The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn
September 20, 2006
Books of The Times
By WILLIAM GRIMES
For a long time Daniel Mendelsohn knew that his family history was missing a chapter. When he was a small child, something about his eyes would cause elderly relatives to choke up and begin talking in rapid Yiddish about a long-lost uncle named Shmiel, who had a wife and four daughters, all unaccounted for.
Later Mr. Mendelsohn would listen spellbound as his maternal grandfather told tales of a little town in Poland called Bolechow, where he grew up with a half-dozen brothers and sisters, Shmiel among them, before setting out for a new life in America in 1920. There was a world of pain and longing in these stories, and a mystery at their heart.
“My grandfather told me all these stories, all these things,” Mr. Mendelsohn writes, “but he never talked about his brother and sister-in-law and the four girls, who, to me, seemed not so much dead as lost, vanished not only from the world but — even more terrible to me — from my grandfather’s stories.”
Mr. Mendelsohn, who would grow up to become a classics scholar and literary critic, made it his life’s mission to reach into his family history and fill in the blank pages. “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million” is the record of his extraordinary efforts to complete the stories that his grandfather told, and to reimagine the lost world of a generation disappearing before his eyes.
Mr. Mendelsohn sets out to do many things in this hugely ambitious book. First he tries to uncover the facts surrounding the deaths of six Jews trapped in a Polish town under Nazi occupation. But facts are not mere facts in his hands. They are the animating details that transform names — abstractions — into recognizable human beings.
At one point in his travels, which take him all over the world, chasing down former residents of Bolechow, Mr. Mendelsohn visits Auschwitz. The experience leaves him disgruntled. The sheer scope of the crime and the numbers involved have a numbing effect antithetical to Mr. Mendelsohn’s project.
“It had been to rescue my relatives from generalities, symbols, abbreviations, to restore to them their particularity and distinctiveness, that I had come on this strange and arduous trip,” he writes.
In this he succeeds brilliantly, recovering from the fading memories of witnesses, from bits and scraps of documents, from old photographs, from half-remembered comments and conversations that took place more than a half-century ago, the tiny details that add up to six lives, lived in a town, like hundreds of others in the Pale of Settlement, that former residents recall as happy and peaceful. A town where Jews, Ukrainians and Poles had lived in cozy familiarity for centuries.
Shmiel Jäger, Mr. Mendelsohn discovered, was a big man in Bolechow. He had spent a little time in New York in 1913, but returned to his hometown, where he could be a big fish in a small pond. New York, he decided, was not a lucky place for him. Back in Bolechow he ran the local butchers’ cartel and owned two delivery trucks. He had the first telephone in town, and the first radio too. He doted on his wife and his four daughters.
None of them survived the war, but where and how they died remained unclear. The Nazis exterminated all but 40 of the town’s 6,000 Jews from 1941 to 1943. Those rounded up and exterminated could not speak; those who survived did not see or caught only brief glimpses of what was happening. Again and again Mr. Mendelsohn, sifting through the alternative theories and competing facts about the Jägers’ deaths, concludes, “Impossible to know.”
He does manage, through persistence and sheer good luck, to piece together at least the basics of the story. He finds, just as he is giving up hope, the house where two Polish schoolteachers hid Shmiel and his daughter Frydka. Frydka had fallen in love with a Polish boy, who helped her and her father, along with other Jews. Someone, probably a neighbor, betrayed them. The Gestapo dragged out Shmiel and Frydka and shot them on the spot. Shmiel’s wife and other daughters had already died in mass executions in 1941 and 1942.
Mr. Mendelsohn, an evocative, ruminative writer, brings to life the vanished world not just of prewar Poland but also of his childhood and his extended family, and his growing fascination with the story of Shmiel. In the early going, as he summons up, in vertiginous Proustian paragraphs, the memories of his grandfather and the family gatherings in Miami Beach, “The Lost” feels as if it is going to be a great book. But the same obsessiveness that takes him to a dozen countries in the course of a year also causes him to overplay his hand.
Mr. Mendelsohn throws the weight of the world on his story. Each step along the way is documented in painstaking detail: the library visits, the Internet searches, the telephone calls, the airplane flights. All are described in the same solemn, portentous tone that suffuses the terrible events in Bolechow. Mr. Mendelsohn interpolates, in dramatic italics, long passages of Biblical interpretation, in which he uses the story of the Creation or of the Flood or of Cain’s murder of Abel to universalize the particulars of his story.
He digresses sometimes quite strangely, musing, for example, over the difficulty of reckoning dates B.C., because they move backward, while the time they record moves forward. He spends far too much time poring over his own feelings and reactions.
In short, Mr. Mendelsohn wears out his welcome. He seems to forget that the people we care about are the same ones he does: Grandfather Jäger, Uncle Shmiel and the rest of the Bolechowers, living and dead, whom he captures on the page so vividly and lovingly. Of them the reader never tires.
Holocaust comes home
Reviewed by Dan Cryer
Sunday, September 17, 2006
A Search for Six of Six Million
By Daniel Mendelsohn
HARPERCOLLINS; 512 Pages; $27.95
When Daniel Mendelsohn was a boy, his family occasionally would travel from their New York suburb to visit elderly relatives in Miami Beach. At the sight of the handsome, sloe-eyed Daniel, they would inevitably cry out, "Oh, he looks so much like Shmiel!"
The curiosity of this bright boy, already fascinated by genealogy and archaeology, was piqued. Over the years, curiosity morphed into steady interest, then obsession and, finally, into a book, "The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million," the story of his painstaking efforts to piece together how his great-uncle Shmiel Yaeger, great-aunt Ester and their four daughters lived and how they died in the Holocaust.
"The Lost" is, in some ways, a sequel to Mendelsohn's "The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity," an innovative, artful gaze into the mirror. Here, the author, a classicist, skillfully employed Greek tragedy as a template for understanding the nuances of family and homosexuality.
"The Lost," dotted with carefully drawn portraits of family members, is likewise part memoir. But Mendelsohn is no longer at the center. Instead, he's a persistent researcher into the lives and deaths of unheralded victims. His aim is rescue and redemption, to give shape and personality to the voiceless.
This time, it's the Old Testament providing the intellectual undergirding. From the story of Cain and Abel, for instance, he draws insight into the phenomenon of the intimate enemies -- Jews, Poles and Ukrainians -- that made up the Yaegers' town of Bolechow, Poland (now Ukraine).
Complexity is not the problem but the solution, a mentor once counseled Mendelsohn. He has learned the lesson well. Thus, the book's labyrinthine course, as he travels to Europe, Israel and Australia to interview Bolechow survivors, as his narrative slides backward and forward in time, as he spins one Scheherazade-like tale out of another, as he pauses for engaging and poignant asides.
Despite its considerable length, "The Lost" doesn't seem too long, thanks to the author's fine-tuned sense of drama and deft prose style. In an imperial Habsburg crypt in Vienna, for example, he shows us "sarcophagi in bronze and stone, writhing with statues and crowned skulls, whispering Latin inscriptions to anyone who cared to look." (The Habsburgs are a mere footnote to this story, except for the enlightened policies toward 18th century Jews, when Bolechow was part of their realm.)
Visiting this nondescript Ukrainian town with some of his siblings, the author is struck by the inhabitants' warmth. The reception contrasts sharply with the knowledge that the locals actively aided the Nazis -- pointing out Jewish houses, even bashing children's heads on cobblestones -- in the infamous "Aktions" of October 1941, and September 1942. Some victims were rounded up and shot outside town, others dispatched to the Belzec concentration camp.
One legacy from Mendelsohn's grandfather, Shmiel's brother Abraham, is a handful of letters Shmiel sent to America in 1939, first asking for money to replace a truck confiscated by the Nazis, later for money to get out of town. "God willing, Hitler should be torn to bits!" he rages.
