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.
Sign Up For Our E-Mail List Get the latest from Mosaic right in your inbox
Sign up now for unlimited access