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Take Five: Searching for his family, David Laskin finds history, heartache and bras

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 5, 2013 - In 2010, David Laskin and his daughter Emily traveled to Israel to start a worldwide journey of discovery and remembrance. He had not met his Israeli cousins before; and as soon as he sat down with them, he had concerns that his mission – tracing three branches of his family through decades of history – was never going to work.

He worried, as he writes in the epilogue to his book “The Family,” “that the Israelis would find me intrusive, insensitive, presumptuous.”

As it turns out, Laskin adds, “There was never any ice to break. As soon as we got to family, everything flowed naturally and rapidly between us.”

The journey to writing the book was hardly that natural and certainly not that rapid.

Laskin, who will appear at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival next Tuesday (Nov. 12), says he was not particularly religious and not particularly curious about his family tree as he was growing up.

“What did being Jewish mean for a child born on Long Island in 1953?” he asks.

But hearing family stories began to stir his interest in how the descendants of Torah scribe Shimon Dov Hakohen, born in 1835 in central Europe, were affected by the upheavals of the 20th century.

Laskin, whose previous books include “The Long Way Home,” about men who came to America from Europe, then crossed back over the Atlantic Ocean to fight in World War I, found that the various branches of his family could be divided into three segments: Those who came to America and adapted, those who emigrated to Palestine and helped create the modern state of Israel and those who stayed in Europe and were wiped out by the Holocaust.

In an interview with the Beacon, he said that what he considered to be his earlier “knee-jerk” reaction to history changed as he got more heavily involved in the lives of people whose names he may have heard but whose everyday existence he knew little about.

That was particularly true, Laskin said, of his relatives who perished at the hands of the Nazis.

“When I began working on it,” he said, “I thought the Holocaust chapters were  going to be kind of lot of either guesswork or ‘big’ history. I knew people knew all of that stuff, and I thought I would basically say my family members were part of sweep of history but I couldn’t find out much about them.

“One of the great surprises was that I could find traces of them, enough to know where they were when they were killed, so I could piece the story together.”

Among the most colorful members of the family was Ida Rosenthal, nee Itel Kaganovich, who was founder of the Maiden Form – later Maidenform – bra company. Her life and success in a male-dominated business world make up some of the liveliest portions of “The Family,” as well as some of the best possible puns.

A vivid verbal picture describes how Maiden Form workers displayed the company’s signature product in a big way at a Bayonne, N.J., parade in October 1933.

“The operators had whipped up an enormous brassiere and mounted it on poles like a banner: the prettiest girls in the company were enlisted to carry it up Broadway in the parade,” Laskin writes. “It was a mild sunny Saturday afternoon, and the crowd cheered wildly when the breeze came up and the giant brassiere filled like a sail. Men standing on the sidewalks tossed coins into the swelling fluttering cups.”

In the interview, Laskin said that “someone suggested I call the book 'My Cups Runneth Over'.”

“The Family” – which includes a family tree to keep the characters straight and a glossary to help the reader understand the language of its subjects – traces the humanity and detail, triumphs and tragedies, that all families can claim. “The pulse of history beats in every family,” Laskin writes.

And, the book adds, he was glad he could carry on the tradition of his ancestors in passing down stories from generation to generation.

“The texts I compose and redact are not sacred,” he writes, “but I am a kind of scribe as well. I count myself proudly among the people of the book. I commit to paper the stories of those who came before me. What we have done, what we have lost, what remains, what we can pass on – this is the scope of my work. The family work, as I now understand.”

Laskin spoke to the Beacon from his home in Seattle. The transcript of the interview is edited for length and clarity.

What started you on this journey into the past? What helped make it come alive?

Laskin: I had heard family stories, and I was looking at family photos of people who had been killed in the Holocaust. When I was looking at those pictures -- girls with ribbons in their hair and little boys in sailor suits, killed for no other reason than they were Jewish – I thought, wow, this is something I could write about. That’s what got the book going.

