Monday, February 17, 2014

The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century by David Laskin 2013

David Laskin (b.1953) has woven together a tapestry of engrossing stories about his large extended family, starting with his great-great grandfather Shimon Dov HaKohen, a torah scribe, and his wife Beyle Shapiro who lived and raised their six children in Volozhin in Belarus. In the course of the book, Laskin follows their descendents along three geographical paths: Eastern Europe, America, and Israel.

Even though Laskin grew up in the New York City suburbs near his immigrant grandfather and some of his grandfather’s siblings, he knew nothing about their early lives, neither in Eastern Europe nor in America where they immigrated over the course of the first decade of the 20th century. When he got old enough to make decisions for himself, he distanced himself from his Jewish heritage and the world represented by his immigrant relatives. A call to Israel at the suggestion of his mother to ask a cousin to verify the accuracy of a family "legend"  piqued his interest in his family’s history and started him on a quest to learn everything he could.

What’s truly satisfying about reading The Family is being able to follow Laskin’s highly readable prose where he integrates history from many sources and places his relatives in the context of history. In the metropolitan New York area, where the bulk of Laskin's family originally settled, we read about the businesses they established and how they lived out versions of the American Dream. For example, he gives us many interesting details about the oldest sibling, his great aunt Itel Rosenthal, who founded and ran the Maidenform Bra company along with her husband. But before we learn about her great successes as a capitalist, he fills in details about her early life in Eastern Europe, sketching in the political climate, the growing restrictions on Jews, and her risky, active membership in the Bund.
The most moving sections are those having to do with his relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. He is shocked to find out he had relatives who had been murdered and wondered why no one had ever talked about it. He is aided in researching their stories because the cousin he had originally contacted in Israel had in his possession almost three hundred letters in Yiddish sent to his mother, Sonia, who had immigrated to Palestine in 1932. Many of the letters, some of which are reproduced, were from Sonia's two sisters who were stranded with their families and their mother in Eastern Europe. To learn as much as he could about their end, Laskin embarked on a multi-year project which involved two trips to Israel to meet with Sonia’s surviving children, and a “roots” trip to Belarus and Lithuania with some of those relative as well as others. He also did archival research, trying to track down whatever he could find about those who had been murdered.

One of the strengths of this book is that Laskin’s family members are fleshed-out individuals, but they are also stand-ins for many others: the waves of Eastern European immigrants who, like them, settled on the overcrowded Lower East Side of New York and worked their way “up” to other parts of the city and the suburbs. In narrating Sonia and her husband Chaim’s life as early pioneers in Palestine, he provides historical background about the British Mandate as well as the physical conditions of early settlements to help readers understand what it was like to be an early pioneer.

And in investigating the murders of his relatives during the Holocaust he sketches in the geography and politics of World War II as it impacted on his relatives in Volozhin, Rakov and Vilna, including in great detail the Nazi plan for wiping out the Jewish population in Vilna where one of Sonia’s sisters and her family lived. He describes in detail the Vilna ghetto, the forest at Ponar, the Einsatzgruppen, and the slave labor camp at Klooga.

The Family: Three Journeys into the heart of the Twentieth Century has much to offer. Laskin has recreated his family in a way that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

This book contains a family tree with dates of birth and death, many family photos, a two-page glossary of "foreign" words, extensive notes which include sources he consulted keyed to text pages and an index.

To read about the history of the Jewish Lower East Side, click here.
To look at interesting photos from the Jewish cemetery in Seduva, click here.