Mendelsohn sought confirmation of terrible bits of family lore -- that the Yaeger girls had been raped, that some of the family, hidden in a Polish count's castle, temporarily escaped death and that the two older sisters fought with the partisans in the forest before being betrayed. None of these stories proved to be true.
Bolechow was only the first stop on Mendelsohn's frustrating but ultimately rewarding journeys. Information he picked up was always subjective, often based on hearsay. Informants' memories were fading. Some of them had hidden agendas. One woman claiming, in accented English, that she "remembers nussink" turns out to have had a complicitous brother, a member of the Jewish police involved in roundups.
Eventually, the author gathers and verifies enough facts to offer partial portraits, especially of Shmiel and Frydka. He's a respected and successful businessman, a big fish in a small pond who'd been reluctant to emigrate like his brothers. She's a pretty adolescent, an independent young woman ahead of her time, a social butterfly sought by the boys, including a gentile, Ciszko Szymanski.
"If you kill her, then you should kill me, too!" witnesses say he shouted to the SS when she and her father were discovered hiding in a Polish schoolteacher's house. They did. Frydka and her father were shot on the spot. Ciszko and the teacher, Hela Szedlak, were later hanged.
"The Lost" chronicles martyrs and heroes alike. Long on compassion, it is reluctant to issue sweeping moral judgments. Harrowing, absorbing and supremely intelligent, the book amounts to an eloquent Kadish, a prayer for the dead of Bolechow. By honoring these six relatives, Mendelsohn has paid homage to all of those who perished in Hitler's Final Solution.
Dan Cryer is a contributor to "The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors."
Testimony about the Holocaust, from a survivor who became a great writer and from a man haunted by six losses.
Reviewed by Elie Wiesel
Sunday, October 8, 2006; T01
By Primo Levi
With Bernardo De Benedetti
Translated from the Italian by Judith Woolf
Verso. 97 pp. $17.95
A Search for Six of Six Million
By Daniel Mendelsohn
HarperCollins. 512 pp. $27.95
And why this particular memory that can only do harm, that can only cast doubt on man and his weaknesses? Why answer its calls and its silences? Why do we struggle to remember, to bring back a past that shames not only creation but the Creator himself? Do we do it to suffer at second degree -- with those and for those who suffered before? Or is it simply to know? To understand? Or, even more, to plumb the depths of a human soul, bloodied and bowed, at a time when evil had usurped the power of gods to judge who lived, who died, and how, and for what reason?
Here are two works: different in style and approach, but joined by the common theme of a nagging memory -- its layers, obligations, traps. Memory's limits, too. One is written by someone who survived the dark days; the other, by a younger writer, who hunts through the dark in order to comprehend it.
The first and shorter book is by Primo Levi, known the world over and admired for his lucid writing.
For the sake of transparency, I feel obliged to remind the reader that we were friends. For a time, we were together in the same camp, in the same barracks. Without a doubt, we passed each other every day, unacquainted and unaware. He was a chemist and therefore useful; I was only a number.
We encountered each other again after the war, thanks to a chance meeting at a cultural conference in Rome. Once bona fides were made, the bond was immediate. Our exchanges continued over the years. Equipped with survivors' code, we could read each other's minds. Just before his tragic suicide in 1987, he called me. His desperation haunts me still. I well remember the thought that occurred to me at the time: Here is proof that one can die at Auschwitz after Auschwitz.
His Auschwitz Report is a brief document, first published in an Italian medical journal in 1946 and then largely forgotten until its rediscovery in 1993. It was originally requisitioned by the Soviet military authorities in Katowice, Poland, in the spring of 1945 and drafted with his friend and companion, Leonardo De Benedetti, a doctor who also survived the death camp. It has now been published for the first time in English. It embarrasses me to say so, but it's not Levi's best work. It has neither the breath nor the breadth of Survival in Auschwitz or The Reawakening . But it was his first. And that is its strength and importance.
The two survivors begin their report with their deportation to Auschwitz: "We left the concentration camp at Fossoli di Carpi (Modena) on 22 February 1944 with a convoy of 650 Jews of both sexes and all ages. The oldest was over eighty, the youngest a baby of three months."
In sober, precise language, without resorting to reverie or philosophical meditation, they describe the atmosphere in the railcar, the chaotic arrival, the selections, the separation of families . . . the transfer to Auschwitz III, a satellite of the death camp compound also known as Buna-Monowitz. . . the showers, the searches, the daily rations, the hunger, fear, disease . . . and then, the liberation by the Red Army . . . . All without a superfluous word. In its very dryness, the book delivers a quasi-scientific report. With only some minor historical errors: The people of the Sonderkommando, who burned the corpses, were not recruited from the criminal sector. They came from every rung of concentration camp society. Not one was a volunteer.
But this is no literary work; it is a testimonial in two voices. Which one is Levi's? Difficult to say. One must listen.
As for Daniel Mendelsohn, his book springs from another genre entirely. The Lost , too, deals with memory, but explored from a closer angle -- more personal, less compartmentalized. More literary, as well. Here, above all, is an unrelenting quest into the life and death of others. More precisely, into the lives of Mendelsohn's great-uncle Shmiel Jäger, the older brother of his grandfather; Shmiel's wife, Ester; and their four daughters (Lorka, Frydka, Ruchele, Bronia) -- all of whom disappeared in that which we now so inadequately label the Holocaust.
It's not an unheard-of phenomenon. Lately, there seems to be an irrepressible need among grandchildren of survivors to make their ancestors speak. Is it because they fear that with their deaths, something precious, special, irreplaceable will be lost forever? Is this a last opportunity to take possession of a truth that weighs not only on individual histories but on History itself?
With Mendelsohn, it's a matter of true obsession. From the start, the reader, like the author, asks: Why this hunger, since childhood, to search out his family's fate? Is it because his grandfather, in retelling a long-ago past in the Ukrainian village of Bolechow, avoided any questions about his uncle? Every time the grandson queried him, the grandfather responded tersely that he was killed by the Nazis. That's all.
But little by little, the young boy was dragged into the melancholy machinery. For reasons he didn't really know, Mendelsohn had to know more, much more, always more. But his grandfather, before committing suicide as an old man, held his tongue. With time, Mendelsohn learned that his grandfather's older sister had died at 22, six weeks before her wedding; as for other members of the family, he overheard his mother say on the telephone that, apparently, they had been hidden for a while and then turned in by a neighbor. Later, someone said: "He was first on the list." And the four daughters of Shmiel? Raped by their assassins. Where? When? How? Silence. So he turned to the documents, archives from which he harvested all that had ever been said about that tiny village.
As years passed, a quest took shape: He wrote about it for a major magazine. He traveled to the very places that haunted his memory. In New York, he met "the last Jew of Bolechow." He ended up in Bolechow itself, in search of that wretched moment when Shmiel and his family met death -- as would every Jew in the village, as would so many Jews in occupied Europe.
His pilgrimage, which lasted more than three years, took him from Ukraine to Israel, from Sweden to Denmark. Here and there, he met with old inhabitants of Bolechow; he dug through their keepsakes and found bits and pieces that led to Shmiel and his family. It was an arduous, trying task. So much time produced such little result; and dust seemed to cover it all. What survivors there were had dispersed, their memories dissipated forever. People remembered a neighbor one way; others remembered him differently. A man couldn't recall whether Shmiel had two daughters or four. One had been shot; the other sent to the gas chamber. With time, Mendelsohn learned that Shmiel was deaf, that Frydka was beautiful, that a young Ukrainian trying to save them both had been gunned down by the Germans.
It's a vast, highly colored tapestry. Indeed, with passion and no little grit, he weaves in snippets of language, fragments of incident, fleeting names -- and succeeds in assembling an immensely human tableau in which each witness has a face and each face a story and destiny. There's a survivor's son in Sweden, a relative in Israel, a peasant in Ukraine, a friend of friends in Austria: All are bound together. A reader cannot help but follow the trail breathlessly -- first the suspense, doubt, surprise and, finally, the discovery. We share his anger, commend his hopes. And, when tears choke his voice, we, too, long to cry.
Despite overlong passages and a minor gaffe here and there (one starts to read Bereishit, the first book of the Bible, not on Rosh Hashanah but on Simchat Torah), this is a remarkable personal narrative -- rigorous in its search for truth, at once tender and exacting. It is deeply moving, often distressing, sometimes funny. The style is clipped, gasping even. In it, a hundred families disappear into the ash.
The first German "Aktion" is in October of 1941: Ruchele, dead. The second "Aktion," in 1942: Ester and two of her daughters are deported in lead-gray cattle cars, to Belzec.
Ruchele, the 16-year-old -- was she beaten? Raped? She saw -- yes, saw -- the rabbi she had known for years with his eyes gouged out, a blood-red cross carved into his chest, forced to strip and dance naked with a terrified Jewish woman. And then there were Shmiel and Frydka, the last to go. Who betrayed them? The author never succeeded in ferreting out an informer. But he did find his family's last underground refuge.
He tells of the small quotidian dramas and the eventual maw that overtook them, the blaze of suffering that followed: the cruelty of the Germans and the baseness of their Ukrainian collaborators; the inability of Jews to keep their heads when all about them were so many murderers, so many enemies. But he also tells of valor and noble hearts.
And so it is that this writer's true accomplishment emerges: In wanting to learn about the fate of six members of his family, he comes face-to-face with the others.
Often, he interrupts the narrative on the verge of tears with a biblical commentary. To better understand the ordeal at hand? It's almost as if he were trying to flee the flames of yesterday's hell by plunging himself into ancient memory. In that unverifiable universe, past and present merged, as did rumor and document, the real and the only possible. Since survivors were so few, it is hard to know how any of the victims -- stripped of all heirs and testimonials -- actually went to their deaths.
In truth, to paraphrase a Talmudic saying, if all the world's trees were to turn into pens, all oceans to ink, and every survivor became a historian, they would be unable to relay the torment the Jewish people underwent.
But the subtitle of this book is an apt beginning: A Search for Six of Six Million. It is as if the author were saying to us: It is humanly impossible to recount the agony, despair and deaths of so many; and so he will limit his inquest to six.
One can only pray, feel, weep, for all the rest. ·
Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He is the author of more than 40 books, including his most recent, "The Time of the Uprooted." This review, written in French, was translated by Book World's editor, Marie Arana.
Climbing the Family Tree
Mark Oppenheimer | Fri. Sep 08, 2006
The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million By Daniel Mendelsohn HarperCollins, 528 pages, $27.95.
Although he had begun teaching himself ancient Greek when he was 10, Daniel Mendelsohn was not interested in the Hebrew he had to memorize for his bar mitzvah in 1973, nor in the Jewish faith that the Hebrew conveyed. It was the reception after the bar mitzvah ceremony that changed his life: “For as I was passed from relative to relative to be kissed and slapped on the back and congratulated, the confused mass of unknown and similar-looking faces bothered me, and I began to wonder how it was I came to be related to all those people, to the Idas and Trudys and Juliuses and Sylvias and Hildas, to the names Sobel and Rechtschaffen and Feit and Stark and Birnbaum and Hench.” Young Daniel became the gardener of the family tree, learning and tending to its roots and branches, interviewing relatives and keeping notes on index cards, and later with genealogy software. He always had an especially keen interest in his maternal grandfather’s brother Shmiel and in Shmiel’s family, the ones that, Mendelsohn knew, had been killed by the Nazis. In 1980, after his grandfather’s death, Mendelsohn and his mother found letters from Shmiel to his brother, the grandfather. The letters’ heartbreaking quality, with their desperate, futile pleas for help to get to America, enhanced Mendelsohn’s curiosity about the fate of Shmiel’s family.
Two decades later, aided by the Internet, Mendelsohn progressed even further in his genealogical research; he had also located several natives of Shmiel’s hometown, who might remember Shmiel and his family. “The Lost” is the story of this gay, blue-eyed classicist, journalist, critic and amateur genealogist, the second of five children, a man now in his 40s and attempting to learn what he can about his grandfather’s brother Shmiel Jäger and Shmiel’s wife and four daughters, who all perished in the small Ukrainian shtetl of Bolechow during World War II. It is a grand book, an ambitious undertaking fully realized. I don’t mean that it’s perfect — no truly good book is — but only that its flaws add to its grandeur, make it a more fascinating read and ensure that it will live in my mind for a long time. This is no simple Holocaust book.
Sometimes traveling with one or more siblings, sometimes with a friend, Mendelsohn met elderly Bolechowers in Ukraine, Australia, Sweden, Denmark and Israel. Some were Jewish, some gentile. Many of them remembered Shmiel, and while some remembered him vaguely, others had clearer memories. Several had heard tales of how Shmiel and his daughter, Frydka, had been hidden from the Nazis by a gentile schoolteacher. Some said that Frydka’s lover, a Polish boy, had brought them food in their hideaway — until Shmiel and Frydka were discovered and killed by the Nazis, who then killed the schoolteacher and the Polish boyfriend, too.
The clues accumulate slowly, from one continent to the next, as Mendelsohn interviews one Bolechower and then another. Miraculous coincidences lead him to more clues; old men he stops on the street, on the off chance they might know something, turn out to know something. This is an extraordinary detective tale, and I’ll say only that there is a remarkably good payoff at the end. God’s hand seems to be at work.
Mendelsohn would not credit God — he remains an irreligious man, like the bar mitzvah boy of yore. But his scholarly interest in Judaism has progressed, and one of the pleasures of “The Lost” is Mendelsohn’s interposition of short sections of biblical exegesis between episodes of the travel narrative. These discussions of Genesis, and of Rashi’s commentary on Genesis, are scattered throughout, none of them more than two or three pages long; they flavor the book, insinuating into its pages the religious worldview held by so many of the murdered Jews and restoring, a little bit, the shtetl mind. Mendelsohn’s interpretations can be intriguing, as when he reads the story of Abram’s abandonment of Sarai to the Pharaoh as an example of what oppressed people will do to survive: “The exploitation of a lie for (there is no other word for it) self-enrichment, the use of the wife to provide a kind of cover story for an escape that became, however improbably, a vehicle for self-enrichment, for the propagation of a successful new progeny in the new land. I think of these, and I think that whoever wrote parashat Lech Lecha knew something about the way people can behave in times of crisis.”
Mendelsohn is alluding specifically to Jews conscripted into the Judenrat, the Jewish council in each town that helped the Nazis carry out their policies. Such ghastliness is present throughout “The Lost” — this is, after all, a Holocaust book. From all the scenes of terror and fright and sadness, I’ll offer here the one that most moved me. It’s not as terrible as the starving boy picking lice from his clothes and eating them for food, nor as amazing as the Bolechower who walked as far east as the Iranian border to elude the Nazis, but it’s the one I’ll remember best. Mendelsohn is talking with Frances Hauser Begley, an old New York widow who had grown up near Bolechow. (He doesn’t use quotation marks.)
She lowered herself into the chair, and then she told me the story: how, after the war was over, after she’d been reunited with her husband, the big doctor from Stryj who, like so many doctors, was taken east when the Soviets retreated in 1941, she was contacted by someone who’d come to live in her former house, the house I had tried and failed to locate, the summer before.
He told me he had found a bunch of my photographs, she said, and if I wanted them, I could send money to such-and-such an address.
She grimaced, although her expression was not without some humor.
So I did it for a while, I would send money and he would send a photo, two photos.
I didn’t say anything. I was trying to imagine how much I would pay to ransom my past.
But finally my husband got angry, he was sick of it, and I stopped.
