The Jews of Pinsk: 1881-1941, by Azriel Shohet. Pinsk History Shakes Me Again

by Mark Jay Mirsky

In writing and thinking about the great figures in the world of fiction who have influenced me most, I am always drawn back to realize how engaged they are in the world of history, my second great love after literature. Donald Barthelme, without whose help and encouragement the magazine, Fiction, would never have begun, was passionate about politics and social issues, which permeate his fiction. Robert Musil's grasp of the balancing act of the Austrian Empire before the First World War is the background for his masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities. His analysis in the Diaries of the war madness in which that war began, and the mythologies that Hitler manipulated to begin the Second World War, is far shrewder than his more famous contemporary Thomas Mann. Proust read in the entirety of The Attempt to Recover Lost Time, understands European diplomacy and the sickness underlying the pretensions of French Society (in particular the Dreyfus Case) with unambiguous clarity. Most of my life as a writer and editor has been dedicated to writing fiction, but one of the well springs of this has been history, and, in particular, the history of the small city in Eastern Europe that my father and grandfather came from. When the National Endowment for the Humanities gave me the opportunity to write a manuscript about their immigration to America, I welcomed a chance to immerse myself in the history of Pinsk and discovered these two remarkable volumes. In them I was able to walk the streets of my father's and grandfather's childhoods, a world which they brought over with other immigrants to the United States, and to find myself in a lost time strangely restored to me.