Author’s mother’s paternal line
Chaim HaKohen
    Shimon Dov Hakohen, - son of Chaim; married Beyle Shapiro
         Avram Akiva Kaganovich (Abraham Cohen) – son of Simon Dov and Beyle; married Gishe Sore (Sarah); married
             Itel Kaganovich (Ida Cohen) – daughter of Avram and Gishe Sore; married Wolf (William) Rosenthal
                  Lewis and Beatrice Rosenthal – children of Ida and William
             Ettal Kaganovich (Ethel Cohen) – daughter of Avram and Gishe Sore; married Samuel Epstein
                 Bernard, and David Epstein – sons of Ethel and Samuel
                 Inda Epstein – daughter of Ethel and Samuel; married Irving Goldfarb
                        Gail Goldfarb – daughter of Inda and Irving; married Richard Cohen
             Hersch Kaganovich (Harry Cohen) – son of Avram and Gishe Sore; married Sallie Bodker
                 Melvin Cohen – son of Harry and Sallie
             Shmuel Kaganovich (Sam Cohen) –son of Avram and Gishe Sore; married Celia Zimmerman; 2nd marriage to Gisri Sore Galpierjn (Gladys Helperin)
                 Dorothy and Sidney Cohen– twin children of Sam and Celia
                 Lester Cohen – son of Sam and Celia
                 Marvin Cohen – son of Sam and Celia
                        Gary Cohen – son of Marvin; married to Lori
                 Leona Cohen – daughter of Sam and Gladys; married Meyer Laskin
                        Robert Laskin – son of Leona and Meyer; married to Sue
                               Isaac and Gabriel Laskin – sons of Robert and Sue
                        Daniel Laskin – son of Leona and Meyer
                        David Laskin – son of Leona and Meyer; married to Kate O’Neill; author Emily, Sarah, and Alice Laskin; daughters of David and Kate
                        Jonathan Laskin – son of Leon and Meyer
           Chaim Yasef  Kaganovich (Hyman Cohen) – son of Avram and Gishe Sore; married Anna Raskin
                Barbara Cohen – daughter of Hyman and Anna; married Morton Weisenfeld
           Chana Kaganovich – daughter of Avram and Gishe Sore
            Leie Kaganovich (Lillie Cohen) – daughter of Avram and Gishe Sore; married Joseph Salwitz
   Yasef Bear Kaganovich (Joseph Cohn) – son of Shimon and Beyle; married
to Ethel
                       Devorah Bayer – great-great granddaughter of Yasef Bear and Ethel
            Shalom Tvi Kaganovich (Sholom Kahanowicz) – son of Shimon Dov and Beyle; married Beyle Botwinik
                Shula Kaganovich – daughter of Shalom and Beyle
                Doba Kaganovich – daughter of Shalom and Beyle; married to Shabtai Senitski     Shimon and Wolf Kaganovich – sons of Doba and Shabtai
                Etl Kaganovich – daughter of Shalom and Beyle; married to Khost Goldstein
                      Mirile and Doba – daughters of Etl and Khost
               Sonia Kaganovich – daughter of Shalom and Beyle; married to Chaim Kaganovich
                      Leah Kaganovich – daughter of Sonia and Chaim; married to Avi
                            Galit Kaganovich Weise – daughter of Leah and Avi
                     Arie Kaganovich – son of Sonia and Chaim
                     Shimon Kaganovich – son of Sonia and Chaim; married to Riki
                     Amir Kaganovich – son of Shimon and Riki
                     Benny Kaganovich – son of Sonia and Chaim; married to Orna
                             Rotem Kaganovich – son of Benny and Orna
               Feige Kaganovich – daughter of Shalom and Beyle
     Arie Kaganovich – son of Shimon and Beyle; married Leah
          Chana Kaganovich – daughter of Arie and Leah; married Meir Finger
          Yishayahu Kaganovich – son of Arie and Leah; married Henia
                     Leah Kaganovich – daughter of Yishayahu and Henia
          Chaim Kaganovich – son of Arie and Leah; married Sonia Kaganovich (first cousin; see above
                     Shlomo – son of Leah and second husband
     Leah Golda Kaganovich – daughter of Shimon and Beyle; married Shmuel Rubenstein
          Rose Rubenstein Einziger – daughter of Leah Golda and Shmuel
                     Laurie Einziger Bellet – daughter of Rose
                     Betty Rubenstein – daughter of Leah Golda and Shmuel
                     Sol Rubenstein – son of Leah Golda and Shmuel
                            Susan Rubenstein Schechet – daughter of Sol
          Louis Rubenstein – son of Leah Golda and Shmuel
    Herman Kaganovich (Cohn) – son of Shimon Dov and Beyle; married Libbie
          Leonard and Seymour Cohn – sons of Herman and Libbie

