A Memoir of an Extraordinary Anglo-Jewish Family

Dec. 11 2017

In What You Did Not Tell Me, the historian Mark Mazower pieces together the story of his family, focusing on his paternal grandparents who came to England from Russia in 1923. David Herman writes in his review:

Max (born Mordecai) Mazower was a Jewish Bundist from the Russian Pale of Settlement. For years he lived a double life, helping to run an underground socialist movement in Vilna, “the revolutionary hub for northwestern Russia,” while simultaneously working as a respectable accountant. He was arrested several times by the tsarist police but escaped and moved in revolutionary circles in pre-war central Europe. These years taught him everything he needed to know about the Bolsheviks. . . . In 1923 he escaped to London and never returned to Russia. He married, settled in Highgate, and learned to speak English with a perfect accent.

He also became a man of secrets. He apparently never told his wife the name of his own mother. He never spoke about his revolutionary past. “Many of his closest comrades ended up in violent deaths,” Mazower writes, “shot either by the Bolsheviks or the Nazis.” . . . This is just the beginning. The dramas and tragedies come thick and fast. Mazower’s attention now turns to the family Max and his wife, Frouma, left behind. . . .

What seemed an ordinary family is anything but. Mazower’s grandfather, Max, may (or may not) have fathered a son, André. The boy’s mother was Sofia Krylenko, a crazy revolutionary whose brother, Nikolai, became [the Soviet] “people’s commissar for justice” and prosecutor general. She also disappeared during the purges.

All kinds of extraordinary people pass through the book. [The German Jewish philosopher and critic] Walter Benjamin meets the Krylenkos in 1920s Moscow, T.S. Eliot corresponds with Sofia’s son, André, in 1930s London, . . . [the Soviet secret-police chief] Lavrenty Beria and Jan Karski, [the Polish resistance agent who brought news of the Holocaust to the West], pop up. So do Leon Trotsky’s sister, [Stalin’s foreign minister Andrey] Vyshinsky, and the Futurist poet Filippo Marinetti. [The anarchist revolutionary] Emma Goldman has dinner with the Mazowers in north London and one of Frouma’s sisters, a Soviet doctor, treats Field Marshal Paulus, [the German commander] who surrendered to the Red Army at Stalingrad.

The story of a family over two generations becomes embedded in the history of the 20th century, full of famous historical figures. Mazower does a superb job of putting each episode in its historical context. This is historical story-telling at its very best. . . . Mazower constantly reminds us of the power of history to turn lives upside down, or worse, to be some kind of terrible meat-grinder which destroys countless families.

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More about: British Jewry, Bund, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Jewish history, Russian Jewry

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays