Six Centuries of a Jewish Dynasty

Q&A with Michael Karpin, Author of TIGHTROPE

Members of the remarkable Backenroth family
Fascinating Authors - Book Review by John H. Manhold
Blogger News - Book Review: Tightrope
Jew Wishes

Q&A with Michael Karpin, Author of TIGHTROPE


What inspired you to research the Backenroth family, of all families, in the first place?

I started researching the Backenroths’ history approximately 20 years ago, sometime after I returned to Israel from Germany, where I was the correspondent for Israel Television. In Germany, I had become interested in the history of the Jews. The further I delved into the tale of that ancient community, the more astonished I was by its resilience. Evidence of Jews in the Rhine Valley dates back to the early 4th century AD!

I decided to produce a television documentary series on the subject, and I began to look for a Jewish family whose history and roots were traceable.

Why did Allan contact you of all people?

Simply, one of his cousins, who knows me well and is familiar with my interest in Jewish history and genealogy, advised Allan to approach me. His wish encountered mine.   

What continued to motivate you? Six centuries of a family is a lot of history to go through!

My research developed by itself. Underneath each story another one was hidden. Individuals in the family were history oriented. Many kept diaries, wrote books, saved letters. They had demonstrated a strong desire to preserve their legacy. Many told me that they owe it to their forefathers. Holocaust survivors were eager to make the victim's history everlasting.

Where did you find your information? This was long before the invention of Google, after all.

Over the years, in the course of my journalistic travels, I interviewed family members whenever and wherever I came across them. Sometimes I made special trips to meet them. I conducted interviews in Vienna, London and Paris, in Warsaw and Krakow, in Rio de Janeiro and New York, and in several Israeli cities.
Just before the break-up of the Soviet Union, when I was serving as Israel TV’s correspondent in Moscow, I traveled to the Ukraine to visit a number of towns – Lvov, Bolechow, and Sanok. The latter is on the San River and the Backenroths had a refinery there. I also visited Drohobycz, Schodnica and Boryslav at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, where oil was discovered. Now, all that remains of the field are rusty iron grasshoppers that pumped out every drop of oil, until the wells ran dry.
I located a great deal of material in various archives. At the Institute for Jewish Research (YIVO) in New York I found the original report of an international committee that investigated the pogrom that took place in Lvov in 1919. In the government archives in Vienna, I found the first reports on oil prospecting in Galicia. I found professional reports on those first oil wells in Poland in the New York Public Library also, as well as reports on the discovery of the first oil fields in the United States, in Philadelphia, during exactly the same period. John D. Rockefeller’s company Standard Oil of Ohio was a competitor of the Backenroths’ Nafta Petroleum.
But the most significant document that I found was in the library of the rabbinical seminary in London: the diary of Dov-Ber Birkenthal that had come to light in London in 1912, entitled the “Memories of Rabbi Dov from Bolechow”. Birkenthal was born in 1723, and in his youth he began to keep a journal, in the Hebrew language. He left behind him a vivid and detailed testimony on everyday life in the leather-producing town of Bolechow. His journal is an historical rarity, because in the 18th century Jews who wrote refrained almost completely from secular matters. They devoted their time to study and to writing religious works in order to strengthen the faith, whereas Birkenthal’s testimony gives us a glimpse into the life of a Jewish community to which several generations of Backenroths belonged.  

Were there any persons of particular interest that stood out?

Avrumche Backenroth's character stands out. By the middle of the 19th century he established the family's oil company and secured its richness. In the eyes of his family and his employees, Avrumche was a leader head and shoulders above any other, a teacher and a ruler. There were contradictions in his personality’s make up, as there are in many strong and decisive men. Some saw him as an extreme conservative, while others thought he was too advanced for his times. He wore traditional Hasidic garb, strictly observed the Jewish law of moral conduct. He rode horses expertly and always carried a pistol. He knew a thing or two about the Talmud, but lacked secular education. Nevertheless, he held his own in negotiations with men of affairs from the Polish and Hungarian aristocracy.

The First Oil Wells in Galicia

Were there any events that were especially intriguing?

