Review of Mark Mazower’s What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home (Other Press 2017) pp. 400
Mark Mazower’s latest book, What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home, is a descriptive voyage of his family’s journey. Mazower’s discoveries are made all the more interesting because his Russian Jewish family fragmented with the rise of Bolshevism in Russia a century ago and Lenin’s decimation of other socialist movements.
Mazower’s grandfather Max, who died before he was born, made the journey from Grodno via Vilna to Hampstead and
Highgate and the life of a bourgeois Englishman. Max, rendered silent and enigmatic by political disillusionment and the tragedies of the 20th century, was a leader of the socialist Bund which organized Yiddish- speaking workers in czarist Russia.
Educated and a fluent Russian-speaker, he worked for a shipping firm in Vilna that allowed him to travel widely. It also
acted as his cover for running an underground movement.
Max was both a bookkeeper and an agitator – and responsible for the printing and distribution of material such as Der Klassen
Kampf (Class Struggle) to the Jewish masses. Arrested and sentenced to Siberian exile in 1902, he escaped after a few months and was subsequently engaged in rebutting Lenin’s polemic against the Bund, which was the largest workers’ party at the time, far outstripping the embryonic Bolsheviks.
Max was outraged by the Gomel pogrom in 1903 and wrote a pamphlet, issued under the Bund’s auspices, which named the perpetrators and those in officialdom who had abetted them. He was highly critical of Jewish communal leadership, “overwhelmed by an attack of their usual cowardice and fearfulness.” The Jewish bourgeoisie revealed “its enslaved,
servile spirit,” he wrote.
A second arrest, exile and escape led him to London – working for a typewriter company in High Holborn, covering the Russian side of the business. The October Revolution in 1917 and the Red Terror which followed it forced a final departure and a retreat into marriage and stability in northwest London.
Max’s silence about his past was defined by the fact that many friends and comrades went over to the Bolsheviks – and ended their lives in the permafrost of Stalin’s Gulag or the execution chambers of the Lubyanka. The leaders of the Polish Bund, Henryk Erlich and Viktor Alter – depicted as spies – were murdered by Stalin during World War II.
While Max quietly followed the gathering of the storm clouds in Europe and homegrown fascism during the 1930s, he showed little affection for his children in his isolationism. He hosted Szmul Zygielbojm, the Polish Bundist, when he escaped from Warsaw to reveal the onset of the Nazi program of mass murder to an unsuspecting British public.
Mazower’s detective work uncovers other relatives. There is his father’s apparent half-brother, Andrei – most likely the son of Sofia Krylenko, the ultra-left revolutionary. He lived to be 95, changed his name and nationality several times – and immersed himself in the far Right. He converted to Catholicism, opposed immigration to the UK and was the author of an antisemitic tract, The Red Thread.
A sister of his grandmother remained in the USSR and supervised Gulag prisoners building the Volga-Don canal. A doctor in
the NKVD – the forerunner of the KGB – she looked after senior German prisoners of war.
The author paints a landscape of Russian Jewish émigrés in London who viewed their Jewishness as incidental. They neither hid it nor demonstrated it. They did not consider themselves as immigrants to Britain and made little effort to integrate themselves into the Anglo- Jewish community. They remained part and parcel of the cosmopolitan Russian Jewish intelligentsia, uninterested in Zionism and Israel.
They were “pieces of flotsam from the remote shipwreck of imperial Russia” who were lucky to escape to the tranquility of bourgeois life. The difference in fates was profound. One relative perished in the Vilna Ghetto while another starved to death during the siege of Leningrad.
Many families have stories that are passed down to the next generation, but Mazower has gone beyond storytelling and legend. He has repaid the debt to those who went before him.
Jerusalem Post 20 February 2018