At the very beginning of his moving account of the history of his family during the 20th century, David Laskin supplies a “Family Tree of Shimon Dov Hakohen and Beyle Shapiro.” It is a most useful document, because over the years the family grew very large and because many of the names — Itel, Leie, Shalom Tvi, Shmuel, Feigele and Etl, to cite a few — will be confusing to readers not steeped in Yiddish nomenclature. But the family tree is also a deeply disturbing document, as close study of it reveals that all the members of one branch of the family, whatever the years of their birth, died between 1941 and 1944.
The explanation is plain: Living in Eastern Europe as war came to Poland and then to Russia, they were swept away by the Holocaust. Unlike other members of the family who had made their escape, the children and grandchild of Shalom Tvi and his wife, Beyle, stayed in their ancestral world and were put to death there. As Laskin says: “The three branches of my mother’s family endured and enacted the great Jewish upheavals of the twentieth century — mass immigration to the United States, the founding of Israel, and the Shoah. My grandfather and his first cousins fought in two world wars, ran two successful businesses, copied Torah scrolls, planted citrus groves in Palestine, lived in a mansion by the sea on Long Island, and watched tanks draped in swastikas grind through the boulevards of Vilna. One family — three fates. . . . History made and broke my family in the twentieth century.”
The story begins in the late 19th century in “the Pale of Settlement where the tzars had decreed that their Jews must live” — “nearly a thousand miles along the western fringe of the Russian Empire” — and ends in the early 21st century in Israel, where Laskin went to discuss matters of family history with the three children of Chaim and Sonia Kaganovich, cousins who had gone from Poland to Palestine in the 1920s, married each other, raised a family and became witnesses to, and participants in, “the tragedy of modern Palestine . . . that one oppressed, thwarted people had come to settle among, and inevitably to displace, another oppressed, thwarted people.”
For its first hundred or so pages, “The Family” is a story of Americanization, in particular the children of Avram and Gishe Kaganovich (who changed their names to Abraham and Sarah Cohen) and their children, especially their daughter Itel. Born in 1886, she grew into a woman of “will, daring, and absolute authority” who married William Rosenthal in 1906 in Hoboken, N.J., and with him as partner set off on an extraordinary career. She was an uncommonly gifted seamstress whose talents were discovered by an Englishwoman named Enid Bissett, “the proprietress of a dress concession called Enid Frocks.” They joined forces and soon took the business in a startling new direction. Rebelling against the prevailing fashion for dresses that made women look flat-chested, they devised an undergarment that Enid called “Maiden Form.”
“The Maiden Form bra was the quintessence of the 1920s,” Laskin writes, “fun, novel, vaguely risqué, easy to mass produce, perfectly promotable, seemingly frivolous but in fact eminently practical and instantly indispensable. No one had heard of a brassiere in 1920. By 1924, all the fashionable women had to have one.” Soon enough Itel and her partners got out of dressmaking, turned their full labors to Maiden Form (it was later made into a single word) and made fortunes for themselves. Itel, the radical anti-czarist from Eastern Europe, “turned out to be [a] genius at branding.” She may have been “a short, stout, chain-smoking immigrant with an accent,” but by the 1930s she had become “a captain of industry.” As Laskin says: “Only in America.”
Itel’s brothers did well, too, though not as spectacularly as she. They set up a company called A. Cohen & Sons, rented a building on East Broadway and set about establishing themselves. By 1925 they had incorporated, moved “to the relatively swank environs of 584-586 Broadway” and put themselves “respectably on the map in every sense.” Over the years their fortunes waxed and waned — the Depression was far harder on them than on Maiden Form, the market for brassieres by then having proved Depression-proof — but they secured places for themselves in the middle and upper-middle classes, where their descendants are to be found to this day.
Life was more of a challenge and its rewards less glittering for Chaim and Sonia in Palestine, but they proved ready for the hard life of farmers in “a new cooperative farming village — a moshav — ” called Kfar Vitkin. Tensions between the Jewish settlers and their Arab neighbors ran high at times, but the Kaganoviches managed to improve the “tiny, spartan house” that Chaim had built with cinder blocks and to bring up their children, born between 1936 and 1951, in a reasonably peaceful atmosphere. In 1959, though, Chaim “suffered a serious stroke” that left him “a ‘broken man,’ ” in the words of his son Benny. By then Sonia’s father, Shalom Tvi, was living with them in circumstances made uncomfortable by Chaim’s anger at his misfortune.
The greatest misfortune, though, was inflicted upon those who remained in Europe. Polish anti-Semitism had begun to intensify during the 1920s and was a crucial consideration in the departure from the homeland of Abraham Cohen’s family as well as Chaim and Sonia, but by the late 1930s, “Vilna’s Jewish residents and refugees had little hope of securing sanctuary in the United States or anywhere else in the world. The ranks of those who succeeded were tiny: according to one report, as of April 1940, a total of 137 Vilna Jews had immigrated to all countries excluding Palestine; of these, 41 were admitted to the United States.” Doba, a granddaughter of Shalom Tvi, may have been “tenderhearted,” but she was furious: “It made her crazy to see others heedlessly enjoying what she and her children lacked. No one she knew enjoyed more than the American relatives. They became the focus of her fury. She blamed them for being rich while she and her family were poor, for being comfortable while they were suffering, for not doing more to help them.”
In 1941, “the Nazis entered Vilna on June 24, Volozhin on June 25, and Rakov on June 26.” The places where those descendants of Shimon Dov Hakohen and Beyle Shapiro who had not managed to flee still lived were now under Nazi control, and the carnage soon began. Vilna, “with its combustible mix of cultured Jews, anti-Semitic Lithuanians, and stateless Poles, became a kind of laboratory for Nazi terror and mass murder.” It was “the first place where the Nazis began to murder Jews on a methodical, industrial scale. . . . Of the eighty thousand Jews living in Vilna when the Germans seized the city in June 1941, only two to three thousand survived the war.”
Seventeen members of this family died; little is known about their exact fates, but “only two likely died in a gas chamber.” The rest? “The others were shot over pits, lined up and machine-gunned, murdered by gentile neighbors, burned alive, worked almost to death, and then shot and incinerated.”
The story is no easier to read when told in Laskin’s understated prose than it is in the countless other documents we have about the Holocaust. But no matter how many times the tale is told, it demands to be read. Told as it is in the history of this one family, it becomes a metaphor of sorts for the 20th century, one in which incredible good fortune was granted to some and incomprehensible agony to others.
As Laskin writes at the end: “The pulse of history beats in every family. All our lives are engraved with epics of love and death. What my family gained and lost in the twentieth century, though extreme, was not unique. War has touched all of us. Fate and chance and character make and break every generation. The Shoah was not the only genocide. America is not the first land of opportunity nor will it be the last. Warring peoples have fought over the Holy Land for thousands of years, all of them claiming to have God on their side. . . . Open the book of your family and you will be amazed, as I was, at what you find.”
All of which is true, but the book of this particular family stands out for the extremes of joy and sorrow contained within it.
Three Journeys Into the Heart of the Twentieth Century
By David Laskin
Viking. 383 pp. $32