In the second decade of the twenty-first century, we are not yet done with the ghosts and demons of the twentieth. Even as the great cataclysms of the “terrible century” recede in time, recent years have given rise to a growing body of third-generation literature, written mostly (although not only) by the indirect heirs of World War II and the Holocaust, and often driven by a haunted sense of an enormous but largely unknown past.
Mark Mazower’s What You Did Not Tell can be seen as belonging to this genre, but it is an unusual and exceptionally interesting example of it. Like many third-generation memoirs, Mazower’s exploration of the past proceeds from the need to decode what was left unspoken in the previous generation, and from his realization, made more poignant after his father’s death, of how much he didn’t know about his family’s Russian past. Mazower, however, is not only a grandson of Russian émigrés but one of today’s leading historians of Europe; and while most third-generation memoirs pursue the often slender thread of intergenerational memory, he excavates, through rigorous research and tenacious sleuthing, the history of a family whose lives spanned the entire twentieth century, and whose fates were closely interwoven with its many ideological terrors and violent upheavals.
It is an odyssey that extends from prerevolutionary Vilna to the Soviet Union and postwar Paris and London, and that Mazower recounts through a succession of individual, thickly contextualized life stories. The enigmatic figure at its center is his paternal grandfather, Max, a man so secretive or laconic that the most basic facts of his past remained unknown to his wife and son, but whose impenetrable persona belied a life of almost fantastical turbulence and drama. One wonders if Mazower felt that he struck historian’s gold in uncovering this ancestor’s picaresque saga, which provides a point of entry for his picture of Jewish life in the tsarist empire and his fascinating account of Russia’s prerevolutionary struggles before their outcome was foreseeable or clear.
Max began his life in 1873 or 1874 in the town of Grodno, in the shifting territory that belonged to Poland before that country’s partition in the late eighteenth century, but was then transferred to Russian rule and the so-called Pale of Settlement—an area to which most of the Russian Empire’s Jews were confined. By the time he was growing up there, most of the town’s inhabitants were Jewish, many of them living in abject poverty. When his father died, fourteen-year-old Max, with his mother and two brothers, decided to relocate to the more metropolitan city of Vilna, hoping for better prospects. Max became the family’s main breadwinner, working as a clerk in a shipping company and quickly rising, by dint of reliable character and energy, to the position of manager of his…
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