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 Dangers of Diplomacy with Iran

Aug. 21 2018

Although President Trump’s offer to meet with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic was rejected, the possibility of direct negotiations remains. Ray Takeyh and Mark Dubowitz warn that Tehran could use talks to stall and gain leverage over Washington:

The mullahs understand that just by staying at the table, Americans usually offer up concessions. [They] are betting that the Trump administration may become weaker over time, preoccupied with domestic politics. Best to entangle America in protracted diplomacy while awaiting what the regime expects will be midterm Republican losses in Congress and the return of a more flexible Democratic president to power in 2021. This is what [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei probably meant when he stressed that negotiations have to wait until America is softened up.

Diplomacy would surely blunt the impact of U.S. pressure. The mullahs believe they can undermine the escalation of [U.S.] sanctions by being diplomatically flirtatious and know well that America seldom disrupts negotiations with military action. Indeed, as a prelude to the talks, Iran may even resume its nuclear activities to frighten the Europeans and gain leverage by putting even more pressure on Washington to adjust its red lines.

Should negotiations begin, the Trump team should take sensible precautions to avoid the predicament of the Obama negotiators. The administration will need to maintain its maximum-pressure campaign and its negotiating demands. . . . Any negotiations with the Islamic Republic should be time-limited, and Washington must be prepared to leave the table when it confronts the usual pattern of regime bombast and mendacity.

Donald Trump should insist on direct talks with the supreme leader, as he did with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un: Rouhani is a lame duck without any real influence. The administration also should demand that Europeans join its sanctions policy targeting Iran’s ballistic-missile program, support for terrorism, and human-rights abuses as a price for their participation in the talks.

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More about: Ali Khamenei, Donald Trump, Hassan Rouhani, Iran, U.S. Foreign policy