One persistent problem with “The Lost” is that the author is irritatingly coy about his own celebrity. For example, one could finish this book and still be surprised to learn that Mendelsohn’s last book, “The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity,” published by Knopf in 1999, was a much-lauded attempt to put a literary gloss on a particular version of gay male sexuality; it is strange that nowhere in so personal a book as “The Lost” does Mendelsohn linger over his gayness or his success as an author. But, more to the point, this lacuna — in a 500-page book that discusses so much else — betrays a strange lack of self-knowledge: it’s as if Mendelsohn doesn’t know how widely recognized he is, doesn’t realize that many readers of “The Lost” will know “The Elusive Embrace” and The New York Review of Books’ criticism, the old book reviews from New York magazine, the jaunty chronicles in Travel + Leisure. It’s a credit to Mendelsohn’s estimable career that I see this book as part of a corpus, but my knowledge of that corpus
meant that as I read along I was bothered by what I knew to be an ostentatious reticence.
That lack of self-knowledge is evident in other ways.
Mendelsohn is almost obsessive, for example, in discussing the blue eyes and blond hair of his relatives, but he never shows a sufficient awareness of his own obsession. He knows that Jews want to look like gentiles, but having made that point he revisits it too often; his own interest in the topic overshoots his awareness of that interest. Like an analysand who prematurely thinks he understands himself, Mendelsohn seems a little too confident that he has been cured, in this case of self-loathing goy envy.
Mendelsohn also errs, I think, in placing too much interpretive burden on his fraught relationship with his brother Matthew. It’s in reflecting on that relationship, he writes, that he begins to understand how his grandfather might have refused to help his great-uncle Shmiel escape the Nazis: “I think of my grandfather and Shmiel, and wondered yet again what might have passed between them, what upsurge of unacknowledged and unknowable emotion that, in me, had led me one day to break my brother’s arm might have led my grandfather to do something far more terrible… .” He also thinks of Matthew when he considers that Ukrainians, who had lived alongside the Jews, often turned on them when the Nazis arrived: “It was because I knew well what playing together can lead to — how beneath the closeness, the knowing each other, can be a knowing too well — that I asked what seemed to me to be the next logical question: Were there Ukrainians who were happy when the Jews were taken away? I asked.”
You might find it persuasive that Ukrainian antisemitism is somehow a species of fraternal loathing, born of proximity. But I don’t. Hating your brother is a form of the Unheimliche, the estranged familiar, a result of knowing too well. It’s seeing in his choices rejections of yourself, referenda on yourself, too-close encumbrances on yourself. You want your brother to go away because you’re not at liberty to ignore him. But you want your neighbors — another ethnic group, let’s say — to go away because you’re convinced that, beneath it all, they are not family, they will forever be inscrutable, and they are mysteriously at the root of your problems.
Mendelsohn makes it clear that during the research for this book he and his siblings grew closer. I found this delightful to read about, but I don’t believe that he has resolved his family struggles as neatly as he has wrapped up his historical quest. There are parallel searches here: one for dead European relatives who can never really be found, another for an immediate family here in America — siblings Daniel and Andrew and Matthew and Eric and Jennifer, and parents Marlene and Jay. By the end of the book, the dead relatives have quickened and the living relatives seem stuck in place. Those old Europeans, Shmiel and Ester and their four girls, are recovered in a startling real-life sleuthing tale; even if Mendelsohn learns only a little bit about them, it’s so much more than we had any right to expect. The living relatives, who are close enough to touch, seem instrumental, means but not ends.
The cumulative force of this book — in which letters, interviews, maps, birth and death records, and, finally, biblical passages are all interpretive aids — makes it a startling reminder of the affinity between criticism and history. Understanding the fictional is a lot like understanding the dead: The subjects can’t speak for themselves, and they do not give up their secrets easily. Mendelsohn is at his weakest when describing those closest to him — himself, his brother, the living. It’s when he performs his acts of resurrection, when he writes about dead relatives or about figures in art whose presence he feels as strongly as if they were alive, that his “sentimental imagination,” as his friend Mrs. Begley calls it, is provoked, so furiously that he could spend decades tracing a lineage that had seemed moribund, tracing it across four continents and coaxing it to life, from clay to golem.
Mark Oppenheimer is the editor of In Character and the author, most recently, of “Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).
Published September 17, 2006
Samuel G. Freedman
The Lost: A
Search for Six of Six Million
By Daniel Mendelsohn
HarperCollins, 513 pages, $27.95
During late summer 2001, about a year into his quest to learn the story of six relatives who died during the Holocaust, Daniel Mendelsohn visited the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. He had resisted making the trip, but not because he thought the experience would be emotionally overwhelming. If anything, what he expected and what he found was a place that did not move him enough. The very vastness of Auschwitz, of the Nazis' industrial style of mass murder, obscured the specificity that Mendelsohn was obsessed with recovering in investigating the death of a great-uncle and great-aunt and their children.
"It had been to rescue my relatives from generalities, symbols, abbreviations, to restore them to their particularity and distinctiveness, that I had come on this strange and arduous trip," Mendelsohn writes in "The Lost." "Killed by the Nazis--yes, but by whom, exactly? The dreadful irony of Auschwitz, I realized as we walked through the famous rooms full of human hair, of artificial limbs, of spectacles, of luggage destined to go nowhere, is that the extent of what it shows you is so gigantic that the corporate and anonymous, the sheer scope of the crime, are constantly, paradoxically asserted at the expense of any sense on individual life."
Mendelsohn's mission to exhume the personal experience drove him to Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Israel, Sweden, Denmark and even Australia over the course of five years. At these journeys' end, he had learned in precise, harrowing detail of the killings of his Uncle Shmiel Jager, Aunt Ester and their daughters, Lorka, Frydka, Ruchele and Bronia. He had recovered, too, the vitality of their lives before the Germans invaded their Polish town of Bolechow (now Bolekhiv, Ukraine), and in so doing Mendelsohn has deprived Hitler of the posthumous triumph of making the Holocaust the only relevant fact about the centuries-long existence of Eastern European Jewry.
The resulting book is a singular achievement, a work of major significance and pummeling impact. A classics professor at Bard College in New York and an essayist, Mendelsohn has used every part of his self to unearth and recount the saga. He operates, at turns, as son, brother, detective, journalist, oral historian, etymologist, expert in ancient cultures and their epic literature. With remarkable skill, Mendelsohn weaves together the chronicle of his search and lengthy exegeses of passages from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. These sections allow him in an unforced way to cast a mythological aura over the events of the early 1940s in Godforsaken Bolechow.
From his childhood on Long Island, Mendelsohn had been the unofficial historian in his nuclear family, absorbing his maternal grandfather's tales and snapshots and Yiddishisms, but also noting the paucity of references to the grandfather's slain brother Shmiel. As Mendelsohn recalls, "[H]e never talked about his brother and sister-in-law and the four girls who, to me, seemed not so much dead as lost, vanished not only from the world but--even more terrible to me--from my grandfather's stories."
By the time that curiosity took the form of a deliberate search in 2000, Mendelsohn had little more than a few photographs and some third-hand accounts of who died when and how. Almost all of that information came into question, and much of it wound up being contradicted and drastically revised, as Mendelsohn trekked from continent to continent, tracking down many of the 48 Bolechow Jews from a prewar total of 6,000 to survive the Germans and their enthusiastic Ukrainian allies. His inquest makes for an unlikely sort of page-turner, a police procedural applied to genocide.
The finely grained information Mendelsohn gathers restores a mind-bending exactitude to the Holocaust. In Bolechow, he learned, a rabbi had his eyes gouged out by the Germans and then was made to strip and feign copulation with a naked woman. A starving boy, trying to survive with a bullet wound in his shoulder, ate the lice off his own body.
