In the second decade of the twenty-first century, we are not yet done with the ghosts and demons of the twentieth. Even as the great cataclysms of the “terrible century” recede in time, recent years have given rise to a growing body of third-generation literature, written mostly (although not only) by the indirect heirs of World War II and the Holocaust, and often driven by a haunted sense of an enormous but largely unknown past.
Mark Mazower’s What You Did Not Tell can be seen as belonging to this genre, but it is an unusual and exceptionally interesting example of it. Like many third-generation memoirs, Mazower’s exploration of the past proceeds from the need to decode what was left unspoken in the previous generation, and from his realization, made more poignant after his father’s death, of how much he didn’t know about his family’s Russian past. Mazower, however, is not only a grandson of Russian émigrés but one of today’s leading historians of Europe; and while most third-generation memoirs pursue the often slender thread of intergenerational memory, he excavates, through rigorous research and tenacious sleuthing, the history of a family whose lives spanned the entire twentieth century, and whose fates were closely interwoven with its many ideological terrors and violent upheavals.
It is an odyssey that extends from prerevolutionary Vilna to the Soviet Union and postwar Paris and London, and that Mazower recounts through a succession of individual, thickly contextualized life stories. The enigmatic figure at its center is his paternal grandfather, Max, a man so secretive or laconic that the most basic facts of his past remained unknown to his wife and son, but whose impenetrable persona belied a life of almost fantastical turbulence and drama. One wonders if Mazower felt that he struck historian’s gold in uncovering this ancestor’s picaresque saga, which provides a point of entry for his picture of Jewish life in the tsarist empire and his fascinating account of Russia’s prerevolutionary struggles before their outcome was foreseeable or clear.
Max began his life in 1873 or 1874 in the town of Grodno, in the shifting territory that belonged to Poland before that country’s partition in the late eighteenth century, but was then transferred to Russian rule and the so-called Pale of Settlement—an area to which most of the Russian Empire’s Jews were confined. By the time he was growing up there, most of the town’s inhabitants were Jewish, many of them living in abject poverty. When his father died, fourteen-year-old Max, with his mother and two brothers, decided to relocate to the more metropolitan city of Vilna, hoping for better prospects. Max became the family’s main breadwinner, working as a clerk in a shipping company and quickly rising, by dint of reliable character and energy, to the position of manager of his employer’s personal affairs.
He also soon assumed impeccably bourgeois dress and manners, which marked him as a Russian intelligent—and which effectively camouflaged another, clandestine existence. By the time he was in his twenties, Max was an important member of the Bund, an illegal organization that is now largely forgotten, but that was a significant presence and force in Russia’s early anti-tsarist politics. Formally named the General Jewish Workers’ Union in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, the Bund advocated the cause of impoverished Jewish workers; and within the increasingly fractious sphere of leftist parties and factions, it represented the most egalitarian alternative: inclusive, socialist in its convictions, and eschewing the idea of a single charismatic leader.
The language the organization adopted was Yiddish, spoken by the vast majority of the Jewish population in Russia (Max’s knowledge of Russian marked him as a member of the Jewish elites); but the Bund was secular and nonnationalist in its outlook, and particularly at moments of revolutionary rebellion, it was joined by Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish workers who lived in various regions of the tsarist empire. In 1905, the Bund’s membership—in what today strikes us as an astonishing statistic—far outnumbered the enrollment in the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, which at that point included, under Lenin’s leadership, both the Bolshevik and the Menshevik factions.
Mazower clearly has great sympathy for the Bund’s vanished world, and he cites an evocative Yiddish word, mishpokhedikayt, or a sense of family, to suggest the kind of attachment it commanded among its leading members. Max was not a visible leader, but his commitment to the Bund was clearly unswerving. As a member of its inner circle, he was likely to have met most of the prominent figures of the Marxist (as it then identified itself) left, including Lenin; and he probably participated in meetings in which the Bund decided to break away from Lenin’s increasingly demagogic party in order to protect the idea of “cultural autonomy” and its particular cause.
But he was also an effective organizer and writer of powerful polemical pamphlets, as well as a translator of literary works into Yiddish—including “The Gadfly,” a revolutionary tale by the Anglo-Irish novelist Ethel Voynich, whose protagonist was apparently based on Sidney Reilly, a Russian-born adventurer-spy (or maybe it was the other way around). The story continued its successful course in the Soviet Union and Communist China (not to speak of the novels of Ian Fleming, who took Reilly as a model for James Bond).
Max’s own illicit activities led to all the incidents that constitute the tropes of political thrillers and that Mazower tracks in the detailed manner of a detective: secret drop-off points for seditious publications, police interrogations, gun smuggling and illegal border crossings, as well as stints of grim Siberian confinement followed by daring escapes. Perhaps his greatest act came in 1905—the year of the first, long-awaited Russian revolution—when he was sent to the Polish city of Łódź to help coordinate the Bund’s activities there.
