonged to a widow, Sara Mazower, who lived there with her three sons, one of whom was called Mordkhel (Max). Nothing incriminating was found there, or at the offices of Nadezhda, a shipping company where he worked. Max himself — described in the police file as an accountant — pled not guilty to belonging to the Bund and to disseminating illegal revolutionary publications. He said he had no idea who had written down his address or why, and his boss testified to his good character. Unimpressed, the Vilna prosecutor named him as one of four men who were members of a "secret criminal organization" participating in the labor movement and distributing antigovernment materials. The police detained him, aware that his name and that of the trading company he worked for had been cropping up in other investigations. They knew that suspicious characters had previously been seen entering his mother's apartment. But they could find nothing more, and eventually released him on bail, leaving him under surveillance but free to resume his double life.

"Forgetting some things is a difficult matter," says the hero of The Gadfly, a novel by Ethel Voynich that was dear to Max's heart. I can't help wondering what things he had wanted to forget, what in particular lay buried deep in his very earliest memories, before the double life of his early manhood began. Readers of The Emigrants, W. G. Sebald's strange set of dreamlike meditations, will recollect the mysterious character of the book's opening — Dr. Henry Selwyn, an elderly English doctor tending his secluded and melancholy walled garden in a village outside Norwich, who turns out to have been born Hersch Seweryn into a Russian Jewish family from somewhere in the vicinity of the town of Grodno, a day or two's ride from Vilna, at the end of the nineteenth century. Max never lived in decaying splendor in the English countryside, but in his own way he journeyed as far as Sebald's fictional hero, and like him, he found in England a sanctuary for his own guarded version of bourgeois civility. But perhaps the real reason he reminds me of Selwyn lies elsewhere, in the odd coincidence of the fact that his starting point — a place and a milieu he never talked about at all — had also been Grodno.

Grodno at the time of Max's birth was a town of some thirty-five thousand people in the Pale of Settlement — that vast swathe of western Russia to which the empire's Jews had been almost entirely confined by imperial order. By the late nineteenth century, the Pale contained ninety-five percent of the empire's Jews, which is to say, nearly half of all Jews in the world at that time. Grodno's Jewish community dated back to the fourteenth century and Mazowers had lived there for several generations at least. Indeed Max was originally named Mordkhel after his grandfather, who had been born in 1792 and would have been one year old when Grodno hosted the very last meeting of the parliament of the old Polish republic.

After Poland was partitioned, the town had been transferred to Russian rule where it languished, an outpost on the empire's northwestern borderlands, until the economic upswing of the late nineteenth century. By then, the Pale had turned into a demographic time bomb because between 1820 and 1880 the empire's Jewish population had risen from 1.6 million to 4 million people who were constrained to live in increasingly crowded and impoverished circumstances. It was in the urban areas that their plight was most starkly visible. Most of Grodno's inhabitants were Jews, roughly twenty-seven thousand by the mid-1880s, many of whom lived in squalor in the disease-ridden shantytown behind the Neman River where filthy unlit hovels, sunk into the earth, their walls crumbling and patched with paper to cover the holes, were each inhabited by anywhere up to fifteen people. In summer, amid the stench of the puddle-filled alleys, children played half naked and barefoot. Conditions were no better in the villages where insanitary shacks might be shared by two or three destitute families, living off a daily diet of a few onions, a herring, and some bread.

There was a small wealthier class, mostly connected with the tobacco factory that provided most of the town's employment. Max never spoke about his upbringing, but one of his cousins was doing well enough as an accountant in the factory to be able to afford an apartment outside the Jewish quarter, a private tutor for his children to make sure they spoke Russian properly, and a small wooden dacha four or five miles outside of town, where they spent summers collecting wild strawberries and mushrooms. This cousin later helped out Max with shelter and money, when he was on the run, and later still, in London in the 1920s. Max would return the favor by supporting one of his cousin's sons.

Max's parents were probably neither prosperous nor starving. Dad thought Max's father, Iosif (Yosl/Osip), had owned a small mill. Semyon, one of Max's brothers, once wrote that their father had been a "clerk on a small salary." What is clear is that he was already old and on his second marriage when Max was born. There cannot have been much to go round because there were several children to support from his first wife before he had another three boys in quick succession. Max was the first. According to Frouma, all Max knew for sure was that his birth took place on the "fifth day of Chanukah," in the year 1874, or so she thought. But even that is uncertain because in 1909, in the absence of a formal birth certificate, Max obtained a notarized declaration by two elderly Grodno inhabitants in which they testified that "as is well known to us and as we well remember, there actually was born unto the lawfully married commoner of the town of Grodno, Yosl Mordkhelovitch Masower and his wife Merka-Sara Jankelevna, in the month of October of the year 1873 a son who was named 'Mordkhel.'"

Although Max was known much later on to his in-laws in Paris as Dr. Mazower, or more simply le docteur, that was really a tribute to his careful dress, his diction, and his reserve rather than to any diplomas or degrees: He never passed through the science faculty of the Université de Liège or the commercial school at the Riga Polytechnikum like some of his émigré friends in London; in fact he never had much of a formal education at all. But he was a fast learner and could easily see how limited the prospects in Grodno were because people were already emigrating in large numbers from the province in the 1880s. Then came a catastrophic blow, or perhaps a blessing in disguise: When Max was about fourteen years old, his father died. Loss of a breadwinner could send a household plummeting into poverty and the family finances faced disaster. Max and his two brothers left Grodno with their mother almost immediately; there was evidently little to keep them.


Excerpted from "What You Did Not Tell"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Mark Mazower.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: On West Hill 1

1 The Bundist 13

2 1905 42

3 The Yost Typewriter Company 53

4 Border Crossing, 1919 63

5 Brits and Bolsheviks 67

6 Wood End 76

7 The Afterlife 81

8 Zachar 89

9 The Expanding Silence 98

10 André 102

11 The Krylenko Connection 126

12 Frouma 165

13 Highgate 187

14 The Sheltering Word 192

15 Ira 217

16 Childhood 235

17 The War 279

18 Oxford and What Came Between 298

Conclusion: The Shed 345

Acknowledgments 355

Family Trees

Mazower Family 362

Toumarkine Family 364

Notes 367

Glossary 375

Captions and Credits 381

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