Author: Michael Karpin
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons Inc
It is difficult to conceive just how Tightrope: Six Centuries of a Jewish Dynasty was written. It is just over four hundred pages in size including very extensive footnotes, yet it is huge in its accomplishment. And this is exactly what Israeli television and news reporter Michael Karpin was able to pull off when he wrote about an Ashkenazi family, the Backenroths, dating back to 1350.
Author: Michael Karpin
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons Inc
It is difficult to conceive just how Tightrope: Six Centuries of a Jewish Dynasty was written. It is just over four hundred pages in size including very extensive footnotes, yet it is huge in its accomplishment. And this is exactly what Israeli television and news reporter Michael Karpin was able to pull off when he wrote about an Ashkenazi family, the Backenroths, dating back to 1350. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term Ashkenazi, briefly, these are Jews that are descended from the medieval ethnic Jewish communities of the Rhineland in the west of Germany. Ashkenaz is the medieval Hebrew name for the region that we now know encompasses Germany and the borderland areas. Many of these Jews migrated largely eastward winding up in Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, and various Eastern European countries between the 10th and 19th centuries. The difficulty in tracing one’s Ashkenazi ancestry is that most of these Jews didn’t even have hereditary family names until the mid-1700s and furthermore there is an absence or loss of records of their births, marriages and deaths. However, none of this deterred Karpin from digging into the history of a most extraordinary Ashkenazi family.
Karpin in his Preface informs us that he embarked on his research over twenty years ago responding to a letter he received from Allan Kahane, a young Brazilian-born businessman. Kahane asked Karpin to write about the life story of his father, Israel Kahane, whom everyone called Ullo. At the outset, Karpin was not exactly ecstatic for it seemed to be about a Holocaust survivor who migrated to South America and succeeded in business, something that was not very unusual. However, when Kahane mentioned that his family’s origins dated back to Germany and its history went back to the Middle Ages, and then began listing some of his family’s comings and goings, Karpin was now hooked. After I completed my reading of this fascinating tale, I can easily appreciate how he was captivated by this remarkable family’s story.
As a result, Karpin undertook extensive research that led him to family members scattered all over the globe. As he mentions and as he was serving as an Israeli TV correspondent in Moscow just before the break-up of the Soviet Union, he visited many towns as Lvov, Bolechow, and Sanok. The latter is on the San River, and the Backenroths had an oil refinery there. He also visited Drohobych, Schodnica, and Boryslaw at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, where oil was discovered in the late nineteenth century, enriching the Backenroth clan. All of this is more fully explored and narrated in the book’s epic tale.
Karpin begins his story in 1350 when the Backenroths were forced to move eastward due to economic, social and political upheaval threatening their lives. It was also the time of the Black Death and the Jews once again were the scapegoats. Karpin notes “that no accurate statistics exist for the number of Jews who died of the plague or were murdered as a result of blood libels that blamed Jews for spreading the disease.”
The family journeys from Ashkenaz under the leadership of their patriarch Rabbi Elimeilech Backenroth whose word is final and no one dares to question his authority. Travel conditions are not exactly perfect as small dirt roads cross the countryside, some of them treacherous because of harsh winters and outlaws. Eventually, the Backenroths stop in a town near Drohbych, whose principal industry is the mining of salt. The mine and the lands surrounding it belong to the noble Polish Lubomirski family, which, as we are informed, eventually becomes one of the most influential dynasties in Polish history. However, the Backenroths are forced to leave Droybych, as the existing community, out of fear of business competition, are not very receptive to their settling in the area. Consequently, the family moves onto the outskirts and wind up in what is known today as Urycze. Initially, there was nothing here, however, eventually the family succeeds in building a village in its own right which acquirs the name of Schodnica. Karpin provides us with an extensive history of the family’s settlement here and how they were able to survive. As he mentions, “looking back from the perspective of almost seven hundred years, one could say that the Backenroths arrived in Galicia at the right time. A stormy era of war and terror had just ended, after lasting nearly a hundred years.”
From here the story leaps to the early 1800s where we learn about
the Backenroth family’s rabbinical dynasty and their involvement
with the Hasidim. We also find out how the family plays an immense
role in pioneering the development of the Galician Oil Belt in the
1800s. Karpin interestingly points out that until around 1880, most
of the entrepreneurs in the oil belt were Jewish. Considerable ink is
devoted to the family’s tragic experiences during the Holocaust and
how various members of the family play leading roles in saving some through their creativity, courage, deception,
resourcefulness, and loyalty notwithstanding the emotional demands they faced.
They were also aided by a handful of inhabitants of the region
who later were recognized as "righteous Gentiles" by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial
to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust that was established in 1953.
Karpin interweaves into the saga the Kahane and Graubert families who became part of the clan through marriage and we follow them as well as the Backenroths all the way up to the present day. We even learn about how a member of the Backenroth family becomes Leopold-Muhammad Weiss-Asad who had a close working relationship with Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia.
Quite apropos, the narrative ends with Lucien Backenroth-Bronicki’s remarks where he states with a smile upon returning on a visit to the land of his ancestors that he felt no hatred toward the people of Drohoybych, whose ancestors probably played a significant role in the slaughtering of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, “Just look where they are and where we are.”
Karpin has crafted a moving narrative that is candid and to the
point. He brilliantly succeeds, as the back cover states, in
narrating a most a unique portrait of Jewish life through such
pivotal events as the migration from Western to Eastern Europe, the
birth of Zionism, and the Holocaust. His research is impeccable as
evidenced from the extensive number of footnotes providing the reader
with interesting background historical material that will surely stir
your curiosity to seek out more information pertaining to the history
of the Jews of Galicia.