The story of the discovery of oil on the Backenroth's land in 1816, near the town of Drohobycz, in Galicia, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and is today in Ukraine. At that moment, a link formed between the Backenroth saga and my desire to delve into Jewish history. This was part of the first oil field to be discovered in Europe, and the family exploited it to the hilt. The emperor’s officials in Vienna wanted to nationalize the field and offered to buy it. The then-head of the family, Shmuel Leib Backenroth, who did not believe that there was a future in oil, said: “Sell it now! Fifty thousand gold coins will set us up for life, and I, Shmuel Leib, can’t compete with the emperor.” But his wife, Deborah nee Shor, who was an independent-minded woman, blessed with a gift for business, and who became a legend in the family, strongly opposed him. “What’s good for the emperor is good for me too,” she told her husband, and proposed a partnership with the government: fifty percent of the oil in exchange for the infrastructure and development of the field. That is how the family's fortune was born.
What recurring characteristics do you see throughout the generations?

Strong survival ability is the recurring characteristic. Generation after generation, the core members of the family, who are the main protagonists in TIGHTROPE, were caught up in intolerable circumstances, but many of them conducted courageous struggles and managed to survive. After the Holocaust, the survivors scattered across the globe and established their lives anew: in Rio De Janeiro, against the backdrop of the hedonistic lifestyle of the wealthy Jewish community; in Israel, during the War of Independence and the period of austerity in the early days of the state; in Europe, still licking its war wounds, and, mainly, in the land of unlimited opportunity – America – in business, in politics and in the intellectual community.

What qualities have changed in the Backenroth family over the years?

I'll tell you what qualities have not changed: Aspiration for knowledge and ambition for excellence. The tribal solidarity has lessened, mainly because of the scattering, no question about it, although the general commitment to the family legacy, I think, remains the same.

What makes this family of particular interest to the reader?

The role that the individual is playing on the global stage is projected by the links that I am trying to present between the annals of the Backenroths and historical events. It offers a rare opportunity to weave the private and personal tales of family members into the continuous general and Jewish historical tapestry, providing new perspectives and insights into the particular and the general.

What is the significance of the Backenroth family to [Jewish] society?

The history of the Backenroths is the history of the Jews. The experiences the Backenroths went through as a family are those the Jews went through as a people. The story is the same. Almost any Jewish family in the States can find in the Backenroths' history its own historical reflection. Jewish history and the development of Judeo-Christian culture or civilization is of great interest to broad sections of the Christian public in North America especially nowadays, when religious values are back on the agenda, and when the teaching of heritage of the Holocaust is becoming universal.

Where does contemporary society feel the everlasting mark left by a Backenroth family member?

The attainment of education and openness to knowledge and wisdom in the old, classical European-like manner is very strong among the current Backenroths, and that is why many of them are so successful with the new technical and business domains of the 21st century.

How has [the research on] the Backenroth family affected your life?

Physically and materially the affect on my life was minimal, because I could integrate the research into my regular journalistic activities. Mentally, researching and writing were more then pleasure; because the aura of some of the protagonists is radiating, I felt a kind of transcendence. During the research and writing many times I felt exalted. It is also the history of my people, don't forget it. 

What was it like going through all that research?

Combining occupation and hobby produces appeasement. Listening to people telling their history was a pleasure and then, weaving their stories into a historical, humanistic narrative was really great fun. It is interesting: sometimes the narrative seems to the reader like a novel, or a legendary saga, because of the epic element in the depiction of some of the characters, but this book provides another proof that reality is not less creative then human imagination. It is also important to stress that the details of these stories have been checked and found accurate.

Is there an underlying theme to the history of the family? Is there something that anyone can relate to?

First, cautiously observing family values, that's the basic theme. Honoring one's parents, solidarity with relatives, keeping family's legacy. Many Backenroths continue to preserve values that were lost by modern society. Secondly, a positive world outlook. The knowledge that everything depends on the individual and therefore is achievable.   

Where is the current generation of Backenroths? Their family reunions must be lots of fun!

The feasibility of carrying out a family reunion is being checked now. The biggest group of family's descendants resides in the States. Another large group lives in Israel. A few are Europeans and a small group live in South America. One could imagine that the best place for a reunion would be New York City.

What is the significance of the title, TIGHTROPE?