Mazower’s account gives us a measure of what was involved in political activism of that earlier time. Łódź, known as the “Polish Manchester” for its numerous textile mills, was a tricultural city, inhabited by Poles, Jews, and some Germans. Today’s visitors to the city can still see traces of its industrial past in the factories and workers’ housing preserved as historical exhibits, as well as the extravagant mansions of German and Jewish industrialists, which still stand intact. What these eloquent sites show are working conditions that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, were nothing short of murderous.
In 1905, the workers of Łódź staged a rebellion that crossed ethnic and religious lines and involved, in Mazower’s words, “some of the most extraordinary scenes of insurrection seen anywhere in Russia before the 1917 revolutions.” The Russian authorities responded by sending in Cossack forces, whose clashes with the insurgents led to as many as two thousand casualties, and who, in an infamous incident, shot into a group of children, killing one of them. Max responded with a fierce proclamation, which Mazower quotes at length: “The Asiatic autocracy,” he wrote, referring to the tsarist regime with this damning phrase,
was able this time simply to destroy its enemy, and in fact quite easily. It’s true that the enemy…consisted of a horde of little children who were outside in the carefree Sabbath daylight…singing joyous revolutionary songs and shouting “Down with autocracy!” It is unbelievable but these are the facts. Young children were shot for no reason other than because they are living in a time of revolution.
The revolution, however, failed, and was followed by the rise of right-wing extremism, pogroms, and anti-Jewish riots. In 1907, after another stint in Siberia and another coolheaded escape, Max decided to break with political activism and head west.
Mazower’s portrait of Max in his Bund period is a study in political conviction, which he finds exemplary today, when “people seem to be too chastened and paralyzed by their suspicion of social utopias…to want to fight for anything much at all beyond the perfection of their own souls.” The subsequent period in his narrative tells a less decipherable story: following his escape, Max was rather improbably offered the job of opening up the Russian market for the London-based Yost Typewriter Company, and his work as its enterprising representative once again took him to Russia, where he lived intermittently until the 1917 revolution. That defining event, which installed the Bolsheviks firmly in power, was shortly followed by another round of repressions, particularly targeting Jewish activists. Max was once again arrested and released, possibly with the help of former Bundist comrades who included—such was the roller coaster of revolutionary politics—Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the head of Lenin’s dreaded secret police, the Cheka. This time, after yet another dangerous border crossing, “in the company of a group of smugglers and black marketeers,” Max made his way to Paris and finally to London, where he remained until his death in 1952.
The second half of his life was startlingly different from the first. Capacious, accommodating London had a tradition of sheltering Russian émigrés and other dissidents fleeing political persecution (think of Tom Stoppard’s trilogy The Coast of Utopia, with its cast of anarchists and early revolutionaries). A refugee from the Red Terror could do worse—indeed, he could hardly do better—than settle in the bucolic precincts of Highgate and Hampstead Heath. There Max was joined by his wife, Frouma, herself an exile from Russian turmoil, with whom he spent the rest of his life. Karl Marx was buried nearby; and other Bundists arriving in London, some of them from Poland, often met in the Mazower household, described by visitors as a “warm, socialist home,” despite Max’s persistently withdrawn style.
London was one of the places where the Bund—a major protagonist of Mazower’s chronicle—lived its lingering afterlife, and his evocations of its transplanted milieu are marked by admiration for the aging comrades’ “ethos of solidarity,” which lasted until the end of the twentieth century, and which he witnessed in action in some of their later meetings and commemorations. In Russia, however, this once-important movement was effectively dead, and after the Red Terror, a newly minted crime known as “the idealization of the Bund”—the Bolsheviks were nothing if not inventive in creating the phraseology of ideological sins—could spell exile in the Gulag or worse.
It is worth noting another strand in that unique movement’s story: in Poland, the Bund was legalized when the country regained its independence after World War I, and it was a vital voice in its interwar Jewish politics. During World War II, it played an important part in anti-Nazi resistance; and in 2009, the funeral of Marek Edelman, a Bundist and the last surviving fighter of the Warsaw Ghetto, was attended by two thousand people, including many Polish dignitaries.
During the 1940s, it fell to a Polish Bundist, Shmuel Zygielboym, who was a member of the Polish government in exile, to bring news of the Holocaust out of Poland. Zygielboym’s tragic story is told by Mazower in a separate chapter: after trying and failing to alert the world to the fate of Jews, he committed suicide in the forlorn hope that this might move governments to intervene in the atrocity. It didn’t, of course. Mazower speculates that the unfolding horror of the Holocaust, in which one of Max’s brothers and his family were murdered, was the final blow, after which Max retreated into an even deeper silence.