Yet Mendelsohn's insistence on observed or documented fact also reveals stunning acts of compassion by Bolechow's Catholics. The most stirring example involved a young man named Ciszko Szymanski, who became the wartime lover of Frydka Jager and arranged to hide her in the home of a similarly courageous Polish art teacher. After Ciszko was caught bringing food to Frydka, she was shot and he was hung.
What elevates "The Lost" among many other searing Holocaust narratives is Mendelsohn's concern with life before the German invasion. He pays the dead the ultimate compliment of rescuing the complicated, messy humanity of their lives, giving them a reality besides martyrdom. Shmiel Jager, for instance, was the local big shot, the first man in Bolechow with a telephone and a radio. His brother Itzhak capitalized on a meat shortage by selling cuts that had not been slaughtered in the kosher manner, and the resulting disgrace may have played some role in his departure for Palestine. Frydka had the best legs of any of the Jager daughters, and they helped her flit from boy to boy like "a butterfly."
I can only cavil about Mendelsohn's occasional, inexplicable spasms of awesomely self-conscious prose. At the start of the book, as if to try to prove his writerly merits, he indulges in elaborately lengthy, free-associative sentences, all snarls and switchbacks. While he calms down as the book proceeds, he periodically reverts to (bad) form. I counted more than 500 words and upwards of 50 commas in one particular sentence. Why Mendelsohn felt the need to impose his pseudo-artistry, why he seemed to want to compete with his own staggering material, I cannot imagine. As anyone familiar with his essays in The New York Review of Books knows, Mendelsohn normally is a lucid, fluent, quietly confident writer. The story, after all, is the thing in "The Lost."
"To be alive is to have a story to tell," Mendelsohn writes toward the end of this exceptional book. "To be alive is precisely to be the hero, the center of a life story. When you can be nothing more than a minor character in somebody else's tale, it means that you are truly dead."
Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. His books include "Who She Was: My Search for My Mother's Life."
Essayist's search for 'Lost' family finds its mark
By David Walton
Sunday, September 10, 2006
"The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million," by Daniel Mendelsohn. HarperCollins, $27.95. 528 pages.
Daniel Mendelsohn's meditative family memoir, "The Lost," is, as its subtitle indicates, a search for six of the 6 million Eastern European Jews who died in the Holocaust: the brother, sister-in-law and four nieces of the author's maternal grandfather, who stayed behind in the ancestral Polish-Ukraine town of Bolechow while the rest of the family immigrated to America.
"Some time ago, when I was 6 or 7 or 8 years old, it would occasionally happen that I'd walk into a room and certain people would begin to cry," the author begins. His starting point is his resemblance to Shmiel Jaeger, his grandfather's brother, whose story Mendelsohn picks up through "scraps of whispers, fragments of conversations that I knew I wasn't supposed to hear."
As an American teenager, Mendelsohn develops an interest in family history and the family ties to Eastern Europe. He inherits his grandfather's billfold, and there he finds a cache of letters, pleading and increasingly desperate, from the brother in Poland.
Had his grandfather failed to answer these pleas? Had he left Shmiel and his family to their fate -- and forever after lived with his guilt for their deaths?
Mendelsohn, a classicist and an award-winning book critic and essayist, has devoted a lifetime to this research and five years to the writing of this book. One of its appeals for an older generation of first- and second-generation Holocaust survivors will be his reverence for that lost European culture and tradition that is now passing down to a third generation, which has no direct ties to that place and time.
Non-Jewish readers researching their genealogy and cultural roots will find in Mendelsohn's quest an experience that parallels their own, with its unexpected turns and revelations and chance breakthroughs -- the old woman accidentally met on the street of a Polish village, who unlocks the door to a mystery already two generations old.
That mystery, and the story it unfolds, is the core of this book, and it is tragic and heartbreaking but, in the retelling, achieves an eventual justice. In the course of researching this story, Mendelsohn, along with his siblings, traveled to the Ukraine, Australia, Israel, Stockholm and Copenhagen.
His book is long, more than 500 pages, and in its action alone could have been much briefer. But the scale and resonance, the very character of the story Mendelsohn tells, lies in these "elaborations" -- the mulling over a single detail, a single word, the "ringlike technique of storytelling" that harkens back to the Greeks and Hebrews.
In doing so, he evokes the richness of that lost culture -- its resiliency and its sad foreknowledge of human fatefulness. "The Lost" is an extraordinary book, and in its breadth and uniqueness of vision, is one of the exceptional books of this year.
By Louise Steinman
Louise Steinman is the author of "The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War."
September 10, 2006
SHMIEL JÄGER was a prosperous businessman, a macher, in "a small town of a few thousand people, located halfway around the world in a landscape that belonged first to Austria and then to Poland and then to many others." The town was called Bolechow. It's now in Ukraine. You've probably never heard of it. After reading Daniel Mendelsohn's "The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million," you'll never forget it.
For centuries, the family of Mendelsohn's maternal grandfather, Abraham Jaeger, owned and ran a butcher shop in Bolechow. Abraham and his siblings emigrated from Poland in the early 1900s. They enthusiastically embraced their new lives in Palestine and America but retained fond memories of what his grandfather called "a place where a person could live, a beautiful spot near the mountains."
Shmiel, the oldest of the seven Jäger (later Jaeger) siblings, tried America for a year from 1912 to 1913, found it not to his taste and returned to Bolechow, convinced it was the key to his success. He parlayed the butcher store into a thriving meat-shipping business. He owned two trucks and employed several drivers. He and his wife, Ester, had "four beautiful daughters." By the late 1930s, as the right-wing Polish government was enacting restrictions on Jewish businesses, Shmiel was desperate to get his family out of the country.
"Shmiel. Killed by the Nazis … was, we all understood, the unwritten caption on the few photographs" Mendelsohn's grandfather possessed of Shmiel and his family. Those photos and others more recent — most taken by Mendelsohn's brother Matthew — provide rhythmic intervals of contemplative rest throughout the mass of text.
Mendelsohn adored his dapper, funny grandfather; more important, he listened to him. He soaked up "hundreds of stories and thousands of facts" about Bolechow and its inhabitants. As a child, he writes, "I already had an oddly scholarly bent: the desire both to know and to order what I knew." By 15, he was the official family historian.
It was not just the content of his grandfather's stories that so profoundly shaped Mendelsohn's destiny, it was also the way they were told: "in vast circling loops, so that each incident, each character he mentioned as he sat there, his organ-grinder baritone seesawing along, had its own mini-history, a story within a story, a narrative inside a narrative, so that the story he told was not (as he once explained it to me) like dominoes, one thing happening just after the other, but instead like a set of Chinese boxes or Russian dolls, so that each event turned out to contain another, which contained another, and so forth."
Mendelsohn, a classics scholar, credits his grandfather with creating his "lifelong taste for the pagans." Homer, he tells us, used the same storytelling techniques as Abraham Jaeger from Bolechow: "often interrupt[ing] the forward motion of 'The Iliad' … spiraling backward in time and sometime space in order to give psychological richness and emotional texture to the proceedings, or to suggest, as he sometimes does, that not knowing certain stories, being ignorant of the intricate histories that, unbeknownst to us, frame the present, can be a grave mistake."
"The Lost" tells of Mendelsohn's quest to discover what happened to his great-uncle Shmiel, Shmiel's wife, Ester, and their daughters: Lorka, Frydka, Ruchele and Bronia. He digresses into the story of Genesis, where the tale of Creation is illuminated by the story of one family — Adam and Eve. We learn about the Tree of Knowledge and the apple tree in the yard of the house in Bolechow where Shmiel and one of his daughters were hidden. He ruminates on the Flood — a story of annihilation again told through the story of an individual, Noah.