In order to survive, the Backenroths were compelled to walk on a tightly stretched rope like acrobats. Also, a tightrope has an immediate association with a hanging halter, denunciation and even crucifixion. Tightrope certainly does convey the sense of danger surrounding the family at so many times in their story. Another possible title was Survival, though so many didn't survive, that that may not be really appropriate.

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Some of the enthralling members in the remarkable Backenroth family:

Elimelech Backenroth was the clan's primeval patriarch. In the year 1350, at the Black Death's peak, Elimelech took the decision to forsake Bavaria (in south Germany) and journey “to the other side of the Mountains of Darkness,” as the lands east of the Carpathian Mountains are known in Jewish tradition to this day. Life in Bavaria became unbearable, firstly by the plague and secondly by a blood libel that spread across the continent, blaming the Jews for causing the epidemic by poisoning wells. The family set out on a wagons caravan, trekking across Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic), then veering north into southern Poland, and joining a Jewish colony that had settled in eastern Galicia, at the foot of the Carpathians, close to the small town of Drohobych.

Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller (1578-1654), a learned rabbi and public figure, became renowned amongst European Jews in the first half of the 17th century. The Habsburg emperor, Ferdinand II, accused Lipmann Heller of causing damage to Catholicism and of irreverence toward the pope because he taught his students forbidden Jewish religious texts. On 4 July 1629, Heller was arrested for 40 days and put on trial. In court he was asked how he dared to eulogize the Talmud after it had been banned by a papal rule. Heller explained his deed but lost the case. He was released penniless, forbidden to practice his profession. When the ban was lifted he wrote an excellent commentary on the Mishnah, the oral religious laws from which Judaism’s legal code, the Halakhah, developed. This commentary reflects the heritage of medieval Jewish thought. Lipmann Heller's great-grand-daughter Haya Heller, with her impeccable pedigree, was the first wife of Avrumche Backenroth.

Abraham “Avrumche” Backenroth is the family's leading exemplary figure. By the middle of nineteen century, Avrumche founded in Drohobych the Backenroth Brothers Company, which was the chief shareholder in Nafta Petroleum, a partnership that produced oil from wells drilled into family ground. Among the non-Jewish partners in Nafta Petroleum were a Polish prince and baroness, and a Hungarian aristocrat. The company had a seat on the European oil cartel and participated in negotiations on the prices of petroleum products. One of Backenroth Brothers' main competitors was John D. Rockefeller's company, Standard Oil of Ohio.


Naftali Backenroth-Bronicki (d. 1993), who during the German occupation built up mutual trust with the Gestapo and set up a vast project that occupied hundreds of Jews, saving many of them from the Nazis. His audacity and daring knew no bounds. During the last and most complicated phase of his struggle, while the Nazis were stepping up the annihilation of Jews, Naftali Backenroth acquired the identity of a Polish Gentile, becoming Mikola Bronicki. This ingenious maneuver required him to acquire a whole array of forged documents and recruit false witnesses. Naftali's rescue enterprise had been assisted by three good Germans, officials serving the occupation administration: Eberhard Helmrich, his wife Donata Hardt-Helmrich and Berthold Beitz. All three Germans were recognized by Yad Vashem – the Holocaust memorial and museum located in Jerusalem – as “Righteous Among the Nations” – the title bestowed on gentiles who helped save Jews during the holocaust.

Lucien Bronicki (b. 1934), Naftali's son, is one of the world’s foremost experts in geothermal power today. His international group of industries, Ormat Technologies Inc., registered in Nevada and traded on the New York Stock Exchange (quote ORA), has built geothermal power plants in Alaska, Nevada, California, Patagonia, the Philippines and Kenya. Ormat's developed technologies are used by power plants in dozens of other countries across the globe. Many of the technologies used by his company are based on Lucien's own inventions.

