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Episode 314

Swept Up in the Currents of History

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Posted by Mary Ann

Reading “The Family,” I was struck once again by something that hits me over and over again; you can read about historical tragedies until your eyes grow dim, but they don’t really hit home until you hear the stories of individuals swept up in them.

And so it is with “The Family.” Of course, there are three braided stories in this book. The family branch that emigrated to America – theirs could truly be said to be a success story. There’s the branch that emigrated, pretty early on, to Palestine. And there’s the branch of the family that remained in or close to the small town at the western fringe of the Russian empire, a very ill-fated place that would be ping-ponged back and forth between the Russians and the Germans for several decades, until the Germans took over, with dire results.

I have read many books about the time leading up to and during World War II – I think we will never completely understand what led to the tragedy of the Holocaust.

One book that reminded me very much of “The Family” is Daniel Mendelsohn’s 2006 book “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million.” Mendelsohn is an admired classical scholar, critic and essayist. Early on in “The Lost,” he nails a major problem in writing about the Holocaust: “The Holocaust is so big, the scale of it is so gigantic, so enormous, that it becomes easy to think of it as something mechanical. Anonymous. But everything that happened, happened because someone made a decision. To pull a trigger, to flip a switch, to close a cattle car door, to hide, to betray.”

He began to write this book because of an odd occurrence; at gatherings of his own family, older family members would sometimes break into tears because of his marked resemblance to a family member who lived in Bolochow, a small town in Poland (now in Ukraine). This man, the author’s great Uncle Shmiel, his wife and his four daughters vanished in the Holocaust. Like Laskin’s family, they could sense what was coming, writing desperate letters to America in hopes of emigrating, but like Laskin’s family, there were all kinds of reasons it didn’t happen. Mendelsohn meticulously recreates their lives, and as far as he can, tries to determine when and how they died. There is unimaginable horror in this book, but there is also great humanity – Mendelsohn performs a kind of resurrection of these people, some kind of balancing of the scales of the fact that they were so ruthlessly exterminated. It takes some attention but is well worth the effort.

A book that follows similar historical currents but with a different perspective is a very interesting and idiosyncratic book called “Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia” by English writer Max Egremont.

This 2011 book looks at a little slice of land that borders the Baltic Sea that has represented so many things to so many people in history; it was a center of power in the old German kingdom of Prussia; it passed briefly to Poland; it became the location for key events in the Nazis’ efforts; now it’s split between Lithuania and Russia.

This book is a testament to how a culture can be wiped from the face of the earth. The Prussians were the most powerful people in old Germany; now their way of life has vanished. The Nazis terrified the world; they’re gone, too. This area was once mostly inhabited by Germans – now they’re almost completely gone – half a million were killed in World War II; two million more were driven out by vengeful Soviet troops at the end of World War II. Today their way of life memorialized in a few moldering museums, some ruins of country estates, a few mammoth houses of worship. It’s an odd book in a way – in many ways it’s almost a book about ghosts, because these people have vanished. But I still think about it.

Next up is fabulous book I just completed, called “LAWRENCE IN ARABIA ; War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East” by Scott Anderson. One branch of David Laskin’s family emigrated from Europe to Palestine in the early part of the 20th century. Anderson’s book tells how the Middle East was carved up by the world’s imperial powers at the end of World War I. One result of that carving up, of course, was that the British assumed control of Palestine, and declared that Jews were welcome to emigrate there.

So what could be the problem? The problem is that the Arabs, who fought by the side of the British during World War I against the Turkish Empire, were led to believe that their reward would be much of Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. Despite numerous promises, at the end of the war Britain and France seized control of the area. Even early on, oil was a big factor.

Key to this story is T.E. Lawrence, the British officer who became an avid advocate of the Arabs and whose life was immortalized in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia.” Lawrence saw all his dreams for the Arabs crushed. To say that this chain of events created a lot of bad blood that we are still suffering the consequences of today is an understatement.

Scott Anderson is a war correspondent who has spent a lot of time on the ground in the Middle East, and this book really shows it. He has a way of bringing long-ago events to life, particularly the World War I battles in the desert that set much of this train of events in motion. I went back and watched the movie after reading this book, and was surprised at how relatively faithful the movie was to events and to Lawrence’s life; some incidents were combined, and others embroidered on, but the spirit of the movie seemed surprisingly faithful to events.

Finally, I do want to sneak in a fiction recommendation, a wonderful short-story collection by Edith Pearlman, a 2011 book called “Binocular Vision.” Pearlman’s name is not much known, but she is a genius at the short story form. Each one of these stories is almost perfectly crafted. Judaism is a recurrent theme, following several characters dispersed by the Holocaust, their families and their descendants. Several are set in contemporary Israel; you get beyond the headlines and the violence that plagues the country to see how people from so many different backgrounds live together, and, occasionally, even appreciate one another.

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