One Family is a history of several generations of a single Jewish family from East-Central Europe, written by one of their descendents now living in North America. But in telling his family’s story, Andrew Kolin takes us on a Cook’s tour of Jewish life in early twentieth century Copenhagen, New York, Paris, and Warsaw, followed by haunting accounts of the persecution, deportation, and murder of Jews in France and Poland during the Second World War. The book ends with a final chapter reflecting on how the Holocaust has shaped the family’s identity and collective memory since. Overflowing with thick description, lengthy eyewitness quotes, and larger than life characters, this book really brings the past to life and is a valuable resource for teaching Jewish Studies or the Holocaust as well as for interested readers looking for a gripping book to read one weekend.
The early chapters of the book focus on Anchel Kolniczanski and his brothers, who worked as butchers and meat dealers in Warsaw, living in the suburb of Powazki, which Kolin describes as “a typical Jewish shtetl” (3). A Socialist and trade union activist and a Polish nationalist, Anchel was involved in organising slaughterhouse workers for better wages and working conditions as well as fighting against Russian rule in Congress Poland. In 1908 he was exiled to Archangel on terrorism charges. Drawing on extensive interviews with family members and memoir accounts of Warsaw’s meat industry, including episodes of brutal violence between rival traders, Kolin takes us into a world where religion, ethnicity, politics, masculinity, and family ties came together to make or break individuals and communities. Settling in Paris, Robert Kolniczanski provides a fascinating counterpoint to Anchel in the first part of the narrative. Working as a pocketbook maker, Robert managed to establish a flourishing business and then turned his attention to organising immigrant families into a mutual-aid society, placing him at the centre of immigrant life in the city. The contrasts that Kolin provides between the lives of Anchel and Robert point to the breathtaking diversity of Jewish life prior to the Holocaust, even within one family, and to the role of circumstance and state policies in shaping individual destinies.
As the narrative moves into the 1930s, Kolin describes the rise of antisemitic violence in Warsaw and the efforts of members of the Kolniczanski family to fight back as members of the Jewish Labor Bund and the Polish Socialist Party. Some of his stories are quite inspiring, in particular those in which Polish workers fought alongside their Jewish comrades to protect Jewish women and children being assaulted by antisemites in parks and playgrounds. Not everyone stayed to fight, and Kolin describes how his grandfather moved his family first to Palestine and then to New York to escape the persecution. Those who stayed perished in the Warsaw Ghetto and the survivors in the Majdanek concentration camp where they were sent after being captured during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The French branch of the family attempted to flee through the south of France using their connections in the Resistance movement, which they were part of. Some succeeded, but others were interned in the camps at Drancy and Compiegne, before being sent to Auschwitz, where they perished. Kolin’s research into the individual experiences and destinies of each member of his family is spectacular, and allows him to introduce the reader to a wide variety of contexts in which Jews tried to resist or escape the Holocaust, or in which they died. It is this variety and the detail with which Kolin reconstructs their fate that makes this book so valuable.
Despite its obvious merits, in important ways One Family remains a book about family history and not a scholarly monograph about the Holocaust. Kolin draws on the secondary literature for information about places where his family members lived and died, but does not engage with any of the major arguments historians have made about how the Holocaust unfolded. There is little attempt to think about generalisability or about causal factors that shaped these events. The new material added as part of the Third Edition is also clunkily incorporated in ways that disrupt the flow of the prose, making for difficult reading at times. The concluding chapter about Holocaust memory among survivors and their descendents is particularly problematic in this respect. The literature Kolin engages with here is decades out of date and his arguments show little awareness of how the field has transformed over the past thirty years. The fact that this is not a scholarly monograph is not a criticism provided that readers are not decieved by the footnotes and careful research into thinking that it is. As a personal investigation into one family’s experiences before and after the Holocaust it remains a worthwhile and admirable achievement.
Dr Roland Clark is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool. See his profile here.
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