Mark Mazower, a noted British-born historian of the darker sides of 20th-century Europe, has now turned to the history of his own family, bringing his formidable research skills to subjects that often prove as elusive and ambiguous. The “you” in his book’s title is Mazower’s father, Bill, an enigmatic and recessive figure who, but for his fluent Russian and colorful relatives, might pass for an ordinary Oxford-educated middle-class Englishman. But it is Mazower’s grandfather Max, with his adventurous, cosmopolitan past and unresolved mysteries, who steals the show.
Part of this is because of the latter’s radical past. Living in Vilna in the early years of the 20th century, Max (born Mordkhel Mazower) was a member of the Bund, a Jewish socialist organization based in the Pale of Settlement in the old Russian Empire whose success in its time was remarkable. By 1905, the Bund’s registered membership was 35,000—almost three and a half times as large as its socialist competitor, the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party. But its memory has been eclipsed by the achievements of its rivals: The Bolsheviks, a wing of the RSDLP, seized the historical limelight with the October Revolution of 1917, and the Zionists, the Bund’s competition on its Jewish side, similarly cemented their place in history with the creation of the state of Israel.
But another reason for Max’s fascinating appeal is the set of more personal mysteries buried just beneath the surface of his life. Max’s past as a Russian-speaking Jewish revolutionary, almost never discussed with his family, accorded oddly with his bourgeois English present. There was also the child that Max brought back with him from Europe before World War I, who may or may not have been his son, and whose mother’s identity was long unknown to the rest of the family.
Mazower tells a story that is both a family saga and something larger. Through Max, he reacquaints us with a forgotten strain of radicalism that once dominated life in the Pale. Through the stories of the Toumarkines, the family of Max’s wife, Frouma, Mazower gives us a glimpse of the other realities that Max and his descendants might have experienced had they either remained in the Soviet Union or become part of the Russian emigration throughout Europe. Mazower’s painstaking detective work solves some of the mysteries around Max’s life; others remain unsolved but will resonate in the reader’s memory.
Mordkhel Mazower was born in Grodno around 1874. After his father’s death, when Mordkhel was about 14, he moved with his mother and younger siblings to Vilna (now Vilnius), a city outside the Pale but with a large Jewish population. Max, as he styled himself from this period on, seems to have had little formal education, yet he somehow quickly acquired good Russian (the family’s language in Grodno was Yiddish) and the manners and bearing of a Russian intellectual. Smartly dressed in a tie and high-buttoned waistcoat, with a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee, Max was almost a dandy—an appearance well suited to a young man with prospects who had secured a responsible job with a solid Jewish shipping company.