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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Read more at Standpoint

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

The Impossibility of Unilateral Withdrawal from the West Bank

Feb. 19 2019

Since throwing his hat into the ring for the Israeli premiership, the former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz has been reticent about his policy plans. Nonetheless, he has made clear his openness to unilateral disengagement from the West Bank along the lines of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, stating the necessity of finding “a way in which we’re not controlling other people.” Gershon Hacohen argues that any such plan would be ill-advised:

The political and strategic precepts underlying the Oslo “peace” process, which Gantz echoes, vanished long ago. The PLO has unequivocally revealed its true colors: its total lack of interest in peace, unyielding rejection of the idea of Jewish statehood, and incessant propensity for violence and terrorism. . . . Tehran is rapidly emerging as regional hegemon, with its tentacles spreading from Yemen and Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea and its dogged quest for nuclear weapons continuing apace under the international radar. Even the terror groups Hizballah and Hamas pose a far greater threat to Israel’s national security than they did a decade ago. Under these circumstances, Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank’s Area C, [the only part still under direct Israeli control], would constitute nothing short of an existential threat.

Nor does Israel need to find a way to stop “controlling other people,” as Gantz put it, for the simple reason that its control of the Palestinians ended some two decades ago. In May 1994 the IDF withdrew from all Palestinian population centers in the Gaza Strip. In January 1996 it vacated the West Bank’s populated areas (the Oslo Accords’ Areas A and B), comprising over 90 percent of the West Bank’s Palestinian residents, and handed control of that population to the Palestinian Authority (PA). . . .

This in turn means that the real dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as within Israel itself, no longer revolves around the end of “occupation” but around the future of eastern Jerusalem and Area C. And since Area C (which is home to only 100,000 Palestinians) includes all the Jewish West Bank localities, IDF bases, transportation arteries, vital topographic sites, and habitable empty spaces between the Jordan Valley and the Jerusalem metropolis, its continued retention by Israel is a vital national interest. Why? Because its surrender to a potentially hostile Palestinian state would make the defense of the Israeli hinterland virtually impossible—and because these highly strategic and sparsely populated lands are of immense economic, infrastructural, communal, ecological, and cultural importance, not to mention their historical significance as the bedrock of the Jewish ancestral homeland

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More about: Benny Gantz, Israel & Zionism, Two-State Solution, West Bank