Leopold Weiss (1900-1992). His mother was a Backenroth, but he converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Asad in 1922 (asad means lion, as does Leopold, and his Hebrew name, Aryeh). In the 1920s, Weiss-Asad served as an advisor in the court of the King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia. In the 1950s he was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations. The Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, planned to entrap him by using another scion of the Backenroth clan, his cousin, Hemda Zinder, nee Feigenbaum, whose husband was an Israeli diplomat stationed in New York.
Asad first wife, Elsa, a German whom he married in Berlin, died in the Arabian Desert of a mysterious ailment. His second wife was Munira, daughter of a tribal chief from the Najad district in Saudi Arabia and mother of Asad's only son, Talal Assad, who currently teaches anthropology at City University of New York. The third wife of Weiss-Assad was an American, Pola-Hamida Assad, who converted to Islam and moved with him to Cairo, where he taught Islam at the al-Azhar University. Asad's English translation of the Quran has been acclaimed by Orientalists as one of the best.

Dorian Feigenbaum, Leopold Weiss-Asad uncle, was one of Sigmund Freud’s first students. In the 1920s Dorian ran the first mental hospital in Jerusalem. His attempts to get Jerusalem’s Jewish elites to accept his psychoanalytical doctrines failed and his contract with the hospital was terminated. He immigrated to New York, where for many years he edited the prestigious Psychoanalytic Quarterly.

Celia Heller, a descendant of Lipmann Heller and another Backenroth, researched anti-Semitism in Poland between the two wars, and wrote the book “On the Edge of Destruction, Jews of Poland between the Two World Wars,” a keystone for the understanding of East European anti-Semitism.

Leon Wieseltier (b. 1952) literary editor of the New Republic and a colorful figure on the American cultural scene. Leon’s mother, Stella Backenroth-Wieseltier, hid for nine full months with four other Jews, squeezed into a musty hiding place, dug out beneath a stable of two Polish families, near an oil well that had belonged to the Backenroths. On August 8, 1944, one of the family’s sons lifted the cover of the dugout and yelled, “The Nazis have gone. The Russians are already here.” Stella found it difficult to get her eyes used to the sunlight. Her legs had swollen due to her enforced inactivity, emotions choked up her throat and she could not express her joy.

Leon Thorne, another Backenroth's scion, kept one of the most important diaries written during the Nazi occupation. Leon and his brother David shared Stella Wieseltier's hiding place. Thorne kept his diary in the burrow out of a belief that he might be the only Jew left in the world, and it was his historical duty to record the events for posterity. The diary opens with these words: “I am writing these lines with great difficulty, at a time when my life is at risk and I have little prospect of surviving these terrible years. But I must write, even if my words will be annihilated with me, because I feel that I must tell how the Jews lived, how they were liquidated and how they survived the Hitler years".

A list of families that are linked by blood or marriage to the Backenroth's family tree:

Avigdor, Birkenthal, Bacharach, Bereznizki, Backenroth (Buchenrath), Collier, Heller, Edelsberg, Eichenstein, Epstein, Friedman, Feder, Feurstein, Feigenbaum, Graubard (Graubart), Gellerstein, Gertenberg, Greenberg, Greenwald, Gartner, Horn, Hagndel,
Horowitz, Kahane, Kaler, Kartin, Koslowski, Kronenberg, Krauthammer, Margulis,
Manis, Mahler, Moses, Nacht, Panzer, Petranker, Reichman, Rothenberg, Silberstein, Schreiber, Sobel, Shapiro, Sirkes, Shor, Schulz (including relatives of the writer  Bruno Schulz, who was a close friend of Naftali Backenroth-Bronicki and whose murder by a Gestapo officer is described in detail in the book), Tannenbaum, Turkel (Tirkel), Tenzer, Teomin, Thorne, Wickler, Weidman, Weber, Weinberger, Wawelberg, Weintraub, Zygelbaum (Zigelboim), Zinder, and many, many others.

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Book Review by John H. Manhold: Tightrope by Michael Karpin

Michael Karpin has written a scholarly work that is quite unusual. It stems from a purported chance meeting with a member of a prominent Jewish family some twenty years previously. It is usual for a number of reasons.

First, it exhibits the result of hours of research of historical and geographical fact about regions of the world seldom employed as areas for a main theme.

Second, it provides evidence of hours of perusal of personal papers and documents, as well as hours involved in personal interviews.

Third, it presents a number of little known facts about the Holocaust.The book is unusual in the realm of scholarly works in that:

First, it provides a plethora of historical and geographic material in a very readable fashion.

