Seattle author David Laskin unearths a hidden family history
An interview with David Laskin. His book “The Family” is the true story of what he discovered about his family — the branch that achieved gilded success in America, the branch that settled in Palestine (now Israel) and the branch lost to the Holocaust.
Seattle Times book editor
The author of “The Family” will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 4, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Free (206-366-3333; thirdplacebooks.com).
Sometimes a false trail can lead to a true story. For Seattle author David Laskin, the road to the publication of his latest book began with an unfounded rumor — that one of Stalin’s notorious henchmen was a distant relative.
It wasn’t true, but what Laskin unearthed instead has turned into publishing gold. His new book “The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century” (Viking), was published this month to glowing reviews. It’s the true story of what he discovered about his family — the branch that achieved gilded success in America, the branch that settled in Palestine (now Israel) and the branch lost to the Holocaust.
Laskin is one of just three local authors to have won the Washington State Book Award three times (the other two, according to the Washington Center for the Book, are Seattle author Timothy Egan and University of Washington professor David Montgomery). Though his other books have been well-received, “The Family” has achieved critical mass nationally — two major publishers vied for the rights to publish it.
Laskin will appear Monday night at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. He answered some questions about how it feels to turn your family’s story into literature:
Q: I would think long and hard before I used my family’s genealogy as the basis for a book. At what point did this turn from an object of personal exploration into a literary project?
A: The moment it clicked was when I found out about the Holocaust story. I knew about my aunt (Ida Rosenthal) who founded the Maidenform bra company, and I knew a little about the Israeli relatives ... but when I contacted the Israelis, they told me about the Holocaust relatives.
They had a website with photos of all the family members killed in the Holocaust. It was when I was looking at those photos, these little boys playing chess with their dad, on their bicycles ... my mother had never talked about it. I don’t know, it just never came up.
Q: Talk about the role of primary documents in your search, such as the trove of letters you discovered, written in Yiddish, which had never been read by your generation.
A: There were 281 letters in all [the letters were primarily from a relative trapped in Vilna, now Vilnius in Lithuania, between the World Wars, and from Shalom Tvi, father of children in Eastern Europe and in Israel, who became stranded in America right before World War II].
[Shalom’s] correspondence is really interesting and heartbreaking. Those letters were an unbelievably lucky break.
I had landed [in Israel], and my cousin Benny said, “I’ve got these letters, but nobody has ever read them, because they’re in Yiddish.” ... Then I got them, but they had been translated into Hebrew. There was a little bit of a double translation job, Yiddish to Hebrew to English.
It’s really the last trace of these people who were killed. It’s a very intimate trace. They were written every week, this child is sick, the weather is bad, but when the war starts they really get intense.
Q: Describe Ida [Itel] Rosenthal’s transition from a socialist firebrand in Europe to a queen of capitalism in America.
A: I think Itel was somebody who just did it her own way. There are people like this that are just forces of nature.
She drifted into a different kind of revolution when she got to the States. She had the foresight to look way down the road. One of the many wonderful things about this country is that people like her can make it.
She commanded huge respect in the family. People said, “Well, if Itel said it, that’s it.” I remember my grandparents playing cards with her; it was pretty important that Itel had to win.
Q: You write: “Our parents and grandparents could not bear to tell the story of the branch that was destroyed.” But you, with the help of your cousins, could and did bear it. What enabled you to do it?
A: It is fairly common for survivors of genocide, be it Rwanda or Bosnia or what have you, to have a very similar approach. The first generation does not talk about it. It’s taboo, it’s too painful, there’s survivors’ guilt.
My mother, she loved the book, and she loved the fact that I wrote the book, but early on I said, “Mom, I have this incredible website of all the relatives that were killed.” She said, “Oh, I will look at it sometime.”
She lived downstairs from Shalom Tvi for seven years. To have this man who was this ghost, who was experiencing this tragedy.
For me it was amazing to find that Benny was totally on board. He was very history minded and very reverent. We were of the right generation that we could face it together. More than facing it together, it was a mission.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's "Well Read," discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.