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Who Lived Who Died

Who Lived, Who Died? My Family’s Struggle with Stalin and Hitler

Peter Gourevitch had a remarkable set of parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and his account of their lives across the 20th century is also a history of those years—and a reflection on the experience of men and women who lived in hard times and made fateful choices. They were revolutionaries in czarist Russia, Menshevik oppositionists in Bolshevik Russia, Jewish socialists in Berlin who fled the Nazis to Paris and then to Toulouse and Nice in Vichy France. Some of them died in Russia, Stalin’s victims; some of them died in Auschwitz; some of them escaped to America, with the help of the American Federation of Labor and the Jewish Labor Committee—a largely untold story. Peter has reconstructed their lives from family legends, the archives of brutal regimes, personal letters, official documents, and his own memories. He tells an extraordinarily engaging and moving tale, and concludes with an incisive argument about what we can learn from it about history and politics.

Michael Walzer, Professor Emeritus, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton


“This gem of a book by a distinguished political scientist records the absorbing history of his family. Profoundly uplifting and sad, these stories search for family roots in the escape routes from the revolutionary vengeance of the Bolsheviks, the Holocaust of the Nazis, and Stalin’ Gulag. Contingency, context, complexity and causality bring to light different circumstances and choices marked by survival and death, resilience and courage. Peter Gourevitch’s curiosity and passion makes a cruel past part of our unsettled present.”

Peter Joachim Katzenstein FBA is a German-American political scientist. He is the Walter S. Carpenter, Jr. Professor of International Studies at Cornell University. Former President of the American Political Science Association.


When do we choose to flee from an increasingly precarious fate? How do you know when it’s time to go? Through the lens of his fascinating family history, Peter Gourevitch explores how circumstance and happenstance combine to determine how we answer such questions. Some family chose to leave revolutionary Russia for the safety of Germany. Some fled Hitler’s Germany for the safety of France. Some took the last train from Paris as the city fell to the Nazis, eventually making it to the United States because they were Socialists rather than because they were Jews. An epic family journey that focuses on the choices that took members down different and sometimes tragic paths.

David A. Lake, Gerri-Ann and Gary E. Jacobs Professor of Social Sciences, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, University of California, San Diego. Webpage:


Peter Gourevitch has written a compelling family tale of identities and political calculation in the harrowing contexts of holocaust, revolution and world war. Why did some escape, while others stayed?  The distinguished author of Politics in Hard Times now gives us an account of personal politics in even harder times that shows how epochal events create existential dilemmas for individual lives.  Weaving the politics of the day together with the panoramic narrative of a family, this is not only a personal detective story but an illuminating rumination on how human beings make difficult choices under conditions of great uncertainty.  Readers will be unable to put it down.

Peter A. Hall, Krupp Foundation Professor of European Studies in the Department of Government at Harvard University,  and former Director of  the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies.


“You are destroying my productivity. I literally could not put this down. Bravo!”

Robert Kuttner, co-Editor The American Prospect


Peter Gourevitch book is an intellectual tour de force. By offering a lovingly told, meticulously researched and detailed historical account of his immediate and extended family, Gourevitch dazzles with an encyclopedic knowledge of European political and social developments during the first half of the 20th century. We learn amazing details about the Russian, the German, the French and the American lefts and their inextricable ties with each other that profoundly defined these countries’ politics in that period. Through it all, there is the inevitable thread of how the varied -- and often conflicting -- constructions of Jewish identity make this story so complex yet also deeply human.

Andrei Markovits, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies, Professor of Political Science, Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Professor of Sociology, The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


It’s rare for a family memoir to situate itself in such a rich and dense historical context so that you feel you’re reliving the entire history of Russian revolutionary politics, together with the history of European Jewry, culminating in the family’s dramatic escape to safety in the United States. It is illuminating at every point, especially on the ways in which the American labor movement acted to save Jewish activists from the Nazi conquest of Europe.

Michael Ignatieff, Rector Emeritus, Professor of History, Central European University, Budapest and Vienna, Former faculty member at Kennedy School Harvard, Univeristy of Toronto, and leader of Canadian Liberal Party.


