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A Jewish Family’s Twentieth Century Story

With Hanukkah upon us, the story of a Jewish family made and broken in the 20th century in David Laskin’s “The Family.”

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, and Rabbi Abraham Shemtov participate in the annual National Menorah Lighting on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013. For the first time since the late 1800s – and for the last time until some 70,000 years from now – the first day of hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving. (AP)

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, and Rabbi Abraham Shemtov participate in the annual National Menorah Lighting on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013. For the first time since the late 1800s – and for the last time until some 70,000 years from now – the first day of hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving. (AP)

“The pulse of history beats in every family,” writes David Laskin.  His own Jewish family, he writes in a new history, was made and broken by the 20th century.  Three strands out of Eastern Europe.  One to America and a fortune making Maidenform bras.  One to Israel, and sweat of the brow toil and settlement.  One to misery and mass graves in the Holocaust.  “Open the book of you family, and you will be amazed” at what you find, Laskin writes.  For his Jewish family and many others, the 20th century was epically dramatic. This hour On Point:  One family, three paths in a century of change.

– Tom Ashbrook


David Laskin, journalist, historian and author. Author of “The Family: Three Journeys Into the Heart of the Twentieth Century.” Also author of “The Children’s Blizzard,” “The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War,” “Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather” and “Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals.” (@DavidLaskin)

From Tom’s Reading List

USA Today: ‘Cultural’ Jew label grates on me –”If she has children, I’m sure my daughter will pass on as much of her knowledge and reverence as the children are willing to absorb. The Pew study’s ‘Jews by religion’ will say none of that counts because my daughter isn’t Jewish and thus her children won’t be Jewish either. I say these are narrow categories that leave no room for imagination, for curiosity, for inspiration, for true holiness.”

The Washington Post: ‘The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century’ by David Laskin (Review) — “The story is no easier to read when told in Laskin’s understated prose than it is in the countless other documents we have about the Holocaust. But no matter how many times the tale is told, it demands to be read. Told as it is in the history of this one family, it becomes a metaphor of sorts for the 20th century, one in which incredible good fortune was granted to some and incomprehensible agony to others.”

Pew Research Center: A Portrait of Jewish Americans – “This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole – not just Jews – increasingly eschew any religious affiliation. Indeed, the share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22%) is similar to the share of religious ‘nones’ in the general public (20%), and religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32% of each).”

Read An Excerpt From “The Family: Three Journeys Into The Heart Of the Twentieth Century” by David Laskin

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  • BB. M

    This was a very moving and fascinating piece. I didn’t catch all of it, so forgive me if this was mentioned in the discussion: I think it’s also important to mention that many people who were not Jewish suffered greatly under the Nazis (that is not to in any way diminish the Holocaust). My family was Catholic Luxembourgish, and was interned in camps because they were resisters. Whole peoples, dissidents, homosexuals, Roma, and so on, were persecuted by Nazis. Thank you, On Point and Mr. Laskin for this moving account.

    • brettearle

      Do you have an account of your Family’s persecution?

      If so, aside from direct interviews with family members, what other resources did you use?

      • BB. M

        My grandmother told me about it, and my great-grandmother wrote a small book of memoirs about it. Otherwise, I have little in the way of factual information. Both of them have since passed.

        • brettearle

          Can the memoir be shared outside your family–like with a formal or official resource?

          • FrankensteinDragon

            would you leave her alone

          • brettearle

            You are totally and completely out of order.

            You DO not know what you’re talking about.

          • BB. M

            Everybody cool it. breattearle: If you provide me with some contact information I can try and get back to you.

          • brettearle

            My points had NOTHING, WHATSOEVER to do with my own need to verify your work.

            My points had ONLY to do with my own need to understand research in this area–so that I can make my own job easier….should I move ahead with my own understanding of my family’s plight during WWII.

            My question, about your memoir being shared, had to do with YOU MAKING IT AVAILABLE TO THE PUBLIC…for the public’s own posterity and edification.

            NOT for me, personally.

            The level of misinterpretation, here, from a few readers of my comments, is rather exquisite.

            And it is quite emblematic of how people talk past each other; are on short fuses of impatience; and are folly to dysfunctional political correctness.

          • FrankensteinDragon

            I am sorry but it was your tone, and my experience of so many people getting rather belligerent about such things. I admit I read it wrong–one reason why I hate texting and net-comunication. It lacks many dimensions of human communication. And I will be the first to admit I occasionally have a short fuse. The INternet tends to nurture one so. But I am anything but politically correct or dysfunctionally politically correct. When I wrote the first comment, I immediately thought you might have been enquiring for research but didn’t know how to take it back. But I dont think I am the only one that would interpret such terse language wrongly. Once again, sorry.

          • FrankensteinDragon

            maybe you are right. but your dry tone sets a mood. i apologize if I judged incorrectly. Peace.

      • FrankensteinDragon

        are you questioning her–seriously–do you think you have the only legitimate pain? please. enough already

        • brettearle

          I have NO idea what are you are talking about.

          Whatever negativity, that you are reading into my comments, comes–utterly and completely–from YOUR own Neurosis.

          Under different circumstances, I would ask for a formal apology; but I do not believe that, in this case, it is necessary:

          You have embarrassed yourself enough with this pathetic, blind, and ignorant reaction.

          • FrankensteinDragon

            Not embarrassed–and i apologize before i saw this comment. But I think I will take it back–your are neurotic and might I say very defensive.

