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

by David Laskin

Book, 2013



Call number



New York, NY Penguin Books 2013


Traces the history of the 20th century through the story of an extraordinary Jewish family, recounting how the author's 19th-century ancestors were separated by period upheavals in western Russia and went on to become the founders of the Maidenform Bra Company, pioneers in the contentious birth of Israel, and victims of the Holocaust.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Schmerguls
I read the author's The Children's Blizzard on 9 Aug 2005 and his The Long Way Home on 16 Nov 2011. Since both were good reading I decided to read this account by him of his family, which originated in what is now Belarus. Some went to America, some to Palestine, and some stayed in Europe. Laskin
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has done an excellent job telling of the events of all in the mid 20th century. Some of the account is of course harrowing, some is filled with struggle, and some is full of well-drawn accounts of the author's relatives. One feels sure that the picture he draws is accurate--and is often poignant. The European experience makes one anew wonder how human beings could act as the persecutors did. There is a glossary which helps some one like me with, no Jewish background, understand some of the terms freely used. The author has done a great job making his family an interesting study. The family tree at the front of the book I found indispensable and consulted often in the reading till one got to know the members. I felt he did an excellent job tellng of the character and characteristics of the family members.
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LibraryThing member flippinpages
Really good book. I tried reading this once before but gave up before I even finished the sample. I found all the jewish words overwhelming. Hard up for something to read I decided to force myself to read the whole sample as the book had many good reviews. Once I finished the sample I was hooked.
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Very well written, interesting story. What may be a problem for some readers is the many family members and their names. Especially in the cases where family members have the same name. I was frustrated briefly when people started immigrating and changing their names just when I had everyone figured out. A family tree is included in the book for help. The end of the book has many pictures which I find helpful to really draw me into the story. I rarely read memoirs or biographies written by family members because I think memory is subjective and I also question the validity of the story in general. After all what would I chose to leave out if writing about my family. Probably quite abit. With that being said I really felt this was a honest account of the author's family. So, if a reader is willing to put in the time and effort this is an amazing story well worth it.
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LibraryThing member bluepigeon
Thank you Goodreads Firstreads giveaway for this book!

Laskin's account of the Cohen family and its descendants from before the Great War to Israel (and New Jersey/Long Island/Hoboken/Manhattan) is remarkable, not only because it is very well written, but also because it includes almost all types of
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Jewish experiences in the 20th century: the Jews who made it in America, the Jews who founded Israel, and the Jews who perished in the hands of their neighbors and the Nazis.

I do not read much about the Jewish experience, so Laskin's account made me understand some puzzling things better, like why didn't more Jews run away from the Germans, and how can someone not be religious but want to become a pioneer/settler/terrorist (depending on whose point of view you take) in a land that has been "promised" to the members of a religion (I am not Jewish, so this idea of a "nation" and so on is difficult to understand... apparently...)

My main worry when starting to read this book was that it would be too pro-Israel for my taste. I don't really mind if people are pro-Israel, but I do not need to read a long book of propaganda, I thought. But I worried for no reason, it turned out. Laskin was very honest, fair, and critical in his writing about historical events. I want to say that he did not spare anyone's feelings, and he did not favor anyone, either. He achieved this mostly by focusing on the human experience; how did the settlers feel, how did the Arabs and Bedouins feel, what did they think was happening... Overall, I agreed with Laskin's take on the Israel/Palestine conflict, but for those who are more pro-Israel, some of his opinions might not be agreeable. [At one point, he does split hairs about "who started it," which I slightly disagree with, and it all depends on what you consider "starting it" means and entails...] It is rather funny that Laskin identifies as a "secular Jew" who is not religious at all (like the Upper West Side Jews in New York), but in his book he describes some of the most fervent pioneers that settled in what is now Israel as exactly the same, non-religious, secular, non-practicing Jews (Jewish by nation and ethnicity, but not by religion, basically). Strange that such an identity can go from one extreme (completely assimilated in another nation, culture, tradition) to the other (forcing a land so as not to assimilate anywhere else). This will always be fascinating to me.

Overall, this is a great account of a large family surviving the atrocities of the 20th century. It is a great account of what it means to be an immigrant, what it means to belong, and build a home, and the exact location and meaning of home.