Mazower pursues the man behind the silence with impressive zeal. He leaves no archival page unturned, no literary allusion unmentioned, no personal reference unexamined. Max’s stint at the Yost company prompts a condensed history of the typewriter; his business relations with Russia, which continued after the revolution, lead Mazower to investigate the hypothetical possibility that he might have been a spy, and to a vignette of Maxim Litvinov, a Soviet commissar of foreign affairs, whom he sees as Max’s Bolshevik alter ego. Mazower also describes his own, much later encounter with an aged woman named Vera Broido, whom he identifies as a bookish girl who accompanied Max on his final escape, and who later became the much-photographed muse of the Dadaist Raoul Hausmann in Weimar.
Much of this is intriguing in itself, but the mosaic of digressions, errant encounters, and trails of association can be difficult to piece together, and Max remains throughout an elusive figure. The Sebaldian photographs of him scattered through the pages convey an eerie remoteness or a kind of absence, and amid all the exhaustive details of his story, Mazower has little access to his grandfather’s internal life.
The subsequent chapters, which follow the lives of Max’s relatives and descendants, are both less intricate in their narrative trajectories and less distanced in their portrayals. The research in each chapter continues to be formidable, and the quantities of information and famous and lesser-known names—from Harold Laski to Baron de Hirsch, from Walter Benjamin to Emma Goldman—can seem distracting or even gratuitous. But in these studies of émigré lives and fates, Mazower enters the era of living memory, and they offer often moving insights into the long aftermath of displacement and the various kinds of adjustment to this not always unhappy condition.
The portrait of Max’s wife, Frouma, is one of the warmest in Mazower’s family album, and is enlivened by the recollections of his father, her English-born son, on whom she lavished intense affection, and details garnered from her correspondence. As communicative as Max was taciturn, she was described by an old Bundist friend as “the most gentle and affectionate person we met in our wanderings,” and in the setting of Highgate’s new “garden village,” she created for her family an atmosphere of comfortable domesticity, at times working to add to the household income. For her, the personal was at least as important as the political; she was anxiously concerned about far-flung family members, writing numerous letters to her sisters in Paris and relatives in the Soviet Union—the latter often in a kind of informal code in order not to put their safety at risk.
She would have had a good idea of the dangers they faced from her own life, which had its share of hazardous vicissitudes: an early marriage to a charming but irresponsible gambler and political opportunist who made her situation precarious; a tumultuous journey from Moscow to Crimea with her three-year-old daughter (reminiscent of Nabokov’s flight, described in Speak, Memory); and an astonishing episode in which all of her coworkers were assassinated on sheer whim by anti-Bolshevik Whites, which she escaped only by dint of accidental absence.
Despite this, she was initially nostalgic for Russia and the Russian language (that great object of Nabokov’s love). But she lived to see yet another turn in history’s wheel that enabled her, during the thaw of the Khrushchev era, to visit relatives in the Soviet Union. It must have been a bittersweet reunion, filled with the knowledge of lives lost to the brutalities of war, political repression, and even family betrayal; and the visit disabused her of whatever homesickness remained, cementing her attachment to England and a sense of reconciled acceptance. Her later years were tranquil and filled with family affection. “As for love surrounding me,” she wrote touchingly, “I sometimes feel that I have more of it than necessary.”
In reflecting on his grandparents’ lives, Mazower speaks of the losses and “invisible psychic struggles” that follow from emigration. But as he also notes, Max and Frouma did not fit any of the usual categories we apply to immigrants today. Their sensibilities were formed by the culture of “the Russian intelligentsia,” and what might perhaps be called an international leftist aristocracy. They moved easily in London’s cultivated, cosmopolitan circles, which allowed them to mingle equally with Russian expatriates—including, probably, some Bolsheviks who were also not immune to Hampstead’s charms—and notable English figures. They neither emphasized their Jewishness nor tried to disguise it. But then they lived in an era when “identity” was perhaps less of a narrow tribal box, and among the difficulties of their lives, anxieties about “who they were” did not seem to play a part. The Polish poet Wisława Szymborska has said, “We know ourselves only as far as we’ve been tested.” Max and Frouma had both been tested greatly, and their agility in adapting to new worlds suggests an internal stability forged in the most difficult circumstances.
The vignettes of their offspring from previous relationships, both of whom were transplanted in early childhood, suggest more troubled emotional lives. André, “the black sheep” of the family, may or may not have been Max’s legitimate son, and his rejection of Max’s paternity was played out in the starkest ideological terms. He converted to Catholicism, and after attending Corpus Christi College, where he caught the attention of no less a personage than T.S. Eliot, he relocated to Franco’s Spain and began to publish viciously anti-Semitic journals and tracts. This is the kind of cross-generational ricochet that is becoming once again troublingly familiar; yet Mazower comes to discern in André’s story not only the unpleasantness of reactionary convictions, but the poignancy of a lifelong search for his mother, whom he probably saw only once or twice after the age of three.
