[Mazower] excavates, through rigorous research and tenacious sleuthing, the history of a family whose lives spanned the entire twentieth century, and whose fates were closely interwoven with its many ideological terrors and violent upheavals … It is an odyssey that extends from prerevolutionary Vilna to the Soviet Union and postwar Paris and London, and that Mazower recounts through a succession of individual, thickly contextualized life stories. The enigmatic figure at its center is his paternal grandfather, Max, a man so secretive or laconic that the most basic facts of his past remained unknown to his wife and son, but whose impenetrable persona belied a life of almost fantastical turbulence and drama … The last sections of the book, in which he draws on his elegiac memories of the places he shared with his father and their quietly close relationship, are the most personal in the book.
Narrating the turbulent sagas of his forebears, Mazower has composed a rich and erudite history of Europe and Russia in this centenary year of the Bolshevik revolution. A testament to the tribulations of national belonging, and the ways people react to being ‘unmoored by the storms of history’, Mazower articulates the pain of deracination … What You Did Not Tell is pitched in a haunting, elegiac key, but there is great pleasure to be taken from how Mazower constructs his tale. Above all, the book is an undeclared tribute to the historian’s tradecraft … It all reads like a very good detective novel. But at those moments when Mazower reaches a dead end and the evidence runs dry — as it does when he looks into the rumours that Max worked for MI6 — he has the humility to concede that some stories are simply unrecoverable, and best left unsaid.
At every stage, Mazower sets off in pursuit of aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends and fellow revolutionaries, who moved from country to country, changing names and identities, escaping camps and prisons, prying them out from the stones under which they have hidden, clasping at the ‘threads in the tangled skein of this vanished micro society of the Russian Jewish emigration that I was trying to unravel’. He follows scraps of information, names found in letters or telephone directories, documents long buried deep in archives. The cast of characters grows and grows … What You Did Not Tell is proof of what historical research can yield, providing you have the determination, skill and boundless curiosity to pursue it to the bitter end. But it is also an affectionate portrait of a family whose members Mazower got to know, love and respect more and more as he discovered things that reticence, modesty and an instinctive need for silence had kept resolutely hidden.
Mazower, an acclaimed historian of Europe and its eastern reaches, has written a deeply personal book, but one that will resonate with many readers, particularly those grappling with a fraught heritage … How to process all this? Realizing that it falls upon you to make sense of all that was endured by your forebears — distant and immediate — is at once liberating and burdensome … Perhaps this is the simple yet solid approach to life one should adopt when a tortured past improbably metamorphoses into a serene present.
Through dogged research, Mazower uncovered details about his father’s half brother and half sister, myriad other relatives, teachers, friends, acquaintances, classmates, and a host of individuals whose capsule biographies he duly reports. Although some—T.S. Eliot and Emma Goldman, for example—are well-known and many interesting, the sheer number becomes overwhelming. A simultaneously sweeping and intimate family portrait.