A fictionalized family history traces the fortunes of the ancestors of Italian novelist van Straten from Rotterdam in 1811 to the present day.
In the early-19th century, the Jews across Europe began to be integrated into the mainstream of society, in a gradual and halting process that alleviated many old injustices but also gave rise to some new ones. The narrator (named Giorgio van Straten) is an Italian art restorer who begins the saga with his great-great-grandfather Hartog’s choice of a family name in 1811 (when Napoleon decreed that Jews were henceforth citizens and had to be officially registered as such). A cucumber seller and father of five in Rotterdam, Hartog sees little to be gained from his new status, but he dutifully registers himself as Hartog van Straaten (Henry of the Street) and goes about his business as before. Over the next two centuries, the van Stratens (the second “a” was lost when Giorgio’s grandfather moved to Genoa in 1913) step carefully through history in a larger world that encompasses wars, revolutions, and massacres, as well as the smaller family dramas of marriages, births, and emigration. Hartog’s grandson Benjamin, for example, quarrels with his father Emanuel and runs away to sea, ending up in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Benjamin’s nephew George, on the other hand, applies himself so dutifully to his work as an insurance agent that he is sent to Italy to manage a new branch of his company. We learn the history of how George’s boss Henry Goldstuck rose from obscure beginnings in Latvia to become an international tycoon. George’s nephew in Russia gets himself into trouble with the NKVD, and nearly everyone in the family has to scramble to escape the Nazis. The story ends with the death of the author’s father, but like all family sagas it is primarily an account of the generations the narrator never knew in his own lifetime.
An elegant account, told with clarity and grace: van Straten’s history has a limited scope but should strike a chord with amateur genealogists everywhere.