Tightrope: Six Centuries of a Jewish Dynasty

Written by Michael Karpin
Review by Phyllis T. Smith

Twenty years ago, journalist Michael Karpin began to write the life story of a successful Brazilian businessman who was a Holocaust survivor. He became fascinated with Israel Kahane’s genealogical background and traced his family, the Backenroth clan, back to their migration from Germany to Poland in 1350. Here Karpin tells the story of this one family and in so doing paints a portrait of much of Jewish life since the Middle Ages.

In the course of the book, the Backenroths thrive and become rich, then suffer reversals of fortune. Somehow they rise again. Pogroms and persecutions, the beginning of the Hasidic movement, Nazi genocide, and the triumph of Zionism impact their lives. Tavern owners, oil tycoons, scholars, dreamers, and heroes of the anti-Nazi resistance all have places in the Backenroth family tree. The book’s many photographs and maps add an extra visual dimension to the Backenroths’ journey through history. Not every family member is admirable, but the best of them have extraordinary courage and resilience and carry on in face of obstacles so daunting that survival is an achievement. They walk across a metaphorical tightrope, and their true story makes for an engrossing saga.