Prof. Mark Mazower Unearths His Own Family’s History

Sabina Lee
May 18, 2018

British-born Mark Mazower, the Ira D. Wallach Professor of History and director of the Heyman Center for the Humanities, is a historian of Europe and Greece in the 19th and 20th centuries. Much of his work has covered international developments on either side of World War II. In his book, What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home, he turns his scholar’s eye closer to home.

In a deeply researched multi-generational memoir, he tells his paternal grandparents’ story and, through them, a history of the Russian Jewish Left. He also unravels generations of family secrets, examining the letters that passed between Moscow, London and Paris, decades-worth of his father’s diaries, police records from the tsarist and Soviet files and the riches of online genealogical search engines.

“I grew up with this knowledge of my father’s Russian background, but the details seemed very vague as to which aunt was related to which,” he said. Mazower’s father, Bill, who died in 2009, led a settled life spent from birth almost entirely in a small segment of north London around Hampstead Heath—a complete contrast to his paternal grandparents. “I wanted to write a book about how history makes us, and to do so I realized that I would have to go back and look at his parents.”

Max Mazower, Bill's father, was born in tsarist Russia in the late 19th century, in what is now Grodno in Belarus, before becoming a revolutionary leader of the Jewish Socialist Bund. He mobilized workers, ran underground printing presses and organized insurrections before being sent twice into exile in Siberia. His wife, Frouma, hailed from near Smolensk. They lived through the Russian Revolution, the Red Terror and the rise of the Bolsheviks before making a life together as exiles in London.

In its review, The New York Times said Mazower’s “beautiful” book was “imbued throughout with perceptive asides about what we can learn from “history’s losers.” The Guardian wrote that it was “proof of what historical research can yield, providing you have the determination, skill and boundless curiosity to pursue it to the bitter end.”

During the two and a half years he spent researching and writing What You Did Not Tell, Mazower learned that “one’s identity is not really one’s own, that what we once believe about individualism might not be all true,” he said. “And that we are linked to our ancestors, our fathers and grandfathers through history, which forms who we are today perhaps more than we like to imagine.”

In April, Mazower was named the founding director of the new Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination in Paris, which will launch in the fall with 16 fellows who are scholars, writers and artists from Columbia as well as around the world. Here he talks about his book, and his plans for the new institute.

Q. Scrutinizing one’s own family is rare for historians. How did it come about?

A. My father died in London. Afterwards I began thinking about how to convey to my own children, who were born here, something of the forces that had shaped his life. My father had always been interested in history, and he had a very strong sense of family. And every so often, three or four times a year, something odd would happen: the phone would ring and he would start speaking in Russian to one of his relatives in Moscow. So I grew up with this knowledge of the family in Russia, though who they were and how they connected to us was always a little foggy. Working on the book made it all much clearer. I began with about four to five hours of conversations that he and I had recorded some years earlier about where his parents had come from. That was the start.

Q. Did you expect the book to unfold as it did?

A. Without really intending it, the book became about the relationship between my father, Bill, and his parents, especially his father, Max, who was the reason for our coming to London. Max kept secrets—his wife never even knew the name of his mother, for example—but survived colossal waves of changes such as tsarist police repression, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the aftermath of World War I. His good fortune was to settle in England: neither of his brothers was so lucky. One perished in the Vilna ghetto; the other survived the siege of Leningrad but died shortly after. Max, whose English was accentless, said virtually nothing about these losses to anyone.

Q. How does writing about one’s own history differ from writing about the history of others?

A. After spending some years writing about large, impersonal historical forces, I have been thinking about how historians approach the telling of an individual human life. One way is to write about someone of such obvious importance to world affairs, so that in describing a Churchill or a Hitler you are describing the course of world history. This is about how an individual can shape history—something we are all curious about. The other way is to think about somebody whose life is somehow emblematic of a time or a period. With my book, I wanted to do neither of these. Instead I was after something that historians don’t usually get to do—because they mostly can’t—which is to show how the politics and economics of history shape an individual personality. That’s more the kind of thing novelists try their hand at. I was interested in how my dad ended up being the kind of guy he was. I wanted to get at this very precise question of the formation of a personality and a milieu.

Q. How did you research this?

A. I was lucky in that my family had a very strong sense of preserving family materials, and my father was a meticulous record keeper. I began with two boxes of pocket diaries he kept, starting in 1941, that ran through to his death. There were troves of photos and letters in Russian and in Yiddish. A cousin in Paris gave me two huge plastic shopping bags filled with hundreds of letters from the 1930s, all in Russian, from my grandmother to her siblings, and to their parents in Moscow, right through the Stalin years. That was a major find. And I was astounded by the sheer volume of information on the internet—census data for obscure shtetls, the online electoral rolls that now allow you to construct who lived in a given street in north London in 1925 house by house. All of this gold dust to the historian.

Q. What have you discovered from writing a family memoir? Were there any surprises?

A. Take my dad’s mother, Frouma, whose many siblings’ fates provide a miniature summary of life-possibilities in the Soviet Union: one brother was shot in the Terror; so was a brother-in-law. Yet another brother became a leading pediatrician for the Kremlin higher-ups, while her youngest remaining sister, Nata, actually joined the NKVD—the secret police—and worked in one of the forced labor projects, where she married a convict, survived the front fighting the Germans and ended her career as the head of medical personnel in a prison camp for high-ranking Wehrmacht POWs. She nursed and eventually befriended none other than Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus, the commander who lost the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 and the most senior officer ever to fall into Russian hands. The family joke was that the only person my famously irascible and grumpy great-aunt was ever able to befriend was a Nazi field marshal.

Q. Have you had any surprising reactions since the book came out?

A. Because this was not an academic book, some of the reactions have been quite personal. Just after it was published I received a letter from a woman, quite unknown to me, who had seen the book in a Manhattan bookstore and recognized my name. She was writing to tell me that she had known my father more than 70 years ago, when they had both been evacuated as schoolchildren from London during the blitz to the same small seaside town. She was 14 and he 16, and she had vivid memories of meeting him, walking with him in the hills, and even being appalled when he proposed a suicide pact in the event of a German invasion. She’s a wonderful woman; I met her recently near Washington Square. That’s an exchange quite unlike I’ve ever had with my other books.

Q. Tell us about your plans for the new Institute for Ideas and Imagination in Paris?

A. Columbia is a great university, which is all the more reason that we should always be thinking about new ways of communicating our ideas. We felt that we wanted, at the most basic level, to reassert the importance of the imagination in scholarly work, and so the Institute will be working to create a new kind of intellectual community, one that mixes creative artists from across the world with scholars from Columbia working in the humanities, social sciences and theoretical sciences. The conception for this arose after a very extensive consultation with faculty. We open our doors this fall. Colleagues from the University will be coming to spend a year in Paris as fellows at the Institute in the company of some of the most exciting young writers, artists and filmmakers at work in the world today. We hope that alongside the fellowship program, faculty and students will visit the Institute to participate in seminars, conferences and workshops. We are looking forward to turning it into a flourishing hub of the University’s creative life and to bringing some of the brilliant artists from the Institute to New York to teach and talk about their work