Second, it is replete with interesting vignettes from the lives of many members of the family - the devious methods employed by Naftali Backenroth  against the Gestapo to keep family members, and other Jews, from annihilation; the wartime decisions of Ullo Kahne and their results for other family members; the path taken by Leopold-Muhammad Weiss-Asad, who became a highly-placed Muslim; and many more.

Third, all of this material is set forth in a manner most resembling a far-ranging epic novel with many characters and unusual happenings.

So, in summary, Michael Karpin has produced a scholarly review of more than three centuries of history of one prominent Jewish family with the portrayal done in a most enjoyably readable fashion. If you are Jewish, you will love it. If not, but enjoy unusual historical tales, you still are going to find a most interesting read.

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Book Review: Tightrope – Six Centuries Of A Jewish Dynasty by Michael Karpin

Posted on January 28th, 2009 by Simon Barrett

Although Tightrope is only just over 400 pages, and 50 of those are footnotes this book definitely goes in the saga category. It is an impressive work that comes as a result of over 20 years research. In a nutshell it follows one single family and its various branches through over six centuries of upheavel.

If you ask  the average man in the street to describe the plight of the Jewish people, almost everyone will zone in on the current situation in Israel, and the events that unfolded during World War Two when the Nazi’s attempted to annihilate the entire race. Few people realize that horrific as the Holocaust was, it was hardly the first time that Jews had been persecuted. In fact the persecution can be documented from biblical times onward.

Michael Kerpin follows one single family, the Backenroth’s, the tale begins in 1350 with their perilous trek from what is now called Germany eastward to Poland. The reason for the move was the Plague that had ravaged Western Europe. Starting from scratch the family set about carving out a living for themselves. Initially becoming innkeepers, then merchants, and finally the oil business. There were decades of peace and prosperity and decades of fear an uncertainty. Each ruler making arbitrary laws concerning what commercial enterprises the Jewish community could engage in. About the only constant in their lives was change. Some leaders saw the Jewish contingent as beneficial to the economy, while others took the view that they were outsiders taking advantage of the native people. Retribution took many forms, taxes and special levies at the economic side of the spectrum, to violence and pogroms. All of this the Backenroth’s weathered with good grace.

The family is well documented in the 19th and 20th centuries and indeed this is what a good deal of the book focuses on. In the latter decades of the 1800’s the family moved into the oil buisiness, although their methods were crude and oil had yet to become a significant energy source, it did represent a period of great prosperity for them. The First World War though took its toll, and once more the Jewish minority found themselves at odds with authorities and  the working class Poles.

The biggest problem was still yet to come, WWII was to change their lives forever. First the Russians became their masters, imposing harsh austerity measures, and singling out successful families as being anti communist, the Backenroth’s were clear targets. What I find incredible, yet Tightrope is far from the first book I have read about Poland in the 30’s and 40’s is how the Jewish population remained put when it became clear that the Germans were on the move. The Jewish population actually welcomed the  German occupation as they felt that they would be kinder and more liberal than either the austere Russians or even the somewhat vengeful Poles. How wrong they were, and by the time they realized their mistake it was far too late. Many of the Backenroth extended family did perish at the hands of the Nazi’s some though by luck and guile did survive and it is their stories that chronicle one of the darkest moments in human history.

Michael Karpin also takes us on some interesting detours such as the story of Leopold Weiss who shortly after WWI moved to Palestine, however it was not his fellow Jews that he befriended but the native Arabs, eventually changing his name to Muhammud Asad and embracing Islam, an event that shocked the usually mainstream family.

I also greatly enjoyed the fact that the author took time out in his narrative to explain events in their cultural context. I am not Jewish and found that the explanations greatly enhanced the clarity of the story.

Over the centuries the family grew and dispersed, the author has tracked down descendants in South and North America, Poland, Russia, Israel and all places in between. This book is a text book study in genealogy. What really surprised me is that the author is not part of the family, this book was a result of a chance meeting 20 years ago with a South American relative of the Backenroth clan. The depth of research is outstanding, I cannot even begin to guess how many hours Michael Karpin has invested in this book. I do not give books a star rating, it is not my style, but if did this one would without doubt get 5 stars.

You can get your copy from Amazon, Michael Karpin also has a supporting web site.


