An interview with David Laskin

The Family is about your own family, specifically your maternal grandfather’s generation of cousins. How well did you know the people you wrote about? Are there any stories or memories that got left out of the book?

Abraham and Sarah, my great-grandparents, died a decade before I was born, but I knew my grandfather Sam Cohen well. My grandfather and his siblings were all immigrants, their English was heavily accented, and they often spoke Yiddish when they got together. I was a typical suburban American kid of the 1950s and 1960s, so there was a pretty wide chasm between us. Looking back, I realize I didn’t know all that much about my grandparents’ lives before they came to the U.S. They were more interested in the present and the future than the past, and they rarely talked about the “Old Country.” Not once did I hear them mention the years of struggle on the Lower East Side.

I do remember that after Sam died, I came home from college to attend the funeral. I was up all night writing a paper, and when I went down to the kitchen to get a snack in the middle of the night, I found my grandmother sitting up and grieving. That was when she told me about what it was like to live through the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The story about how a humane, generous German officer was billeted with her family and how he later helped her get to America lodged in my mind. Many Jews had similar experiences with German troops in the Great War, which is why they were totally unprepared for the atrocities that the German committed in the next war.

As for Itel, Sam’s oldest sister and the founder of Maidenform, I remember going to her mansion on Long Island a couple of times—I was probably 8 or 9 years old—and being flabbergasted. They had a private beach! They had a ballroom! You could fish from their pier! Itel herself seemed almost like a queen—for an ordinary middle class child like me, it was more like an audience than a visit.

Since this is a family history, you presumably grew up hearing the stories you tell in The Family. Why did you choose to write the book now? Was there anything startlingly new that emerged in the course of your research?

Oddly, given how close my family is and how talkative we all are, large chunks of our history were utterly unknown to me. I was familiar with the Maidenform story, in rough form. I knew about the vicissitudes of A. Cohen & Sons (the business that my grandfather and his brothers founded), and I was aware that we had relatives in Israel, though I really had no idea of what Chaim and Sonia (my grandfather’s first cousins who immigrated to Palestine in the 1920s) endured during their first years there. But the real surprise was that we had relatives who perished in the Holocaust. This was something that was never discussed or alluded to when I was growing up. Once I learned that seventeen descendants of my great-great-grandfather were killed by Nazis, it suddenly dawned on me that we had the whole sweep of 20th century Jewish history in our family. That realization ignited the spark that became THE FAMILY.

How much were you able to find out about the lives and deaths of the relatives killed in the Holocaust?

Thanks to the Internet and the vast resources of JewishGen, I was able learn a great deal. JewishGen is the first place that anyone doing research into Jewish genealogy, life in Eastern Europe, or the Holocaust should visit online. On this site, I was able to find most of my relatives’ names on lists of the dead, I found Doba (Sonia’s sister) and her two sons in a census of the Vilna ghetto made by the Nazis in 1942, and I found detailed accounts of the killing of the Jews of Rakov and Volozhin, the two towns in present-day Belarus where my family lived. I found records of one my cousins who had been imprisoned at an Estonian slave labor camp called Klooga, and family names turned up in accounts left by survivors. So yes, I was able to piece together the stories of how all seventeen of my relatives died. In some cases, I had to fill in gaps or extrapolate, and I did come upon some conflicting bits of information. But I found out far more than I expected.

Writing about the Holocaust cannot have been easy, either professionally or emotionally. Talk about some of the challenges you faced in this part of the book.

No it was not easy, but it was important for me, as a person, as a Jew, to plunge into this history. I think there are two main hurdles we face in confronting the Holocaust today: one is that so much has been written it’s hard to know where to begin; the second, closely related, is that we believe we know as much as we need to and that there is really nothing new to learn.

The Holocaust is indeed a huge, and hugely written about, subject—but it is absolutely untrue, as I discovered immediately, that there is nothing new to say or discover. When I started the book, I had never heard of Ponar (the killing pits near Vilna where Doba’s husband Shabtai was shot), Klooga (the Estonian slave labor camp where my cousin was imprisoned and killed), or Sobibor (where Doba was murdered). I had thought that the majority of the killings happened in gas chambers at Auschwitz,but in fact, more Jews died of bullets and fire than by poison gas.

The USC Shoah Foundation has done a fantastic job of assembling video interviews with Holocaust survivors, and these are a treasure trove of intimate, sometimes unbearably painful, accounts of life and death under the Nazi occupation. I watched Shoah Foundation interviews about Klooga and Vilna during the war, and learned a tremendous amount.

That said, of course doing this kind of research is soul-wrenching. I had nightmares repeatedly during the time I spent researching and writing these chapters. And I still wrestle with the fundamental question of why the Shoah happened.

The family letters you quote from in the book are incredibly vivid and moving. Talk about how you discovered these letters. Were there certain letters that you found especially revealing, painful or disturbing?