There were also the letters. They made an enormous difference in the book. These were 281 letters written for the most part from families trapped in Europe during the war. These gave a very, very intimate, detailed picture of what life was like in Europe in the 1930s and right up until the Nazis. Unfortunately, the letters stopped once the Nazi occupation began, but they were about how much they loved their children, how they observed the Jewish holidays, really nitty gritty stuff about their daily life. It allowed me to write the book in a much more novelistic way.

Ida – Itel – is one of the most fascinating members of the family? Did you know her?

Laskin: We were not close. I did not grow up poor, but I did not grow up with anything like her level of wealth and privilege. She had this mansion on Long Island, and as a kid I remember being invited there a couple of times. My jaw dropped to the floor. I had never been to a home that had its own library, its own private dock, its own tennis court. I was very aware that Itel was a celebrity, someone who was profiled in Fortune and Time magazine. I don’t remember sitting in her lap and telling her what I did in nursery school. She was a very commanding person. But she was definitely proud of being part of this family.

She was my grandfather’s sister. She was a chain-smoking immigrant who came here with $5 in her pocket and ended up with one of the greatest apparel companies in the world. It was an amazing story. She was somebody who did it her way. She didn’t allow being an immigrant to hold her back. She didn’t allow being a woman to hold her back. She didn’t allow being Jewish to hold her back. She didn’t let anything hold her back. She was one of these very forceful leaders who had an idea and delivered.

You talk about having nightmares about the Holocaust during your research? How did it affect you?

Laskin: Like a lot of people, I thought I wasn’t going to discover anything new. I had seen Schindler’s List. I had seen Sophie’s Choice. I don’t want to sound like it’s been there, done that, but I think there is some kind of Holocaust fatigue among readers. I wanted to refute that notion.

I never knew that so many Jews were killed in fires. There were horrifying discoveries that were new to me, some of the random humiliation and violence. This was not just industrial genocide. There was a lot of cruelty and humiliation involved. It’s hard to figure out how Germany could have changed so much. In the First World War, the Germans were relatively OK to the Jews. They didn’t go out of their way to be nice to Jews, but they certainly were less cruel than the Cossacks. What happened between 1918 and 1941?

When you work on something like this, it’s one thing to read about it and watch a movie, but it’s another thing to think about your relatives, about a little girl 5 years old, and think about why did she have to die. There were definitely very difficult passages, things I forced myself to research, but it was definitely something I had to do.

Genealogy in general can be daunting, but for families in Europe during World War II, the challenges can be particularly difficult. Where should someone start if they want to travel the road that you did?

Laskin: Start with your own family. A lot of people assume we’ve heard their stories a million times. But A., you haven’t, and B., there were many relatives I never knew. It’s a big family. When you do these interviews, especially with older people, if you say what do you remember about 1941, they’ll say nothing. If you say, let’s talk about your house. Did you have your own room? What did you have for breakfast. Where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed? That opens the door to a lot of memories.

And don’t be afraid of going onto genealogy websites. A lot of people think what I thought, I’ll never find my family. I went on ancestry.com for the first time and put in Sam Cohen, my grandfather’s name, and Brooklyn, where he lived, and came up with 341,000 possibilities. How the heck do you narrow that down? A lot of people have that experience.

All you need is a key date. I went to the library, because I was lost and confused, and I found a research genealogist, who said what is his birthday? I entered that, and I found his draft registration card for World War I. That had his address. For all of the Sam Cohens who lived in Brooklyn, I had his address. Then I could find him in the census, and everything else fell into place.

If you do this, be very organized and consistent in your filing system. When you find something, don’t think you’ll be able to refind it. No. Print it out and file it away and do it in a very professional manner. For Jewish researchers and families, go to JewishGen. You can find your shtetl, you can find memory books for families wiped out in the Holocaust. It’s a fantastic site. It can be a little cumbersome, but it’s worth spending time on.

Coming from a long line of scribes, writing this type of book must be particularly satisfying.

Laskin: I was Jewish, but I didn’t really spend a lot of time thinking about it. I identified much more with being American. I certainly didn’t think much about the scribe tradition.

But writing the book made me feel like I was really a part of a line of scribes. There is this affinity for transferring and recording important events of our people. I’ve become very proud of that.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.