In its own vast circling loops, "The Lost" mediates between history and the present, the living and the dead, between the story being told and the emotional life of the storyteller. "One by one, the Chinese boxes opened," Mendelsohn writes of listening to his grandfather, "and I would sit and gaze into each one, hypnotized." He could be describing his mesmerizing hold on the reader through some 500 pages.
The brother and sister-in-law and the four girls his grandfather would never talk about seemed, to Mendelsohn, "not so much dead as lost, vanished not only from the world but — even more terrible to me — from my grandfather's stories." His grandfather's silence, he writes, "irradiated the subject of Shmiel and his family." That silence, that "uncomfortable ripple in the air" around the subject of lost, unnamed, unknowable relatives — was a phenomenon familiar to many of us growing up Jewish in postwar America. Adult voices lowered, switched from English to Yiddish. I always assumed the adults didn't want to burden the children with the specifics. Reading Mendelsohn's book made me realize they didn't know the specifics. That "unknowing" is what tortured the parents and grandparents. How could anyone "know," in the chaos of World War II and its aftermath? What anyone did know was usually by inference and hearsay. There were so few left to ask.
And there was another issue: Did one want to know? As Mendelsohn cautions early: "Once you know a thing you cannot unknow it, and … certain kinds of knowledge are painful."
Mendelsohn's grandfather died in 1980. Among his effects was the wallet he carried in his breast pocket. Inside was a sheaf of letters, written in German, from Shmiel to his American relatives in 1939, before the Nazi invasion of Poland, "while he could still write." The stories Mendelsohn had been longing to hear from his grandfather "had been there, right in front of me, and I hadn't seen a thing." The letters are heartbreaking, the voice of a drowning man.
Mendelsohn applies the same rigorous and inspired analysis to these letters written by a Polish meat merchant that he brings to Genesis, Job and "The Iliad." Like the medieval Talmudic scholar Rashi, with whom he is on intimate terms, he is ever alert to nuances of word order, syntax and diction. He reads carefully between the lines of Shmiel's letters, which provide him with his "first experience of the strange proximity of the dead, who yet always manage to remain out of reach."
From these letters, his genealogical research and archival data available on the Internet, Mendelsohn amasses more information about his family than he had thought possible. But he runs up against an uncomfortable truth, thinking "about everything I could have known, which was so much more than anything I can learn now and which now is gone forever." He makes a bold move, abandoning his computer and the "safety of books and documents" and sets off for Bolechow on an epic journey that will ultimately take him to a dozen countries on three continents to talk with anyone still alive who might know what happened to the Jäger family. The clock is ticking.
All Holocaust survivors — and there are fewer and fewer of them each day — can tell amazing stories in which chance inevitably played a vital role. As one survivor pointed out to Mendelsohn, the inverse was also true and is well worth pondering: "If you didn't have an amazing story, you didn't survive." Telling the story of those who didn't survive, who had no story, is a difficult, even improbable, undertaking. In this magnificent and deeply wise book, Mendelsohn succeeds in doing just that. His accomplishment is enormous, and it is personally costly.
Over the years of his search, Mendelsohn thirsted after details. At the end of his tale and his long labor, he knows the specifics of what happened to Shmiel and his family and where it happened — the place "where the life that I would never know had gone out of the bodies I had never seen." He has tasted of the Tree of Knowledge, an act that, he writes, "is something divided, something that because growth occurs only through the medium of time, brings both pleasure and, finally, sorrow." •
Lost: A search for Six of Six Million
By Daniel Mendelsohn
HarperCollins, 512 pp., illustrated, $27.95
``The Lost" begins with ``Some time ago, when I was six or seven years old, it would occasionally happen that I'd walk into a room and certain people would begin to cry."
The boy who so affected certain people was the New York literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn, and the people were elderly Jews, relatives of his grandfather's generation. His entrance into a room brought tears because he so closely resembled his grandfather's brother, Shmiel Jäger, who, with his wife, Ester, and their four daughters, Lorka, Frydka, Ruchele, and Bronia, had been killed by the Nazis between 1941 and 1943 in the small Polish town of Boleshow. Exactly under what circumstances, it was uncertain.
The effect upon Mendelsohn was such that he became determined to learn those circumstances.
Perhaps the result was an obsession, but that is the nature of quests, which this is -- literally and figuratively. One which took him, often accompanied by his own siblings, in search of witnesses to the Jägers' deaths, and to their lives -- to Bolechow itself (now the Ukrainian Bolekhiv), and to places in the Holocaust's diaspora, Australia, Sweden, and Israel. The resulting accounts are interspersed with commentaries on an 11th century work on the Torah, to which the reader, caught up in the narrative, may choose to return.
It is when Mendelsohn meets one witness, Olga, an elderly Polish woman in Bolechow/Bolekhiv who had actually known the Jäger family, that he, like the elderly relatives of his childhood, cried.
``It was the sudden and vertiginous sense of proximity to them, at that moment, that made my sister and me start crying," he writes. ``This is how close you can come to the dead . . . . In that moment, the sixty years and the millions of dead didn't seem bigger than the three feet separating me from the fat arm of the old woman."
From Olga and other witnesses, Mendelsohn learned of the events of Oct. 28 and 29, 1941, the first ``Aktion," or mass liquidation of the Jews of Bolechow by Nazi troops and their Ukrainian allies, when a Jäger daughter, 16-year-old Ruchele, had been swept up and, after 36 hours of horror, killed.
``A certain detail" that Olga gave, Mendelsohn writes, ``has stayed in my mind ever since, perhaps because of the way it marries the utterly mundane and accessible with the absolutely horrible and unimaginable and because of that improbable link permits me, in some way, to imagine the scene."
The sound of the machine-gun fire as the Jewish victims, naked and terrified, walked across a plank over a large pit, was so terrible, she had told him, that her mother had taken down ``a decrepit old sewing machine and had run the treadle, so that the creaky noise would cover the gunfire." Ester and Bronia, then about 13, were killed in a later Aktion. Their deaths were followed by those of Shmiel and Frydka, 21, who had been hidden by her Polish boyfriend, until betrayed, probably by a neighbor. Lorka, 23, who had escaped the town and joined the partisans, was killed after her group was captured.
Of some 6,000 Jews in Bolechow, there were only 48 survivors in 1944.
To Mendelsohn, the general -- and even many of the particular -- horrors of the Holocaust would have been well known, as they are to most of his readers. And that raises the question of how to place ``The Lost" in the vast catalog of Holocaust literature.
It is the aspect of the quest that gives ``The Lost" its particular character -- a peeling away of the obscurities of time, a penetrating into the depths of knowledge. And that pool of knowledge is every year diminishing as, Mendelsohn writes, ``I and everyone who ever knew everyone who ever knew them dies; since, as we know, everything in the end, gets lost."
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Daniel Mendelsohn's medi tative family memoir "The Lost" is, as its subtitle indicates, "a search for six of the six million" eastern European Jews who died in the Holocaust: the brother, sister-in-law and four nieces of the author's maternal grandfather, who stayed behind in the ancestral Polish-Ukraine town of Bolechow while the rest of the family immigrated to America.
"Some time ago, when I was six or seven or eight years old, it would occasionally happen that I'd walk into a room and certain people would begin to cry" the author begins, his starting point being his resemblance to Shmiel Jaeger, his grandfather's brother, whose story Mendelsohn picks up through "scraps of whispers, fragments of conversations that I knew I wasn't supposed to hear."
As an American teenager, Mendelsohn develops an interest in family history and the family ties to eastern Europe. He inherits his grandfather's billfold, and there he finds a cache of letters, pleading and increasingly desperate, from the brother in Poland.
Had his grandfather failed to answer these pleas? Had he left Shmiel and his family to their fate - and forever after lived with guilt for their deaths?
Mendelsohn, a classicist and an award-winning book critic and essayist, has devoted a lifetime to this research, and five years to the writing of this book, and one of its appeals for first- and second-generation Holocaust survivors will be his reverence for the perished European culture and tradition. "The Lost" carries the tradition into a third generation, which has no direct ties to that earlier place and time.
