Family Circle Drawn Tighter by Tragedy

By Martin Gilbert

Published March 30, 2007, issue of March 30, 2007.
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Child of a Turbulent Century
By Victor Erlich
Northwestern University Press, 240 pages, $19.95.

Victor Erlich, born in 1914, was the offspring of two giants of the Jewish intellectual stage: Simon Dubnow, his grandfather, and Henryk Erlich, his father. In his new memoir, “Child of a Turbulent Century,” Erlich brings us into his heady family circle and to the interwar flourishing of Jewish literary and political creativity. And hard though it is for readers, and more for the writer, to forget the ending of grandfather and father — Dubnow, the famed Jewish historian, was killed by a Nazi bullet in Riga in 1941, and Erlich, a leading figure in the Polish Bund, took his own life in one of Stalin’s prisons in 1942 — it is the vigorous, warm, hopeful world that dominates these pages.

Erlich was 3 years old when revolution came to Petrograd. As he notes, “displacement” is a theme of his life, starting with his parents’ decision to move to his paternal grandfather’s home in Lublin, to escape the uncertainties of Bolshevism run rampant. It was here that Henryk Erlich managed to put Russia behind him and emerge as a light of the Polish Bund. In addition to filling in Henryk’s story, the portrait of Dubnow that emerges from these pages — teaching Victor the Hebrew-Yiddish alphabet during a year the young boy spent with him in Berlin — lends a human face to the remote, stern genius.

Family travels bring us into the world of interwar eastern European life with zeal. How can one resist delving into a paragraph that begins, “In 1935, Mother and I journeyed to Vilna to join Grandfather at the Second Congress of Yivo….” Ten years earlier, Grandfather Dubnow had been one of the founders of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. After the congress, a few days were spent at a rooming house in the countryside, joined by Marc and Bella Chagall. Each breakfast, with pleading eyes, the great painter would turn to his wife when the waitress asked if he wanted herring or chopped liver: “Bella, what do I feel like this morning?” The young Erlich recalled that Bella “had no difficulty in answering this query.”

The story of the Bund, with its high hopes and severe blows, is brilliantly told here, as well. But despite the grim ending, Erlich is emphatic that “I am not prepared to criticize either myself or my former comrades-in-arms for having associated our struggle or the dignity of the Jewish masses with a generous vision of Poland as a land of freedom, decency and justice….” He and his fellow Bundists felt a “rootedness” in the soil of Eastern Europe, an attachment to the world of Poland’s national and international struggle.

This book conveys that attachment, and also the horrific disillusionment. His father’s Bundist colleague Victor Alter was among the first to sense it. “A man who felt history in his bones,” Ehrlich writes, “he was visibly weighed down by the sense of a mounting threat which the rise of Hitler presented to everything he held dear.” And yet there was “something irrepressible about his congenital high spirits. It seemed impossible to get this ‘happy warrior’ down.”

How marvelous to have these vignettes of a remarkable era in Jewish life. But all too soon it comes to and end. As German bombers strike at Warsaw, Henryk Erlich is appointed chief air warden of the apartment building in which his family lived, with his son as his assistant. On the night of September 6, 1939, the Erlichs left Warsaw, never to return.

Walking eastward, they were machine gunned from the air by German planes. Then with horse and cart, the elder Erlich told his son (in Yiddish): “A horse is a delicate thing. A horse needs to rest.” Their destination was Pinsk, which they reached September 16. There, the Red Army arrived. The elder Ehrlich decided to return to German-occupied Poland to keep the Bundist flag flying there, but was taken off the train by the Soviets at the border. The family later searched for him in Vilna, but he was already in Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison.

Good luck enabled the young Erlich to make his way out of the Soviet Union in the winter of 1941-2, when he reached Montreal. He went on to a distinguished literary career in the United States. I was fortunate to have met him in the early 1960s, when he came to St Antony’s College at England’s University of Oxford to discuss with his friend Max Hayward, translator, literary critic and humanist, the fight in which they both were so active : the cause of the Russian writers then suffering the worst of Soviet post-Stalinist repression.

Other than an uncle and his wife, who had made their way to Palestine on the eve of the war, Erlich’s father and most of his father’s family perished in the Holocaust: “I mourn them all — aunts, uncles, cousins — but I remember with special affection (and rage) my youngest aunt, warm and lively Mania; her handsome, ‘Aryan’-looking husband George; and their daughter, everyone’s favorite, sunny, bubbling, trusting Stephanie (Stefcia).”

There is no such thing as a dull Jewish family story, or one not tinged with tragedy yet buoyed up with hope and expectation: Victor Erlich has added magnificently to our sense of what once was, and will never be again.

Sir Martin Gilbert is Winston Churchill’s official biographer. He is an Honorary Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and a Distinguished Fellow of Hillsdale College, Michigan.

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