          • brettearle

            Anyone who gets publicly called out, FALSELY, for supposedly questioning the legitimacy of someone else’s pain, associated with such an ungodly act as a GENOCIDE, would lack NOTICEABLE character, integrity, and ethics…..if he or she DIDN”T call out such ignorance and specifically and clearly repudiate such remarkable drivel.

            The fact that I am vehement has NOTHING to do with my personal defensiveness.

            It has EVERYTHING to do with being totally MISUNDERSTOOD, with regard to opinions and attitudes towards Mankind’s most ugliest and despicable act: A Genocide.

            And for you to simply defend yourself–regardless of your so-called apology–by going after my personal psychological integrity–by referring to my so-called personal defensiveness and so-called neurosis–is, in ITSELF, an outrage…..since we are considering the ultimate in Evil.

            All the Best to Your Plight of Twisted Values.

            You do not have a clue, my friend….

          • FrankensteinDragon

            ok my first assumption is absolutely correct–you need to calm down. you are totally unreasonable. You were clearly misunderstood because your language is terse. Writing 101. The internet is not a good way to communicate fore some people. Dont be so sensitive. And dont forget genocide is happening all around us and no one cares.. But they love to focus on the long ago past concerning one people. That bugs me. Remarkable drivel is what i see above.

    • FrankensteinDragon

      teachers, the Left, union organizers, gypsies, the disabled, etc, etc…

      I dont think people should always have to apologize for saying so…

      Nobody apologizes for killing the First Nation or before discussing anything to do with native american plights.

  • brettearle

    I’m in the same situation…..with my father’s side of the family.

    I was too preoccupied, years ago, to do interviews and take notes.

    I don’t know where to exactly begin on this.

  • brettearle

    How did they track you down?

  • Melissa Weisshaus

    This was a very interesting program; thank you! I wanted to comment re survivors being silent following the war and then not silent in older age.

    My father, born in 1928, is a holocaust survivor from Budapest, one of three in his family.  He came to the USA at 17 in 1946, went to college, went to Yale, for graduate school, and of all things went on to teach high school English for 30 years.  

    As a (foolish) young adult, I began to be interested in psychology. Among other things, I asked him over the course of many conversations over many years: why are you in denial about the loss of your family?  

    Finally one day, he looked at me deeply and replied: “Think about it.  How could I have done what I have done — gotten an education, gotten married, been a father to your brother and you, cooked, taken you to cello lessons, everything… if I had spent the last 40 years thinking in detail about what happened to my mother, father, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends…”  

    I have never thought about “denial” in the same way, since.

    I knew essentially nothing of my father’s life until I was in my 20s, because he was largely silent on the subject; part of this was the above, and part was fear of anti-semitism; and another part was his fear of being found out; he didn’t want to be sent back, and had no idea if there was a risk of that happening.  

    Now in his 80s, he is anything but silent!  He has written his own memoir, and he travels to schools telling his story at age-appropriate levels, his goal being to create more *witnesses*, so that the truth will live on and never again be repeated.  He definitely worries that other “holocausts” have happened, are happening, and will happen.

    • FrankensteinDragon

      Holocausts are happening now in america–millions without the rights to universal and equal health-care or education or jobs.

      We murdered in full on assault millions of indigenous peoples–the FIRst Nation and continue to destroy them. NO one stands for them. There are NO candlelight vigils, no ceremonies, no temples near the White HOuse. Nobody cares. Shame shame shame shame…but we love thanksgiving. Proud to be an american where eat least i’m free to kill as long as he’s not white and rich and sitting on pillows in his bank. All of this hoopla-ha year after year about JEws is fine and good but where is the eqaul awareness, sorrow and empathy for ‘others’. All of this hoopla-ha is about one thing–Israel. A zionist terrorist nation that has no legitimacy.

      We are NOT Israel. Stay out of our politics! and our affairs.

      • FrankensteinDragon

        this was not a reply to Melissa above. but a statement in general about what i see as a bit of blind discussion–one way.

  • FrankensteinDragon

    that is a false claim. I heard on another program about this topic–when the host implied the astonishing 70,000 years, the guest said it wasn’t that it would in fact fall on thursday twice more in something like a hundred and years and a thousand….check your facts. I am not Jewish and I don’t really think its that interesting that we should be talking about it. I wonder–should we have a religious Muslim symbol, ceremony or temple near the white house? What a statement that would make! How about an Iranian one. Religion in any form is bunk. Keep it in your home and out of my face.

    Oh wait–shhhh, don’t say–I’m not antisemitic. I love secular jews. I despise radical conservatives of all stripes.

    • FrankensteinDragon

      i’m referencing the caption under the photo and Hanukah at the White House. Even Christmas is secularized. It was never Christian for me. Easter is a lie. Easter is German goddess, a deity of nature, and fertility and renewal. SO even that is pagan and more about nature and the equinox. I say we raise a giant raven distribute candy on Hanukah and lets all go shopping–come on this is America! Land of malls and insurance. Moses was a mass murderer. as was Joshua and all the other in those dark books of genocide. Israel was built on genocide then and is now as well.

  • FrankensteinDragon

    I encourage moe native americans to write about their heritage–unfortunately most of it was covered up and denied. But we need people to rise and discuss this more. Too bad people ignore the First Nations.

  • FrankensteinDragon

    Was the Hamen of ancient times “Evil” or angry because the Jews massacred all their neighbors. That tends to make people get mid-evil. Would a lion make a sculpture of a man strangling a lion or a man under the paw of twenty lions?

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