Non-Jewish readers drawn to their own genealogy and cultural roots will find in Mendelsohn's quest a familiar parallel, with its unexpected turns and revelations and chance breakthroughs - the old woman accidentally met on the street of a Polish village, who unlocks the door to a mystery already two generations old.
That mystery, and the story it unfolds, is the core of this book, and it is tragic and heartbreaking but, in the retelling, achieves its own eventual justice. In the course of researching this story, Mendelsohn, along with his siblings, traveled to Ukraine, Australia, Israel, Stockholm and Copenhagen.
His book is long, more than 500 pages, and in its action alone could have been much briefer. But the scale and resonance, the very character of the story Mendelsohn tells, lies in these "elaborations" - the mulling over a single detail, a single word, the "ringlike technique of storytelling" that harks back to the Greeks and Hebrews. In doing so, he evokes the richness of that lost culture - its resiliency and its sad foreknowledge. "The Lost" is an extraordinary book, and in its breadth and uniqueness of vision, is one of the exceptional books of this year.
Walton is a novelist and critic in Pittsburgh.
Retrieving His Dead: The Holocaust Up Close
The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, by Daniel Mendelsohn. HarperCollins, 512 pages, $27.95.
As a child growing up in a white-bread enclave of Westchester County, I devised a secret algorithm for deciding whom to befriend, based on a single stark question: If the Nazis come, would she hide me and my family? It was, of course, the overheard snatches of family history—the stories from my maternal Hungarian side, affluent and cosmopolitan, and the paternal Polish side, rabbinic and otherworldly—that suggested to me, even before I’d started school, that this was a reasonable criterion for someone like me in choosing her friends: Will you save us? Will you betray us? Who can I count on if the Nazis come to White Plains?
Daniel Mendelsohn’s extraordinary The Lost brought my childhood conviviality test vividly back to me, as well as the haze of confused quasi-knowledge that surrounded it. Like many of us (his memoir made me wonder how many), Mr. Mendelsohn reveals himself, cultural critic and public intellectual though he may be, as not completely contemporary. A large portion of his edgily attentive psyche is haunted by nightmare events that transpired long before his birth, so that his memory struggles to impossibly reverse itself, to gather up the details of seemingly irrecoverable lives and tragic ends.
What distinguishes Mr. Mendelsohn from the rest of us semi-haunted quasi-contemporaries is that he actually undertook the task of relentlessly tracking down those lost lives and deaths: his family’s own six among the six million. He succeeds in carving out the shape of individuals from the block of marmoreal martyrdom we call the Holocaust. He traveled the world, interviewing very old people and—through the combination of the research skills of a classicist and the sheer luck that often dictated who among the hunted succeeded in eluding the hunters—recovers the members of his family from that jumble of indistinguishable corpses.
The resulting book is a memoir, but it’s also something more. It accomplishes what many of us would do if we had both the skill and obsession required to recover our own nameless lost. When Mr. Mendelsohn succeeds in his unspeakably sad and yet also triumphant and therefore joyful project of recovery, it feels to me like a success for all of us—by which I mean the kind of people whose psyches were partly formed by overhearing such stories as would make a child wonder who among her friends would hide her.
In his earlier memoir, The Elusive Embrace (1999), Mr. Mendelsohn described himself as a hybrid character, symbolically suspended between two geographical locales: a suburb of New Jersey, where he was helping to raise the young child of a friend, and the corner of Manhattan, 23rd and Eighth, dubbed “The Intersection of Desire” by Chelsea’s gay habitués. In The Lost, he gives us another geographical location laying claim to him, one more distant from the Intersection of Desire than even suburban New Jersey. The name of this place is Bolechow, as the Jews who had once lived there called it, though now, Judenrein, it’s called exclusively by its Ukrainian name, Bolekhiv.
His mother’s family—his grandiloquent grandfather, whose author-adored presence is prominent in both of Mr. Mendelsohn’s memoirs, as well as his grandfather’s family—had come from this little corner of the former Pale of Settlement, and Mr. Mendelsohn’s project of recovery takes him back to Bolekhiv often enough so that it begins to feel almost familiar. His project also takes him to Israel, Australia, Sweden and Denmark, interviewing former “Bolechowers,” constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing the narratives of the six he’s seeking.
It takes an obsession to undertake Mr. Mendelsohn’s task, and perhaps the scene with which he begins his book goes as far as it’s possible to go to explain the origins of his: “Some time ago, when I was six or seven or eight years old, it would occasionally happen that I’d walk into a room and certain people would begin to cry.” The tears of these elderly Jews were caused by the young Daniel’s reputed resemblance to his grandfather’s oldest brother, Samuel Jäger—Shmiel in Yiddish. Shmiel had reversed the trajectory of most immigrants, going back to the old country, to Bolechow, the town in which the Jägers had lived for “as long as there had been a Bolechow,” because Shmiel, a “kingly” sort of a man, a man with the family flair for self-dramatization (a necessity, too, for a memoirist) wanted to be “a big fish in a little pond.” And so it was that Shmiel and his wife Ester and their four daughters, Lorka, Frydka, Ruchele and Bronia, were murdered by the Nazis.
Their four beautiful daughters, I should add, since the overheated family romance insisted that they were beautiful, even though their names weren’t known until Mr. Mendelsohn began his quest. One of the rewards of this book, which is illustrated by photographs (some taken by the author’s brother, Matt Mendelsohn, who accompanied him on a good part of this odyssey), is watching the author being overtaken by the seriousness of his story, so that the sense with which he’d started—that his six, being his, would turn out to be more fabulous than the other 5,999,994—is subtly discarded for something far more humane and universal. “The real story was that they’d been ordinary, and had lived, and then died, like so many others.”
The rhapsodizing about the death of young beauty and about the beauty of young death that had sounded a repetitive theme in The Elusive Embrace is here silenced by the awful nature of the truths uncovered. The aestheticization of death is obscene in the face of genocide. There is no beauty to be found in the degradations to which these Nazi-slain were subjected, no aesthetics in these lives reduced to the sheer animal instincts for elemental survival: hiding in haystacks, in holes dug with fingers in the earth. Though I’m not certain the author would agree, it seemed to me that the story he works toward in The Lost gradually renders him less a Hellenist, enthralled to an image of heroic, beautiful death, and more Hebraic, cherishing life for life’s sake and seeing death as defilement.
One can, of course, imagine the effect on an imaginative boy of being linked in the tears of his relatives to his murdered great-uncle. The epitaph to the book is the poignant response of Virgil’s Aeneas, the young Trojan prince who is one of the few survivors of the destruction of Troy, when, wandering far from the city, he visits a temple and sees a mural depicting the Trojan War. What is material for Carthaginian decorative art is the stuff of tragedy for the Trojan Aeneas, a deep truth that Virgil gives utterance to in the immortal line Sunt lacrimae rerum, which the author translates as “There are tears in things.”
There is a brief, lovely passage in which Mr. Mendelsohn links the story of Aeneas to his own quest in The Lost, and this linking reminded me, too, of the use that Louis Begley made of the Aeneas myth in his celebrated first novel, Wartime Lies. As it happens, Louis Begley plays a part in Mr. Mendelsohn’s book, but mostly for being the son of the indomitable “Mrs. Begley,” with whom the author, in the service of his recovery project, comes to share a quirkily loving relationship. Mrs. Begley had come from Stryj, a town neighboring Bolechow, and she helps the author to grasp her lost world. She accuses him—both dismissively and indulgently, he says—of being a “sentimental person.” She was—she died in 2004—the very opposite of a sentimental person. The survivors’ “amazing stories” elicit her leveling response: “If you didn’t have an amazing story, you didn’t survive,” she tells the author coldly.