   Zelig Kost – nephew of Gishe Sore Kagan (see above); 2nd marriage to Shoshanna Buckerman
     Esther Kost – daughter of Zelig and first wife
     Estelle Kost – daughter of Zelig and Shoshanna
Moses (Moe) Rosenthal – brother of William Rosenthal(see above)
Masha Rosenthal Hammer – sister of William Rosenthal (see above)
Harry Raskin – brother of Anna Raskin (see above)
Tsipora Alperovich – a relative of Beyle Botwinik (see above)
Hayim Yehoshua Botwinik – brother of Beyle Botwinik; married to Esther
Yitzchak Senitski – brother of Shabtai Senitsky (see above)
Cousins of author – exact connection not clear: Sallie Cohen, married to Michael; Lenore Cohen, married to Marvin Sleisenger; Jeff Cohen; Dick Salwitz, married to Kathryn; Jay Epstein; Adrian Epstein; Rochelle Rogart; Chuck Cohen and son Laurence; Bert Cohen

Friends and Acquaintances
Jack Zizmor
George Horn
Harry Miller
Joe Feller
Al Siegel
Yitzhak and Leah Cohen
Israel Helprin
Jacob Gens          

The forest at Ponar
Foehrenwald Displaced Persons Camp
Hoboken, NJ
The Bronx
Lower East Side
Kvutza Har Kinneret
Moshava Kinneret
Kfar Vitkin
Tel Aviv
Stamford, Conn.
New Haven, Conn.
Palm Beach, Florida

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Lion Seeker by Kenneth Bonert 2013 (a novel)

"The Lion Seeker is a captivating story, offering at times page-turning thrills and at others a painful meditation on destiny and volition."  from a review by Ellah Allfrey on National Public Radio 11/7/13

This vivid novel, although not autobiographical, focuses on a Jewish family from Dusat, Lithuania whose family members settle in Johannesburg as the author's family did. 

We readers follow the main character, Isaac, as he moves as a youngster from the old country and tries to make his way in the new. To some extent he has the same problems many children of immigrants have: parents set in their old ways whose expectations for their children create conflict between parents and child that culminate in anger and guilt. During their struggles we learn about the opportunities, the geography, the ethnic groups, divisions in social class, the politics, and the anti-semitism that confronted the Jewish immigrants in Johannesburg.

Bonert’s novel covers the years from 1924 when his fictional family immigrates to South Africa and takes us a few years past World War II. It also includes flashbacks to life in Dusat, including a devastating progrom when his mother was a teenager. A good part of the plot deals with World War II, especially with the plight of Isaac’s mother’s sisters and their families stranded back in Lithuania as the war is heating up.

Bonert creates a last chapter devoted to Isaac’s sister Rively that takes place in Israel after the war where Rively now lives. She meets a woman who had immigrated from Dusat who shows her the Jaeger report, written by a Nazi functionary,  that includes statistics of how many Lithuanian Jews perished.

Besides his deftly grounding his story in the realities of life in South Africa and the realities of World War II, one of the great pleasures of the novel is the author’s use of language. Throughout the novel we hear characters speaking Yiddish, Yiddish inflected English, English interlaced with South African slang, Afrikaans and indigenous tribal languages like Zulu.

This novel should be satisfying reading for anyone whose family immigrated to South Africa or who might want to learn about a Jewish immigrant family in Johannesburg, South Africa. In  his acknowledgements Bonert honors his grandmother who had immigrated to South Africa from Dusat. He also lists the sources he consulted including oral histories that have been collected from members of the Dusat Jewish community as well as the Jaeger Report.

To read an introduction to the Jaeger Report click here.
To read the Jaeger report click here.
To read an interview with the author click here.

Koppel and Hannah Raizel Bonert
   Pasey Bonert - son of Koppel and Hannah Raizel; married to Avril
         Kenneth Bonert - son of Pasey and Avril; author

Dusat, Lithuania
Johannesburg, South Africa
Doornfontein, Johannesburg
Greenside, South Africa