Who Lived, Who Died? is the distinctive  story of two grandfathers in a family whose history traversed the worst of the twentieth century. In this moving memoir by an accomplished political scientist, Peter Gourevitch tells the story of his ancestors whose fates diverged out of combination of personal choices and the decisions by the dictators at critical points in the history of Bolshevism and Nazi Germany. These decisions they made reverberated through the generations of their family and created an awareness, a heightened political sensibility down to the third and fourth generations. This is the rarest of books, a moving personal story retold from the safety of the United States in a United States that now feel less safe, and a deeply political story that shapes the lives of everyone who comes alive in its pages. The strong sense of how politics moulds personal choices again and again in different ways, and the overwhelming sense of contingency in all our lives will stay with you long after you have finished this compelling story of a family caught up in history. Don’t miss this very unique and very universal story.

Janice Gross Stein, Belzberg Professor of Conflict Management, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada


A very readable and intelligent account, at once personal, familial, and political. This is a memorable account of Peter’s Gourevitch’ s life, but also of his parents, grandparents, and great grandparents: his American children and grand-children will be amazed and grateful. But these pages are much more than that. They will also count as an important contribution to the history of tsarist and post-tsarist times, of the Bolshevik and especially of the Menshevik movement before 1917 and after 1918. How to forget Peter’s description of a voluble Lenin in Switzerland, suddenly sitting on the bed of Peter’s  grandmother.  Hardly had the expelled Menshevik exiles settled in Berlin in the 1920’s (where they were close to Kautsky), that they were forced in 1933 to flee again, to France and then to the United States. Some of them, but not all: some were never made it that far and died in Stalinist prisons; others were imprisoned in Drancy and   sent to Auschwitz. This is the history of a memorable family, but it is also a learned contribution to the histories of Russia, Hitler’s Berlin,  Vichy France, and of the international labor movement.

Patrice Higonnet, Robert Walton Goelet Research Professor Emeritus of French History at Harvard University


With extensive and challenging research in many Russian and U.S. archives and family papers, and in straightforward, compelling prose, Peter Gourevitch tells the absorbing story of his four grandparents, two Russian-Jewish political families, buffeted by the storms of politics, totalitarianism, and warfare in the twentieth century.  One grandfather left Europe, the other died in Stalin’s prisons. Disentangling the facts from the family legends leads Gourevitch and the reader to realize that these divergent fates were determined less by choice than by the collision between individual will and historical contingency.

Eric Van Young, Distinguished Professor of History at University of California, San Diego, is an American historian of Mexico


Peter Gourevitch tells the fascinating story of his family’s journey through the Europe of Hitler and Stalin. Engagingly written and deeply researched, the author brings to live his protagonists, mostly Jewish democratic Russian socialists. He documents their often twisted paths from the Russia of the Bolshevik revolution through Weimar and Nazi Germany, the cataclysm of the Second World War and the Holocaust, to the eventual escape of some of his family members to the United States. This is a story of courage, of resilience and survival but also of suffering and tragic loss. It provides a deeply personal perspective on some of the key events of the last century. And it raises profound and lasting questions about determinism and agency, about the significance of political commitments, and about the intersection of individual lives with major historical events.

Frank Beiss, Professor of history at the University of California, San Diego , Director of European studies program, UCSD


Peter Gourevitch’s riveting account of his family’s experience with two totalitarian regimes is part detective story, part political thriller, part historical research. All four grandparents were Mcncheviks; two fled the Soviet Union in the early 1920s and made their way to Berlin. Forced to take flight again in 1933, the maternal grandparents sought refuge in France. On the run once more in 1940, they managed to get visas for the United States. The paternal grandfather was killed in the Purge; the grandmother survived and in the 1960s found their son. As a teenager he had been sent to Berlin. Then, he too, escaped first to Paris and then to the United States. Gourevitch grew up with a Family Legend and now as an older scholar, he has set out to see how that fits with the historical record. He takes the reader along with him on this journey of discovery—a journey made vivid and graphic by his presence in the text.

Judith M. Hughes, Professor Emerita of History, University of California, San Diego


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