During my first trip to Israel, literally hours after I arrived there with my daughter Emily, our cousin Benny mentioned that he had hundreds of family letters and postcards that his mother Sonia had given him. The problem was that the letters were in Yiddish—a language that neither Benny nor any of the Israeli relatives knows. It took a couple of years, but eventually Benny and I had all of the letters translated into both Hebrew and English. This was an amazing gift. The letters provide an intimate portrait of life in Poland during the decade from 1932 until the Nazis invaded in the summer of 1941. Doba, my grandfather’s cousin, was married and living in Vilna with two young sons when the war broke out in September, 1939. She was frantic to get out—either to the U.S. or Palestine. Doba’s letters describe the city filling with refugees, the ghostly ranks of unemployed men, the stories of atrocities told by Jews who had fled the Nazis. She begged and begged the American relatives to get her and her family out of Poland.

I think one of the reasons my family never talked about the Holocaust was the guilt they felt over Doba and the other relatives who were killed. They did send money, they did hire a lawyer, but they failed to get Doba and her family out. Maybe it was impossible. Maybe they hit a bureaucratic roadblock. Maybe they were too absorbed by their own lives. No one knew then how dire the situation would become—so maybe they thought Doba was overreacting. Anyway, Doba remained in Poland and was killed in 1943.

The failure of American Jews to do more for their fellow Jews in Europe during the Holocaust is a hugely fraught and painful subject. My family letters shed their own small rays of light on this dark chapter.

Your recent books, The Children’s Blizzard and The Long Way Home, tell the stories of ordinary people caught up in historic events beyond their control, be it blizzards or war. You take a similar approach in The Family, writing about immigration, the founding of the Jewish state, two world wars, revolution and the Holocaust. Was the experience of writing fundamentally different because this time the people were your own flesh and blood?

Short answer: No. Longer answer: Well, in some ways. The big challenge in writing historical narrative non-fiction is trying to imagine how someone long dead thought and felt and reacted in moments of crisis. What was going through the children’s minds when they first realized they were lost in the storm? Were the young immigrant men bitter in 1917 when they were called up to fight in the U.S. Army even though they were not yet American citizens? What was daily life like for Doba and her two sons in the Vilna ghetto—did they bicker? did they weep together? were there any moments of joy?

What was different this time is that I share the DNA of the people I was writing about. I know what their holidays and rituals were. I know the kinds of jokes they told, what their aspirations were, what delighted them and what they groused about. With family, there is a connection at some deep cellular level. When I gaze into the eyes of their photographs, I see expressions I have known all my life. And for this reason, it was easier for me to put myself in their shoes, imagine their reactions, extrapolate from my experience to theirs. There is always a certain amount of guess-work and intuition involved when writing about the inner life of a person in crisis: with family, these educated guesses and intuitive hunches operate at a far deeper level.

The story you tell of struggling immigrants who come to this country in search of freedom and opportunity and better lives is really universal. Itel, of course, succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, but all of your family enjoyed some version of the American dream. What does The Family have to say to today’s immigrants? What is different, what is the same about the American dream that immigrants aspire to today?

We have always been a nation of immigrants and that is just as true today as it was a century ago when my family came. Nowadays the immigrants are more likely to come from Southeast Asia and Central and South America than from Eastern and Southern Europe, but their motives and dreams and aspirations are exactly the same as those that propelled my family to cross the Atlantic in steerage. When I travel around the country on book tours or for articles, I am always amazed at the diversity of our population— not only in the big cities, but everywhere. I have seen Hmong in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Somalis in Sioux Falls, Eritreans here in Seattle. Despite the differences in appearance, language, beliefs and technology, these recent arrivals remind me of my grandparents. They work incredibly hard; they have an unshakable faith that America is the land of opportunity; they look to the future, not the past; they are proud that their children are American, but they are also proud to pass down their own cultures and traditions.

The story I tell in The Family is about my family, but it is really a universal story that speaks to the plight of all people who have left, or have been forced to leave, their native countries. Today’s immigrants come by jet rather than steamer; Ellis Island is now a museum, not a processing center; today, suburbs are as likely to house large immigrant communities as inner city slums. But the pressures and historic forces remain the same. Genocide continues. Political oppression and racism still uproot millions of people. America, for all of its political gridlock and economic belt-tightening, is still the land of opportunity. The names are different, the countries of origin are different from the Ellis Island generation that I am descended from, but recent arrivals to the United States will read The Family with a deep sense of recognition.

Let’s talk about research. Obviously your prime sources were family stories, but there is a huge amount of big history here as well. How and where did you do the research? Was there a lot of travel involved?

I’ll start with travel. As soon as I committed to writing the book, I went to Israel—my first time ever—to meet with the Israeli branch of the family and see the places where their parents lived. We interviewed old settlers; we went to historical societies and archives to dig up old records; we sat around their kitchen tables endlessly with old photos, trying to sort out all the details. During my second trip to Israel, four of my relatives there decided to join me and my oldest daughter on what they called a “roots trip” back to where our family had lived and died in Belarus and Lithuania. We saw the pits at Ponar where Shabtai had been shot and where his corpse was buried; we saw the gap in the wooden houses at Rakov where the synagogue once stood—the synagogue that had been torched with our relatives inside; we stood outside the apartment buildings in Vilna where Doba had lived. To me, it is essential to see and touch and smell the places I am writing about.