Though Mr. Mendelsohn does occasionally avail himself of his Greek scholarship in this book, it’s the first few chapters of the Hebrew Bible around which he creates the book’s structure. He only utilizes the sections that go up to the chapter called Vayeira—literally, “He will appear”—since, as Mr. Mendelsohn frankly confesses, that’s as far as he got in his “Jewish homeschooling program.” But despite the seeming haphazardness of the framing device, leaving off where Mr. Mendelsohn tired of his Bible study, it works—at least for the most part. Perhaps this is because the nature of The Lost’s story, of those who survived and how they did and those who didn’t and how they didn’t, is one that highlights the sheer contingencies upon which everything depends. The mirroring tale of Mr. Mendelsohn’s quest to track down his lost is also replete with coincidence and accident.
The Biblical artifice is meant, of course, to place his family’s story in the context of one of the most significant family narratives that mankind has ever told itself. In this case, the tone of fraught significance is earned, finally carrying the tale of one man—obsessed in his particular way with his own life and family—beyond the bounds of the memoir.
I finished The Lost late at night, after returning from an end-of-summer dinner party given by some Truro neighbors. It’s a measure of the degree to which I was affected by Daniel Mendelsohn’s stunning achievement that I woke up the next morning with a single question condensing itself out of the haze of my dreams.
Would those charming people hide me and my loved ones if ever the Nazis came to Cape Cod?
Rebecca Goldstein is the author of five novels; her most recent book is Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Schocken).
What happened to 'The Lost'?
Posted 9/13/2006 9:29 PM ET
By Don Oldenburg, Special for USA TODAY
As a boy growing up on Long Island, Daniel Mendelsohn loved stories his Orthodox Jewish grandfather told about the ancestral home in the Ukrainian shtetl of Bolechow and relatives who left it for Israel and America.
But, over the years, Mendelsohn's curiosity grew about those who didn't leave Bolechow — great-uncle Shmiel Jager, a prominent butcher, his wife, Ester, and their "four beautiful daughters." He realized the stories about them never went beyond the whispered epitaph "killed by the Nazis."
As if their fate alone said it all.
It didn't for Mendelsohn, whose new book, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, recounts in sometimes numbing but mostly riveting detail his five-year odyssey in search of what happened to these six who perished in the Holocaust.
Trying to recover identities from the anonymous mass graves of Eastern Europe, the author studied old photos, prowled online genealogy sites and badgered elderly kin for anything they might remember.
Mendelsohn's detective-like mission became an obsession. But it didn't come to life — for him or in the book — until he visited Bolechow, and then Australia, Israel, Sweden and elsewhere, to talk to survivors of the Nazi "aktions" in Bolechow.
The personalities and age-challenged memories of these remarkable old people, the author narrates masterfully. They become the lifeblood of the book, making it more intimate than just another generic Holocaust tome.
But be forewarned. This isn't an easy read — and not only because of the horrifying historic events. A classicist and literary critic, Mendelsohn overburdens the reader, especially early on, with extraneous details, digressions, repetition and a self-indulgent style he describes as "Homeric," likening it to his grandfather's storytelling.
To draw parallels to the book's themes of origins, family, betrayal and death, Mendelsohn weaves in italicized medieval Jewish interpretations of the biblical stories of Creation, Cain and Abel and the Flood. That proves more exhausting than enlightening for the reader.
But the powerful ending — that final visit to Bolechow and the streets where Shmiel and his family lived and died — is poignant and heart-rending enough to eclipse the excesses and turn The Lost into a memorable, insightful book about what can be tragically lost — and ultimately, with persistence, found.
The Miami Herald
Posted on Sun, Sep. 03, 2006
NONFICTION | THE LOST
Shmiel's fate: Author sets out to discover if Holocaust horror story about six relatives is true
BY ARIEL GONZALEZ
The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. Daniel Mendelsohn. HarperCollins. 528 pages. $27.95.
Victims of genocide are only a gruesome number unless their individual identities are reclaimed from the mass grave. In his new book, Daniel Mendelsohn does his part by writing about six of the six million Jews who were consumed in the Holocaust. To complete this noble project, he traveled widely and spoke with many witnesses and survivors. He learned about the world of the shtetl and the hateful forces that obliterated it. He also acquired a deeper understanding of himself, his family and the religion that has been seminally important to civilization.
When he was a boy, Mendelsohn's Miami Beach relatives would weep the moment they laid eyes on him. He bore a striking resemblance to his maternal great-uncle, Shmiel Jager, a prosperous businessman in Bolechow, a small town in Ukraine. While supposedly hiding in a castle with his wife and four daughters, Shmiel was betrayed by a Gentile. The Nazis came, raped the girls, then shot them all.
But was this horror story true? Following his bar mitzvah, Mendelsohn decided to find out. He became an amateur genealogist. By 2001, he had compiled a good deal of information from agencies, archives and the Internet. Then he made a pilgrimage to Poland and Ukraine. What he heard there raised more questions. It would take another four years and trips to Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Israel and Ukraine (again) before he discovered what happened to his great-uncle. Along with a dramatic and touching end to the mystery, readers are provided with a gut-wrenching look at the actions -- or Aktions, as they were called -- of the Einsatzgruppen, the SS units charged with slaughtering Jews, gypsies and intellectuals in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. These killers were so steeped in blood, they had nervous breakdowns. To spare them any further attacks of conscience Heydrich, Eichmann and the other bureaucratic ghouls at the Wannsee Conference agreed it would be more practical to move the final phase of the Final Solution to the gas chamber.
Mendelsohn graphically describes the house-to-house searches, the deplorable conditions of the cattle cars, the arrival at the concentration camp and the march to the lethal showers. But the Nazis were merciful compared to their Ukrainian associates, who were capable of pure savagery such as ripping a baby from its mother's womb and trampling it to pieces.
Hundreds of Jews, at one point, were crammed into Bolechow's Catholic center. Rabbis were mutilated and tortured in front of the crowd. Dozens of people were placed on top of one another. Mendelsohn recalls this when the human pyramid photos from Abu Ghraib are released. To him it is ''a perfect if perverted symbol of the abandonment of civilized values.'' To build is to create; in this case building is used to humiliate and destroy.
The Lost is not a catalogue of atrocities, however. It is a sort of Yizkor book, a written memorial to the vanished citizens of a community. It reaffirms the moral need to acknowledge and record a shameful history. But with the Holocaust, time is against the recorder. Mendelsohn's interview subjects are frail, a few of them have died. One, the mother of novelist Louis Begley, was a delight; a tough old lady, she served as a guiding spirit for Mendelsohn, whose heart pushes past his cerebral exterior at her funeral.
Interspersed through the narrative are italicized summaries of comments and observations by Biblical scholars such as Rashi, the legendary medieval rabbi. Impatient readers will be disconcerted, yet links are established between Genesis and the ordeal of the six Jagers. A Princeton-trained classicist, Mendelsohn developed an interest in the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans at an unnervingly precocious age. They ''seemed to be having a lot more fun'' than the dour Hebrews he was studying in Sunday school. Part of that fun involved persecuting those selfsame Hebrews.
Because he is a classicist (he informs us of this fact almost as often as Star Jones says she's a lawyer) Mendelsohn adopts the ''ringlike technique of storytelling'' of which the Greeks were fond. He is unafraid, therefore, to digress. But he never wanders far afield. Occasionally he repeats himself. This is due to the diffuseness of his approach. Similar strengths and flaws were evident in his memoir, The Elusive Embrace, which dealt with his life as an openly gay man (and a classicist, of course).
The Lost could have lost a hundred pages or so. But for all its bloatedness, it is still an estimable addition to Holocaust literature. Mendelsohn is a model critic; one looks forward to a collection of his book and movie reviews. And in this work he has done a service by reminding us of the living's obligation to give voice to the unjustly dead.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.
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