The story begins with a grandfather who heroically escaped from Russia by swimming the Pruth River to Romania—or did he? Then there are stories of another grandfather who kept a lifelong mistress; grandmothers who were ignored except in the kitchen; migrations legal and illegal from Eastern Europe to Canada to California; racketeers on one side of the family and Communists on the other; and a West Coast adolescence in the McCarthy years. All of these (mostly true) stories form a Jewish family's history, a tale of dislocation and assimilation. But in the hands of award-winning historian Robert Rosenstone, they become much more. The fragments of memory so beautifully preserved in The Man Who Swam into History add unforgettable, human characters to the now familiar story of the Jewish diaspora in the twentieth century.
This combination memoir/short story collection recounts the Rosenstone family's passage from Romania to America. Robert Rosenstone tells the story not as a single, linear narrative, but through "tales, sequences, windows, moments, and fragments resurrected from the lives of three generations in my two parental families, set in five countries on two continents over the period of almost a century." This more literary and personal approach allows Rosenstone's relatives to emerge as distinct personalities, voices who quarrel and gossip, share their dreams and fears, and maintain the ties of a loving, if eccentric, family. Among the genre of "coming to America" tales, The Man Who Swam into History is a work of unique vision, one that both records and reconstructs the past even as it continuously—and humorously—questions the truth of its own assertions.