Although Tightrope is only just over 400 pages, and 50 of those are footnotes this book definitely goes in the saga category. It is an impressive work that comes as a result of over 20 years research. In a nutshell it follows one single family and its various branches through over six centuries of upheavel.

If you ask  the average man in the street to describe the plight of the Jewish people, almost everyone will zone in on the current situation in Israel, and the events that unfolded during World War Two when the Nazi’s attempted to annihilate the entire race. Few people realize that horrific as the Holocaust was, it was hardly the first time that Jews had been persecuted. In fact the persecution can be documented from biblical times onward.

Michael Kerpin follows one single family, the Backenroth’s, the tale begins in 1350 with their perilous trek from what is now called Germany eastward to Poland. The reason for the move was the Plague that had ravaged Western Europe. Starting from scratch the family set about carving out a living for themselves. Initially becoming innkeepers, then merchants, and finally the oil business. There were decades of peace and prosperity and decades of fear an uncertainty. Each ruler making arbitrary laws concerning what commercial enterprises the Jewish community could engage in. About the only constant in their lives was change. Some leaders saw the Jewish contingent as beneficial to the economy, while others took the view that they were outsiders taking advantage of the native people. Retribution took many forms, taxes and special levies at the economic side of the spectrum, to violence and pogroms. All of this the Backenroth’s weathered with good grace.

The family is well documented in the 19th and 20th centuries and indeed this is what a good deal of the book focuses on. In the latter decades of the 1800’s the family moved into the oil buisiness, although their methods were crude and oil had yet to become a significant energy source, it did represent a period of great prosperity for them. The First World War though took its toll, and once more the Jewish minority found themselves at odds with authorities and  the working class Poles.

The biggest problem was still yet to come, WWII was to change their lives forever. First the Russians became their masters, imposing harsh austerity measures, and singling out successful families as being anti communist, the Backenroth’s were clear targets. What I find incredible, yet Tightrope is far from the first book I have read about Poland in the 30’s and 40’s is how the Jewish population remained put when it became clear that the Germans were on the move. The Jewish population actually welcomed the  German occupation as they felt that they would be kinder and more liberal than either the austere Russians or even the somewhat vengeful Poles. How wrong they were, and by the time they realized their mistake it was far too late. Many of the Backenroth extended family did perish at the hands of the Nazi’s some though by luck and guile did survive and it is their stories that chronicle one of the darkest moments in human history.

Michael Karpin also takes us on some interesting detours such as the story of Leopold Weiss who shortly after WWI moved to Palestine, however it was not his fellow Jews that he befriended but the native Arabs, eventually changing his name to Muhammud Asad and embracing Islam, an event that shocked the usually mainstream family.

I also greatly enjoyed the fact that the author took time out in his narrative to explain events in their cultural context. I am not Jewish and found that the explanations greatly enhanced the clarity of the story.

Over the centuries the family grew and dispersed, the author has tracked down descendants in South and North America, Poland, Russia, Israel and all places in between. This book is a text book study in genealogy. What really surprised me is that the author is not part of the family, this book was a result of a chance meeting 20 years ago with a South American relative of the Backenroth clan. The depth of research is outstanding, I cannot even begin to guess how many hours Michael Karpin has invested in this book. I do not give books a star rating, it is not my style, but if did this one would without doubt get 5 stars.

You can get your copy from Amazon, Michael Karpin also has a supporting web site.

Simon Barrett

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