The Family: A Journey Into The Heart of the Twentieth Century
By David Laskin



The WMBC poses the following questions and interview with Laskin by Elise Cooper of "The Prosen People". Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Any WMBC location numbers that might appear refer to the Kindle for iPad edition. We also highly recommend you visit Laskin's web site at for additional interviews where a PDF study guide can be found under the One Book One Community, Spertus Institute heading. Mahalo for visiting our site!

West Maui Book Club Review – “The pulse of history beats in every family, so writes Laskin, and there is no exception here. With a steady rhythm, he delivers a somber reconnection to a family tree lost to him through a lack of self interest and the ticking of time. And also because it had been uprooted by war, splintered by ambition and cut by country and continent. Laskin mends its deep and gapping wounds with the sap of his family's ambition, bravery, and immense success. He gives light to their tree's branches after suffering the worst and most funereal years in history. It is a mitzvah what Laskin has done here, for he has given his family's tree and its members who are long gone, a thorough fertilization of respect and understanding they so richly deserve. It is a tribute everyone should read.” Elaine G.

1) Laskin addresses in the interview below the issue of the American contingency of his family not doing enough to get the remainder of them out of Europe. But after reading his story, do you still have lingering questions about why, in particular, the very wealthy Etl (Ida) and Wolf (William) Rosenthal, of Maidenform notoriety did not become more involved?

2) Did you have any lingering questions about the actions or inactions of Shalom Tvi in influencing that?

3) Does Laskin’s story help you to better understand and/or appreciate the plight of the Jewish people back to Israel or over to America and beyond?

4) This is a tough question to ask but does it help you to better understand the many other brutal ways people died besides in Hitler's gas chambers? May they rest in peace.

5) Did Laskin's story shed enough light for you on the enormity of power by one man, Hitler, to bring such destruction to one race that it took the world to end?

6) Did Laskin's story shed enough light for you about Israel? It’s history as it relates to current events? What is similar or dissimilar?

7) Did Laskin's story shed enough light for you about Poland? It’s history as it relates to current events, especially with Russia's march into Ukraine? What is similar or dissimilar?

8) Did you take the time to look at the NOTES Laskin included about researching this story and his family tree? If so, discuss what you learned from them.

9) Have you seen your family’s tree or attempted to put together yours? If so, what did you find? What questions led you to begin the task? Talk about your research involved.

10) Did you find that Laskin’s family tree compares in any way to yours? If so, what are the similarities?

11) And for fun…the one question we’d love to ask to lighten the discussion…did you ever own a Maidenform bra, panty or product? And do you still?


Elise Cooper: Why did you decide to write about the "roots" of your family? David Laskin: I realized, after getting in touch with my Israeli relatives, that my family’s history was a history of the twentieth century. They had immigrated to the US and Israel as well as being a part of the Holo¬caust. My family reflected these movements. It is a book of how history swept up my family and changed us.

EC: Since it is a non-fiction book how did you make sure the informa¬tion and the recollections were accurate? DL: Since this book is partially based on my family’s memories, I cor¬roborated it with research. I used accounts given to me and compared them with people who wrote books and had similar experiences. I integrated and synthesized various sources.

EC: In the Jewish religion, women are in charge of the household, so does this quote from the book contradict that: "In the Russian annals of the family, the wives were all but silent. They worked, they sacri¬ficed, they looked after their families, they faded into their husbands’ shadows." DL: What I meant is that in the annals that is what has been recorded. The Russian annals of society had the women all but silent. I think this shows how there is a certain amount of sexism in the way history was told. It’s that their role was unheralded and underap¬preciated. But I also point out ‘Jewish mothers in the Pale were efficient managers, brilliant improvisers, shrewd negotiators, practiced schmoozers, nimble stretchers of every kopek. They juggled multiple tasks.’ In other words, while the men were doing G-d's work, women were running the household economically and socially.

EC: You point out the different experiences your family went through during the World War I era depending on where they lived. Can you explain? DL: Just look at how they were treated within the army of each country. In America and Germany, Jews were allowed to climb up in rank and become officers, which was not permitted in the Russian army. Many Jews were taken and marched off to die as they fought for Russia, the land of the pogrom. When Germany controlled the lands of Rakov and Volozhin there was little rape, plunder, or desecration of synagogues, and more tolerance for Jewish customs. The Germans were more hu¬mane and more accepting of Jewish rights at that time.

EC: Yet many of these same families ended up dying in the Holocaust. Is it because the wealthy American contingent did nothing? DL: It was a combination of things.The US State Department and the British placed restrictions on Jews immigrating to the US and Palestine. Once the war started, international travel became difficult to arrange. I state in the book that American relatives were blamed by their Eastern European relatives for ‘refusing to invite them and there is no evi¬dence that the relatives tried. But even had they done so, it’s unlikely they would have succeeded.’ I felt conflicted. There was a piece of me that thought my rich family should have done more, but I don’t think they turned their heads away completely. The question that comes to mind is ‘Did anyone really understand what was coming and know the real threat?’

EC: For your family that did immigrate earlier, were there two forks in the road, going to the US or Israel? DL: My family perfectly embodies the divide. Those com¬pelled by opportunity, comfort, and material success went to America. Those who were compelled by the ideology of wanting a Jewish homeland and that commitment went to Israel. Although my family in New York had a better standard of living, Sonia, a relative who did make aliyah to Israel, said how rich she became by living her dream and experiencing the re-birth of Israel. In writing this book, I became deeply moved by what the Jews had done in Israel.

EC: What do you want the readers to get out of The Family? DL: For my American Jewish readers I wish they would get an under¬standing of what our ancestors had to go through, especially the pio¬neers in Israel, their huge and inspiring idealism that spurred them to make sacrifices. The book Exodus by Leon Uris comes to mind. My hope is to inspire readers to research their own families’ roots.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national se¬curity articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

WMBC Discussion questions compiled by:
Elaine Gallant, Feb. 12, 2015
West Maui Book Club