Journalist David Laskin has spent his career researching other people's stories, but it wasn't until he got talking to his mother a couple of years ago that he realized the best story was the one right in front of him.
The descendant of Jewish immigrants from the western fringe of what was then Russia, Laskin traced three distinct branches of his far-flung family, branches that spread from Russia to the Holocaust to the founding of Israel and to the American Dream. What he discovered and how he discovered it are the subject of his fascinating book, The Family.
Laskin sat down with me in New York to discuss its genesis.
Sara Nelson: Before you wrote this book, you didn't know much about your family except that you had one rather glamorous great-aunt, Itel (Ida) Rosenthal, who founded the Maidenform company. How did you go from that knowledge to a history of three branches -- one in Israel and one in Russia during the Holocaust?
David Laskin: I always knew I had this glamorous, very successful aunt. When I was 7 or 8, I went to my Aunt Itel's mansion on Long Island Sound, and they had a picture of Versailles; that that's what it looked like to me. They had a private beach, a ball room. It's not like we were paupers but ... Itel was someone I would brag about. It was maybe a little weird for a little boy to brag about his aunt, the bra tycoon, but I remember thinking it was cool that this was my family. And she was very generous. She would send us $10 for Hanukkah, which, back in 1957, seemed like a lot of money.
SN: Still, you say in the book that the whole story opened up for you when you went to Israel for the first time and talked to your relatives there…
DL: I knew I had some cousins in Israel, and maybe I'd met them once or twice, but when I got interested in writing a book about the family, I contacted them and they sent me a link to a Web site in which there were pictures of their parents and them as kids and then all of the relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. And it was really when I was looking at that Web site, at these pictures of little boys in sailor suits and little girls with ribbons in their hair who were the same age as my mother -- who is alive and well -- and I thought, "Whoa!" It was one of those moments -- and maybe all books start this way -- when the lightbulb goes off and I thought, "Oh, wow, there are the three major strands of 20th century Jewish history in my family tree..."
SN: A lot of writers say it can be tricky to write about family, that people have reactions you didn't intend or expect. How has the reaction been with your relatives?
DL: Fantastic for the most part. My wife read the manuscript first, and came downstairs in tears. I don't like to see my wife cry, but that was a good sign. My mother loved it. I had never been that close with my [extended] family when I was growing up. But now ... Meeting my cousin Benny in Israel was the happiest surprise of this book; I've made a lifelong friend. We had this great bond: our love and passion and obsession for family history. Benny's wife says he was waiting for me all his life, that I was the trigger to tell the story. He had 281 letters from family members, but he'd never read them because they were in Yiddish. He had interviewed the family, but had never written up the interviews. After I came back from Israel, where I met him for the first time, I wrote a story about it and I think he was just so honored, so enraptured by the project. I had made a friend who became a partner.
SN: You seem to have struck a nerve with the book; it comes at a time when the whole country, it seems, is obsessed with its roots, a time when Ancestry.com is booming...
DL: I think what motivates me as a writer is trying to capture the insides of people when they're in moments of historical crisis, the decisions they make in those moments and the grief or the triumph that they feel. I think the best books are really, really particular but also have a universal appeal. I'm a genealogy-crazy person, but if I can research my family history, you can research yours. We're a nation of immigrants. My greatest hope is that when people finish the book, they'll say: "I want to research my family history." Whether you were in WWII or in the Irish Potato Famine. Whether you are Native American or were slaves. That's what makes this a universal story.