Beyond that, I spent a lot of time in archives, notably Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and YIVO in New York City. I used the fantastic library systems we have at our disposal here in Seattle. I spent countless hours on and JewishGen. I wrote away to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for family records (I hit the jackpot on my third try). I was thrilled, along with thousands of other genealogy nuts, when the 1940 census was released last year.

Last but by no means least were the interviews with family members. When I set out to write the book, four members of my grandfather’s generation of cousins were still alive (now there are three) and I made it my first priority to interview them. They were or are all in their nineties, but their memories were sharp and their interest in the subject keen. One shared a diary she had written during World War II. One had spent his career working for Maidenform and knew Itel well. One had seen action in Africa and Sicily during the war. These interviews were priceless—and I came to realize that I have a lot of wonderful relatives I had never met.

Of the family members you write about but never met, which one do you most wish you had gotten to know?

I would have to say Sonia. She experienced so much in leaving Poland for Palestine as a young woman, she lost so much during the war, she was so close to my grandparents in the last years of her life. I was in my forties when Sonia died in 1996—so it would not have been difficult to fly to Israel and meet her—but for some reason it never occurred to me then.

I have become extremely close to Sonia’s children and grandchildren in Israel during the course of researching and writing the book. It was as if I discovered a whole new family that I never knew about. This makes me regret all the more poignantly the loss of the branch that was killed in the Shoah. Shimonkeh (who was shot and burned at the age of sixteen) was two years younger than my mother; his brother Velveleh would have been 81 this year had he not been murdered at the age of ten. I often imagine what it would be like to visit them in Vilna (now called Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania), have a coffee, talk about our relatives, the memories we have in common.

The Maidenform story is so delicious and stands in such vivid contrast to the more somber elements of the book. How much did you know about Maidenform growing up? Did any big surprises turn up in the research?

I never knew that Maidenform’s first customers were saucy Broadway showgirls who dared to “uplift” at a time when most stylish women were flattening their chests (it was the flapper era). I never knew the company survived the war years by getting a “declaration of essentiality” from the Army (“Women workers who wore an uplift were less fatigued,” asserted Itel, and the generals bought it) or that the company won a contract from the Air Force to make pouches that paratroopers could use to transport homing pigeons into battle. I never knew that Irving Penn and Richard Avedon were among the photographers on Maidenform’s famous “Dream” campaign. It turns out that Aunt Itel was a genius at branding! She was a pioneer in advertising and she didn’t care that stodgy prudes were shocked by photos of slinky women in skimpy outfits—if it sold more bras, she was for it. She was also a fiend for quality and the combination of quality and brand name was irresistible to the bra-wearing consumer.

The more I learned about Maidenform, the more it amazed me that my Aunt Itel arrived as a teenager at Ellis Island with $5 in her pocket and ended up a major tycoon. Only in America.

Itel was thirty-eight years old when she started Maidenform. What if she were a thirty-eight-year-old immigrant today? With that spirit, that ambition, that flair for business, what would she be doing now?

If I could answer that, I wouldn’t be writing books—I’d be applying for a patent for some cool new invention that would make a fortune. Itel had the genius of zeroing in on the right product at the right time—a genius for perfecting and marketing a product that people didn’t know they needed but quickly found indispensable—like smart phones. Whatever combination of genes went into that particular kind of genius, I did not, alas, inherit it.

How did writing The Family change you?

Part of the reason I never met Sonia, never recorded my grandfather’s stories or my grandmother’s recipes is that I took family for granted. Other people had interesting families, thoroughbred pedigrees, important encounters with history—my family was nothing special. Writing the book made me appreciate, belatedly I’ll confess, what epic journeys my grandparents and their generation made. It made me realize how much we have in common under our exterior differences. I have come to feel a deep reverence for our family, our origins and our religion. My grandparents never went back to Belarus or Lithuania, but I think they would have been proud that I did—and even prouder that I did the trip with our Israeli relatives. I think they would have loved this book.

Writing the book has made me proud to belong to the family I was born into and proud to have had the opportunity to tell their story. So I guess at the most fundamental level, I have ceased to take family for granted. Our relatives—our heritage—our history are priceless gifts. This book is my way of saying thank you.

What do you hope readers will take away from The Family?

We all have amazing family stories and wrenching encounters with history. All of our ancestors have made and endured epics of love and death. My hope is that readers will look at their own families in a new light, that my book will help them recognize what their own parents and grandparents endured and created. Our families may not make it into history textbooks, but that doesn’t mean they did not make history. History has made and broken all of our families. When readers turn the last page of The Family, my hope is that the next volume they pick up will be the family photo album or scrapbook.