The mother, to whom Mazower refers as Max’s “most tightly guarded” secret, was Sofia Krylenko, the sister of Nicolai Krylenko, the prosecutor general of the Soviet Union, and herself an ardent revolutionary of the most radical kind, in whom ideological and psychological extremes seemed to meet to make for a kind of double madness. She probably met Max in Paris, before he left for London. But on her return to the Soviet Union, and engaging in highly inconvenient subversive activities that at one point almost led to her sister’s death—the chapter devoted to her charts yet another map of unexpected political schisms and alliances—she was diagnosed as schizophrenic and spent her last years in one of the country’s most hellish psychiatric prison hospitals.
Frouma’s daughter Ira took a different route from André’s. After leaving Russia with her mother at the age of six, having already witnessed some of its horrors, she decided she wanted all the goods that “the capitalist West” had to offer—glamour, elegance, a good marriage, and expensive cars—and found a way to get quite a few of them. She wrote kitschy romances about tsarist Russia, and her penchant for high fashion got her prestigious jobs at magazines such as Woman’s Own. In her parents’ high-minded milieu, such lowbrow success was viewed with considerable condescension. But to a contemporary reader, she comes across as a vivid and appealingly resourceful figure. The passages of her writing quoted in What You Did Not Tell show a sharp and realistic intelligence, and as with André, Mazower is forced to reappraise Ira’s character, especially after her death by suicide.
It is with the extended chapters devoted to his own father, however, that “the journey home” of Mazower’s subtitle reaches its promised destination. William, or Bill, was the first member of the Mazower family to have been born in London, and perhaps as a result of his life’s unprecedented continuities—he spent most of his life in the area in which his parents had settled—he combined an easy biculturalism with an equally effortless Anglicization. He spoke Russian well and often visited Frouma’s sisters in Paris, eventually taking his son—the future historian—with him, to what was a second family base. Bill imbibed from all his relatives a vivid interest in Russia and continued the family tradition of political engagement through activities in the Labour Party (in whose postwar incarnation, Mazower notes, the Bundists might have found an unlikely fulfillment of their own aspirations).
But for Max’s son, growing up in the temperate climate of interwar England, ideology as a source of identity was supplanted by something very English—a sense of place. He took pride in the knowledge of his own neighborhood and its exact topography, but he also loved gardens and rambles through the countryside with friends and retained an intense attachment to certain English landscapes he visited and returned to.
Early on, Mazower tells us that his memoir sprang from a “double loss—Dad’s death and the vanishing of the London I had known as a boy,” and the last sections of the book, in which he draws on his elegiac memories of the places he shared with his father and their quietly close relationship, are the most personal in the book. But he remains a reserved biographer throughout, and admits that in conversations with Bill, he “did not probe very deeply because I suppose I have more admiration and respect than I perhaps should for the ethos that underpinned his reticence.” It is a very English sense of boundaries, and instead of intruding on his privacy, Mazower tries to reimagine his father’s inner and outer life by following his footsteps in great detail: an evacuation in adolescence from wartime London, a carefree year at Balliol College, the disruption of his studies by wartime service—although he did not see action—and a stint as an officer in Hamburg where he was distressed by his fellow officers’ penchant for drink and luxury, and the Germans’ denial of what had happened.
Eventually—after returning to Oxford, where he did not enjoy his studies in politics, philosophy, and economics—Bill chose to follow his more practical proclivities. And after the shock of his own father’s death, he opted for the stability of a position at the engineering firm Lever, which he retained for the rest of his life. He married and had four sons, but apparently what he most cherished was the solitude of his garden and the practical tasks of making and repairing radios and other objects in his well-tended shed.
At several points in his memoir, Mazower distances himself rather bravely from notions of trauma, so prevalent in our thinking about character, and particularly the inheritance of difficult histories. “What would it be,” he asks in the book’s last chapter, “to tell the story of a life that illustrated…a different, much older theme: the pursuit of contentment and well-being?” His portrait of his father, suffused by unequivocal affection and respect, is a study in the achievement of such contentment and the satisfactions of a temperate life.
It is a lovely note on which to end, and could be considered a happy culmination of a long and perilous journey. But history is not like a story, and lives are not lessons. Mazower’s nostalgia for the kinder and gentler London of his youth is overlaid by chagrin at the inequalities of a new era, in which Russian immigrants are more likely to be super-wealthy oligarchs purchasing multimillion-pound mansions on the slopes of Highgate’s green and pleasant hill than cultivated intelligents. As we contemplate the new uncertainties of our own time, perhaps the best conclusion we can draw from Mazower’s chronicle of lives marred or lost to twentieth-century brutal extremisms is to work, at the beginning of the twenty-first, for the preservation of the kind of decency that his father represented, and of such moderate virtues as still, in our liberal democracies, remain.