Simon Barrett:
Simon Barrett is the senior editor for Blogger News Net and maintains a personal blog at Simon B. Now semi retired in the depths of Mississippi he has plenty of time to read books by up and coming authors.

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Blogging on book reviews and news written by Jewish authors

February 19, 2009

Tightrope: Six Centuries of a Jewish Dynasty, by Michael Karpin is an amazing 750-year saga of the Backenroth family. That the author was able to delve into archives, historical records, documents, newspaper articles, diaries (one written by Leon Thorne, a Backenroth relative, wanted to make sure that there was documentation in case there weren’t any Jews alive), oral histories, and any and every record he could garner information from, etc., is an incredible feat, in itself.
The work of non-fiction is epic in its proportions, and from the moment I read the first page, I was spellbound by the familial history before me, and the events that make up the complexities of their background. In fact, the first few pages had me extremely enthralled…and the presentation of the Backenroth family’s move from Ashkenaz to Eastern Europe in the 14th century was reminiscent in many aspects of the individuals who founded the American west. The family moved in covered wagons, to new frontiers in Eastern Europe, much like the caravans that traveled over the plains and mountains towards the new west.
The clan had resided in Ashkenaz for several centuries, and were merchants. The Backenroth’s moved in 1350 to escape the Black Death (the bubonic plague), and the move had them charting new territory when they picked up and and left. The Backenroth’s familial leader, Rabbi Elimelech made all the decisions, and he chose to settle in Galacia, in the salt mining town of Drohobych. From there begins an intense and compelling epic story, rich with history, Jewish life, and family dynamics.
The Backenroths eventually settled in a town known as Schodnica, one that they actually founded, and from there, mingled with the Kahane family in Bolechow. They were among those who integrated Kabbalah within the Hasidic Jewish community. Hasidism ruled within the family, and was a primary force in their lives, due to the elders of the family joining the Hasidic movement. Generations of Rabbis ensued, thereafter.
The family’s saga through almost eight centuries is incredibly woven into a tight tapestry, that spans the threads of time, through the most turbulent of history’s events. From the pogroms to World War I, this Jewish clan struggled to stay alive, using every available resource. Their faith and courage saw them through the Holocaust, although most of the family members didn’t survive. Several family members were deported from Drohobych in 1941. The family banded together in order to overcome their struggles, and in order to survive to bear witness. They were aided along the way by well-intentioned individuals, whose names have been added to The Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.
From poverty to wealth, to poverty and back again, the Backenroth’s were balancing on a constant tightrope, as they made their way through life. Each generation demonstrated significant fortitude, use of emotional, mental and physical resources in their quest to survive the situations dealt to them. Their story is inspiring on so many levels.
The family tree is rich with names that link the Backenroths to the Kahanes, the Graubarts, the Sobels, the Bronickis, the Weiss family and the Asad family, the Feigenbaums, and many more families. The history of the family crosses not only centuries, but modes of earning a living, filled with occupations ranging from tailoring to oil to agricultural land leasing, to name a few. The family’s survival instincts never lessened through the generations.
Karpin’s dedication to research is apparent in the extremely vivid details that fill the reader’s senses. It is as if we are back in time, looking through his eyes, inhaling the past, within each generation of the Backenroth family, at any given moment in each century. It is a work of non-fiction that is amazing in its content, and its demonstration of familial solidarity through every crises encountered. We are witness to the events and struggles that evoked the courage, steadfast determination, values and loyalty that saw one family through the ages, right up to the present time.
Tightrope is extremely fascinating, and I found it difficult to put the book down. It is a compelling book that details Jewish life in the fullest sense, from hardship to wealth, horrific times to joyous moments, and to the Jewish values and traditions upheld by one family throughout the generations. Their determination, and their Judaism saw them through life’s bleakest moments. This reader found herself quite emotionally taken throughout some of the poignant and intense pages. Tightrope is extremely inspiring, and is a book that is filled with invaluable historical information. It is a testament, not only to the Backenroth family, but also to the tenacity of Karpin.

Michael Karpin is eloquent in his writing, and Tightrope is well-articulated, extraordinary and stunning in its content. He traveled far and wide in order to make certain the information was accurate, and left nothing unturned. I highly recommend Tightrope to everyone, and feel it belongs in every library, school, college, university, and personal library.

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