Family saga in war and peace

The story of a family over two generations becomes embedded in the history of the 20th century in Mark Mazower’s What You Did Not Tell

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The Mazower family in Highgate, 1936 (©MAZOWER FAMILY)

The tectonic plates of European history writing are shifting. Whereas the generation of A.J.P. Taylor saw European history from the palaces and ministries of the great powers, a new generation has started to look at Europe from the margins, in particular, from the east and south-east. One of the key figures in this shift is Mark Mazower. He first made an impact with two books on 20th-century Greece but his real breakthrough book was Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (1998). The book saw modern Europe through a glass darkly. How fragile 20th-century liberal democracy looks when seen from Athens or Warsaw.

Since then Mazower has written two big, ambitious books: Salonica, City of Ghosts (2004), an account of how Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together for 500 years, and Hitler’s Empire (2008), dark and original.

At first, Mazower’s new book could not be more different. It is a family memoir and starts with his father, William, at the end of his life. Born in north London, he spent his life in the suburban tranquillity of Highgate and Golders Green. He studied at Balliol, had a quiet war and spent 30 years working in middle management for Lever Brothers. His life seems a world away from the terrors of 20th-century Europe that Mazower has addressed throughout his career. As a schoolboy he swapped comics, collected stamps and kept up with the cricket scores. As an adult, family life in Golders Green seems contented, secure, very English.

But as Mazower explores the story of his father’s family, a very different picture emerges. We move from blazers and rockeries to Big History: the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s Terror and the Holocaust. Above all, it becomes the story of William’s parents, Frouma and Max Mazower, and we remember they are among the people Dark Continent was dedicated to. For good reason.

Max (born Mordecai) Mazower was a Jewish Bundist from the Russian Pale of Settlement. For years he lived a double life, helping to run an underground socialist movement in Vilna, “the revolutionary hub for north-western Russia”, while simultaneously working as a respectable accountant. He was arrested several times by the Tsarist police but escaped and moved in revolutionary circles in pre-war central Europe. These years taught him everything he needed to know about the Bolsheviks.

In 1909 Max got a job selling typewriters in Russia for a British company. Mazower sums up his grandfather’s life at this point: “Since 1901 he had been sent twice to Siberia, escaping both times; he had lived an exile’s life in Switzerland and Germany; and he had directed Bund operations in Vilna, Warsaw, and Łódź.” This was nothing compared to what was to come. Max went on to sell typewriters during the Russian Revolution and Civil War, constantly on the move. In 1923 he escaped to London and never returned to Russia. He married, settled in Highgate and learned to speak English with a perfect accent.

He also became a man of secrets. He apparently never told his wife the name of his own mother. He never spoke about his revolutionary past. “Many of his closest comrades ended up in violent deaths,” Mazower writes, “shot either by the Bolsheviks or the Nazis.” William, too, seemed reluctant to speak about this faraway world. Mazower describes as a child overhearing references to strange places like Smolensk, Vilna and Grodno. “I was not sure where they were exactly, or who had lived in them. It had all seemed so far away.”

This is just the beginning. The dramas and tragedies come thick and fast. Mazower’s attention now turns to the family Max and his wife, Frouma, left behind. Both families were scattered. Max had two brothers: Zachar in Vilna, Semyon in Leningrad. “Three brothers and three choices,” writes Mazower, “or better — since choice does not feel quite right — three wagers on fate is how it might seem.” Mazower tracks down Zachar Mazover in the archives at Yad Vashem. He survived the Bolsheviks but not the Nazis.

Frouma’s family suffered terrible losses during the Stalin years, stories of incarceration in Soviet psychiatric prisons, relatives who disappeared in Siberia and were never heard of again. What seemed an ordinary family is anything but. Mazower’s grandfather, Max, may (or may not) have fathered a son, André. The boy’s mother was Sofia Krylenko, a crazy revolutionary whose brother, Nicolai, became People’s Commissar for Justice and Prosecutor General. She also disappeared during the purges.

All kinds of extraordinary people pass through the book. Walter Benjamin meets the Krylenkos in 1920s Moscow, T.S. Eliot corresponds with Sofia’s son, André, in 1930s London, Ernest Gellner and Thomas Balogh appear at Balliol in the 1940s. Beria and Jan Karski pop up. So do Trotsky’s sister, Vyshinksy and the Futurist poet Marinetti. Emma Goldman has dinner with the Mazowers in north London and one of Frouma’s sisters, a Soviet doctor, treats Field Marshal Paulus, who surrendered to the Red Army at Stalingrad.

The story of a family over two generations becomes embedded in the history of the 20th century, full of famous historical figures. Mazower does a superb job of putting each episode in its historical context.  This is historical story-telling at its very best.

The book is full of family secrets and revelations, ghosts from the past and relatives desperately trying to stay in touch, whether from occupied France or Stalin’s Soviet Union. Mazower constantly reminds us of the power of history to turn lives upside down, or worse, to be some kind of terrible meat-grinder which destroys countless families. In 1916 Nicolai Krylenko was arrested as a draft dodger. By late 1917, he was the commander in chief of the Russian armed forces. Twenty years later the Bolshevik who was once Lenin’s chess partner becomes one of Stalin’s victims, just like his sister.

Best of all, Mazower is brilliant at evoking very different places, whether it’s the revolutionary world of 1900s Vilna or peaceful London. He is a master of the telling phrase or the perfect detail. Max and Frouma’s first home in London was in South Hill Park, Hampstead, where Mazower’s father was born in 1925. As soon as he discovers the address, Mazower realises that “it was in the middle of a web of other places with some powerful associations of their own for me”. It’s where Ruth Ellis shot her lover, just yards from where Eric Hobsbawm used to live, surrounded by bookshelves “on which the fundamental texts of Marxism-Leninism shared space with Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici and worn Everyman Classics”.

At the heart of Mazower’s book is the idea of home. His father seemed so at home in a few square miles of north London. And yet it is also a story of displacement and loss, as countless relatives are driven from their homes by history and circumstance. How do people who have known such loss — a brother killed in a Jewish ghetto, a lover locked away in a Soviet psychiatric prison — make a home, build a life, hundreds or thousands of miles away, in north London’s peaceful suburbs?

The book ends, as it began, in north London, after so many detours via the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the Stalinist Terror, the Eastern Front and Vichy France. Like East West Street by Philippe Sands, it is an extraordinary story about ordinary people. There is perhaps one last twist that Mazower doesn’t mention. He now lives 3,000 miles from north London, on New York’s Upper West Side where he teaches at Columbia University. Perhaps this adds to the book’s sense of melancholy. Home is always far away. Family can be unendurably distant.