Mark Mazower’s memoir What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home is an exploration of his family’s lost past. The memoir opens with the death of the author’s father–an event which leads Mazower to dig through his father’s diaries. “I thought I knew my Dad well,” Mazower ruminates, “but the day he died I began to realize how much of his life was unknown to me. “ Thus begins the author’s journey which reaches back to his long-dead grandfather, Max, who died in 1952, 6 years before Mark Mazower’s birth. Ultimately this is a memoir that explores a family fractured by displacement and political upheaval–a family that was forced to transform, reinvent their lives and settle into a new, completely different social reality.
The author’s research uncovers a remarkable history. Jewish Max Mazower, born in Grodno was a political activist in the Bund, an organizer working with a cover name. 1909 found Max living in exile, but he reemerged only to find employment with a British typewriter company. As a “continental manager,” he worked in Russia, but in 1919, Max was forced to escape St Petersburg when he was “tipped off” that arrest was imminent for the charge of espionage. Max had every reason to worry about his safety in Russia:
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 run Bund operations in Vilna, Warsaw, and Lódź. He had been on the run, arrested, and questioned many times over, and he had sacrificed the prospect of domesticity for the cause of socialism.
While part of the book is Max’s story, other chapters spread to other family members, including the author’s grandmother Frouma. One of the most fascinating sections concerns André, a child Max may or may not have fathered.
The story that had come down in the family was that when he was a baby, André had been brought by Max to London shortly before the First World War after André’s mother, Sofia, a fellow revolutionary, had died. In the absence of a birth, marriage, or death certificate, it was hard to be sure. Max had preserved an almost total silence about how or why this had come about, and he never mentioned the subject to Dad.
André reinvented himself several times and clearly saw his life in opposition to Max’s beliefs. The author recalls how his father was drawn, sometimes rather unhappily, into André’s life. Another of my favourite sections concerns Max’s wife, Frouma and her child Ira from an earlier union.
While in many ways this book is a testament to the author’s love for his father, it spreads to an appreciation for other family members and the many hardships they endured. This is a very personal memoir, but it also offers a panoramic view of a world of revolutionaries, party affiliations, and countries in flux. Because the memoir is so personal the unknown fates of many relatives seem especially poignant. While Max built a new life for himself in England, one brother, Zachar, was in Vilna while another, Semyon, was in St Peterburg.
“Three brothers and three choices, or better-since choice does not feel quite right–three wagers on fate is how it might seem.”
Frouma had some relatives who survived occupied France while others survived in Russia, so while the fate of some relatives is known, others simply vanished. What conclusions can you come to when you realize that your relations were in a city that became a ghetto with all of the inhabitants carted off for death? Common sense leads to the obvious conclusion, and yet there’s no definitive knowledge. People just vanish. Relatives disappear forever, and the obvious conclusion just doesn’t seem enough. Reading the memoir brings the thought that life is a very fragile thing. Max made the right choices at the right time; plus he was lucky while so many others were not.
Maps and photographs magnify this memoir, and of all the photographs included, for this reader, the most meaningful is the photo of the author with his father on Hampstead Heath. This photograph says a great deal about the man whose life was impacted, indirectly, by revolution, upheaval, uncertainty and danger.