Recommended for those who like history, latkes, and bras (not necessarily in that order).
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LibraryThing member herzogm
The premise of The Family, by David Laskin, sounds like the proverbial genealogical myth - "There were three branches of the family, one stayed in Poland, one went to the United States, and the third went to Isreal." However, I quickly realized that Laskin was using his vast trove of family
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letters, and researching and storytelling skills to tell the compelling story of a large Jewish family caught up in the major themes of the early 20th century; capitalism, fascism, mass migration, and assimilation. At times it is a difficult story to read as he has given faces and personalities to the victims of anti-semitism in the repeated pogroms and the holocaust. I came away from the book with a deeper feeling for the strength of this particular extended family with all their heartbreaks and triumphs.
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LibraryThing member EllenH
Wow, what an accomplishment in family history search! David Laskin's family spread in three main directions internationally and what a difference a country makes for survival. He does a great job making this complicated story of Nazis, Palestine and Maidenform bras, become readable. If only we all
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could be so successful in our searches.
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LibraryThing member flashflood42
Laskin looks at 20c through its effects on one family (his) who begin in Russia (in the Pale on the Russia-Poland border) but go off in three directions: to US (NYC where they go from penniless immigrants to successful entrepreneurs, including one member who founds Maiden Form bras), Holy Land (as
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Zionists) , and a few who remain in their homeland (I haven't gotten to this part) and get swept into Holocaust from German occupation. The names are hard as there are multiple Chaim's in different generations or branches and many of the original names are changed once in US to Americanized ones (Herschel becomes Harry etc). The historical sweep as well as the unfolding of Jewish history in 20c is really informative (ESP for the likes of me).
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LibraryThing member froxgirl
Family sagas, both fiction and non, are among my favorite genres. This one has three unique branches: the Kaganoviches, a Jewish family from the Pale of Settlement, sends brave emigrants to Palestine and to NYC, leaving the doomed group to be murdered by Nazis and their Lithuanian accomplices. The
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author gives equal weight and time to each story, and they are pretty remarkable: the Palestinians are pioneers, but complicit in the destruction of Bedouin and Arab villages; the Americans launch the Maidenform Bra Company but don't do much to heed the desperate calls from the old country, and the dead speak only through diaries of the few neighbors who survivored the Holocaust.

In another response to the ever-puzzling "Why did the Jews put up so little resistance?", there's a fascinating and new-to-me chapter on the expectations of the Kaganoviches living in Volozhin, who'd been through a German invasion back in 1918 and were not treated any worse by those invaders than they were by the Russian/Polish/Romanian Christians who constantly conducted progroms.

Well-written and researched, the "Notes" section alone is riveting. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member ennie
Excellent family saga.
LibraryThing member LoveAtFirstBook
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
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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.

For the full review, visit Love at First Book
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LibraryThing member Rascalstar
Amazing book on many levels, and an important and fascinating family history. Details of the story can be found elsewhere in other reviews. David, the author, discovered branches and members of his family he didn't know he had, though his mother had told him some of the stories throughout his life.
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And what a story this is! This Jewish family, originally from the western fringe of the Russian Empire, are descended from Torah scribes who were highly regarded.

Over years and events, the family divided into three branches: one stayed in the homeland, one relocated to Palestine, considered the original homeland, and one branch emigrated to America, to New York. This varied and fascinating and loving family had all the characters every family has, and I loved every one of them with their different and real attitudes and talents.

The book is about what they endured, created, pioneered, suffered, held together, triumphed over, and so much more. This family participated in important times in history fully, unknowingly almost. Their instincts were good in many cases. In others, there were no choices. Does that sound familiar?

Excellent literary writing, and profound research. One of the most amazing efforts I've read involving global research of so many kinds. I say this without benefit of the maps that will be included in the final version. The story is mesmerizing.

Don't miss this remarkable book. I can't do it justice in a review because it's so rich in detail and characters and events. It's easy for a book about family history to be so-so. This book reads like a novel and is on the other side of everywhere from mundane. I cared what happened to these people. And who is that on the cover? I kept looking as I read, trying to discern which family this might be, and decided it was all of them, even though it's just 4 people. Maybe they will be identified in final copy.

Don't skip the Epilogue. It's just as interesting as the rest. This isn't just a family story -- it contains interesting, significant history on 3 continents.

David, this is a superb tribute as well as wonderful reading.
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Original publication date




Local notes

Diaspora Jewry
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