Victor Erlich was born in 1914, at the threshold of what the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova called "the real twentieth century," in Petrograd, a place indelibly marked by that century's violent dislocations and upheavals. His story, begun on the eve of the First World War and taking him through Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Germany, and the U. S. Army, is in many ways a memoir of that "real twentieth century," reflecting its lethal nature and shaped by the "fearful symmetry" of the age of totalitarianism. Erlich's grandfather, the legendary Jewish historian Simon Dubnov, was felled in December 1941 by a Nazi bullet; his father, Henryk Erlich, a leader of the Jewish Bund and a prominent figure in Russian and Polish socialism, took his life in Stalin's prison in May 1942. To read about Erlich's life growing up at the intersection of the century's darkest currents is to experience history firsthand from the Russian Revolution to the end of the Second World War-and to know what it truly is to be a child of the century.
Erlich conjures up what it was like to be a Bundist, the intensity of Socialist life at the time, the thinking after the Nazi invasion of Poland-before the pact between Hitler and Stalin became apparent. Figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Wendel Wilkie, Marc and Bella Chagall make appearances, as well as the famous logician Tarski, flunking Erlich in math. Throughout, despite the darkness, even the horror, of much of what he describes, the author maintains the beguiling tone and the warm manner of one who has reached the new millennium with rare and hard-won insight into the human comedy of his time.