What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home” by Mark Mazower— A Family

Mazower, Mark. “What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home”, Other Press, 2018.

A Family

Amos Lassen

Mark Mazower shares the sacrifices and silences that marked a generation and their descendants. Here is a family that fate drove into the siege of Stalingrad, the Vilna ghetto, occupied Paris, and even into the ranks of the Wehrmacht. Markower’s British father was the lucky one, the son of Russian-Jewish emigrants who settled in London after escaping the Bolsheviks, civil war, and revolution. Max, his grandfather had been a socialist and manned the barricades against Tsarist troops, never speaking a word about it afterwards. His wife Frouma came from a family that had been “ravaged by the Terror yet making their way in Soviet society despite it all.” 

Here is the history of a socialism that has since been erased from memory and this is also “an exploration of the unexpected happiness that may await history’s losers, of the power of friendship and the love of place that made his father at home in an England that no longer exists.”

Mark Mazower’ writes about his grandfather’s secret life. It was secret only in that he didn’t share it with anyone in the family. Max lived through revolutions and world wars, survived due to his resourcefulness, timing, good luck, and connections. It’s an interesting, but hardly notable story, because it’s one that was shared by so many other refugees. To his grandson, this is a thrilling tale of discovery about a man who died before he was even born. This is a family history that also gives an overview of the political unrest that influenced both people and politics during the first half of the last century. The book covers the history of Eastern European Jews in Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania, beginning in the 1880s and traveling through the better part of the next century and beyond. The story is told from the point of view of the author’s father, Bill and his grandfather, Max.

After his father Yowl died, Max Mazower’s mother moved him and his two brothers to Vilna which was then an economic and intellectual center in Europe and known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Max changed his name, first to Marcus and then to Max. He and his two brothers quickly found work. The young men all joined the Bund and its influence grew with the Tsarist pogroms.

By 1902 the Bund had already attracted Tsarist spies and its members had suffered numerous arrests; Max was arrested and sentenced to three years in Siberia from where he escaped in July 1902, and then worked only under cover wherever the Bund wanted to organize.

In early 1907, Max was again sent to Siberia, this time to live with a peasant family near Tomsk. He befriended a local policeman and with regular chess games convinced the officer to let him register not daily, as required, but alternative days and then, once weekly. After one chess game, Max rode a train to Tomsk and kept on through Moscow to Vilna; nearly apprehended a third time, he moved to London. Max ended his political activism but he maintained contacts with the Bundists, Mencheviks and other socialists. Through one old friend, he met his wife Frouma in about 1922, while selling for a steel company and married her in December 1923.

Author Mazower reconstructed facts from once-sealed Soviet archives, family letters, diaries, interviews with remaining friends and neighbors, and gives us a wonderful read. He pieces together the complex and fascinating story of his father’s apparent half-brother Andre Mazower Krylenko, including all the ugly factors that by 1965 had morphed him into a rabid anti-Semite. He never concludes exactly what happened to Andre, or when, since few details are available.

There were Bundists who were “critics of Israel” and there were many who became ardent Zionists. These included David Ben Gurion who was a socialist at the outset. Like Ben Gurion, many former Bundist Zionists cherished Israel—and the need for a homeland for the Jewish people—due not only to events in Europe but also to the massive but barely recalled historic evils suffered by Jews in Muslim lands.

This is a book filled with memory and secrets. At the center of it is scholarly reconstruction of a family’s life and relations, friends, acquaintances, places, houses and adventures that were part of it it. Not only is this a biographical narrative; it is also a look at leftwing European Jewry throughout the 20th century. We see what historical research can yield, if there is determination, skill and boundless curiosity to pursue it. Here is also a family whose members Mazower got to know, love and respect. This is also “an inquiry into the importance of roots and the psychic contentment that comes with belonging.” 

 After discovering his grandfather’s work as an agent for the Jewish socialist Bund, Mazower, explores the efforts people later took to hide their involvement in the revolution. While this is the story of his grandfather, Mazower reconstructs the history of this largely forgotten Jewish socialist group that “was instrumental to the revolution’s success.”

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