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The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn








A book about nothing -- and everything


The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million

By Daniel Mendelsohn

HarperCollins Canada,

512 pages, $34.95


Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost is a remarkable accomplishment.

Un livre sur rien. Gustave Flaubert dreamed of writing such a work, a book about nothing. Its substance would be its style. Even if he never fulfilled this ambition, the very urge made him a pioneer of the modern. Flaubert's world had fragmented into meaningless bits and he revelled in the chaos. In The Lost, Daniel Mendelsohn, too, confronts such a world, but rather than celebrating, he is saddened and distressed. He needs to make connections, to reassemble the pieces. He doesn't mention Flaubert, but Mendelsohn is at the opposite end, our end, of the same modern-postmodern trajectory. The Lost is his version of un livre sur rien.

Flaubert had little time for fathers -- they generally die before his stories begin. Mendelsohn wants to resurrect the fathers. The world he sets out to recreate is that of his great uncle, Shmiel Jäger, and his family, who had lived in the town of Bolechow in Polish Ukraine and had disappeared in the Holocaust. Beyond that, Mendelsohn, a classicist by training, author of a scholarly study of Greek tragedy and self-appointed family genealogist, knows little about these relatives. In family gatherings, the topic of Shmiel's fate is off-limits.

For Mendelsohn, Shmiel, along with his wife Ester and his four daughters, takes on a ghostly significance. And eventually, propelled by the discovery, in the belongings of his late grandfather, of a few of Shmiel's letters from 1939, he goes in search. This book is the compelling account of that search.

He locates 12 surviving Bolechowers on four continents and goes to meet them one by one, in Australia, Israel, Denmark and the United States. Little by little, he learns more. He is fascinated by every tidbit he can glean about his six lost relatives: the turn of an ankle, the hint of youthful promiscuity, the location of a house. The details accumulate, but in the end they remain few and indistinct. He can't get the composite picture into any proper focus.

Sight -- the last word of his book -- is a constant motif, but it always remains blurred. Witnesses are not reliable. Memory -- that extraordinary mechanism for human survival -- produces images and stories more akin to fiction than truth. But at the end, fortuitously rather than deliberately, he does discover a spot, in a garden, where several of the killings are likely to have taken place. In the garden is a tree. In a poignant moment, Mendelsohn associates it with the tree of knowledge. He falls to his knees. This tree, he concludes, "brings both pleasure and, finally, sorrow."

The narrative of the search provides the basic structure, but it is the reflections on memory, family and the human condition, interwoven skillfully into the travelogue, that give the book its multidimensional power. Historical knowledge about the Holocaust is not advanced by Mendelsohn's efforts. If anything, he deconstructs the record further by showing how little we as historians can know for certain and how unreliable much evidence, especially that of memory, is.

What he does do most admirably, however, is to connect his personal "story" with such great meta-narratives as the Story of Creation and Homer's Odyssey. Here destruction, be it in the Great Flood, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah or the fall of Troy, is always followed by re-creation and life. Yet, just why some people choose to do evil and others good remains for Mendelsohn a mystery. As his search unfolds, so too do world events, especially the current war in Iraq. You can almost hear the IEDs exploding between his lines.

There is indeed much artifice to the writing. One section ends with the words: "The doorbell rang and Mrs. Grossbard walked in." You could think you were watching a bad soap opera -- time for the commercial. Even more horrific is the canned question the author asks all his interviewees: "What is the one most important thing you remember?" One shrinks at that point with discomfort. What is this, Fox-TV? Larry King Live? Jerry Springer? These are Holocaust survivors you are interviewing, man, and you are asking them what is the most important thing they remember!

But Mendelsohn is setting us up. Irritation -- and mine was intense -- is gradually replaced by a realization that these devices may represent a contrived vulgarity, and thus weakness and humility, rather than a narrator's omnipotence. To the question of importance, one of his subjects responds, appropriately: "There were the Egyptians with their pyramids. There were the Incas of Peru. And there was the Jews of Bolechow." One is reminded at this point of Flaubert's comment that books are as useless as pyramids.

The endless repetition of detail, the long conversational sentences that begin again and again, circle and then drift off on tangents, the tiresome Yiddish passages, cited ad nauseam and then translated for our benefit, are there to bring us down to earth, from any realm of abstract intellectualism, into the kitchens of Brooklyn, Haifa, Sydney and Bolechow. Eat . . . enjoy. Food, alongside sight, is another motif.

In the face of mass murder on an absolutely unimaginable scale, Theodor Adorno insisted back in 1945 that any attention to individual fate was mere sentimentality. One of Mendelsohn's subjects, with whom he has a particularly affectionate relationship, levels this very same charge against him: You are a sentimentalist, she says.

Mendelsohn, however, doesn't immediately object to that verdict. As surprise, mistake and accident continue to govern human affairs, and as one cataclysm follows the last, sentiment may be all we are left with.

But then later, pondering the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he balks. Lot's wife, he decides, was turned into a pillar of salt not because she saw Sodom as beautiful but because she could not face the future. Tears, the unstoppable weeping, can, as the Greeks recognized, become a narcotic pleasure. Sentiment can paralyze.

This is the book of a skeptic who wants to be a believer but in the end shies away from any leap of faith -- or, more accurately, never finds the right moment because he is always being distracted. Mendelsohn promised himself that when he left Bolechow for the last time he would look back on the town from the car window. "I wanted to be able to remember not only what the place looked like when you were arriving there, but what it looked like when you were leaving it forever." Yet unlike Lot's wife, who did turn, with terrible consequence, to look back, Mendelsohn misses the moment. "By the time I remembered to turn around and take that one last look, we had travelled too far, and Bolechow had slipped out of sight."

Gustave Flaubert said that he was Emma Bovary. If Daniel Mendelsohn's book has a point, it is that we are all Bolechowers.

Modris Eksteins teaches history at the University of Toronto. His reflections on history and memory were published as Walking Since Daybreak.



EXPRESSO, Actual n.º 1922

29 de Agosto de 2009


O caçador de memórias 


A empolgante busca de uma verdade escondida na história familiar do autor, com o holocausto em fundo.


José Mário Silva


Os Desaparecidos

Daniel Mendelsohn

Dom Quixote, 2009

trad. de Margarida Santiago, 549 págs.


Quando era criança e visitava a casa do avô materno, em Miami Beach, Daniel Mendelsohn provocava um estranho efeito nos seus parentes mais idosos. Ao vê-lo entrar na sala, as velhas judias punham-se logo a chorar e trocavam, inconsoláveis, vagos murmúrios em iídiche. Na origem desta reacção estava a enorme parecença física entre o pequeno Daniel e o seu tio-avô, Shmiel Jäger, que desaparecera com a mulher, Ester, e as quatro filhas durante a II Guerra Mundial, assassinados pelos alemães em Bolechow, uma pequena cidade então polaca (hoje ucraniana) onde os Jäger viviam há mais de três séculos.

Talvez marcado por esta herança fisionómica, Mendelsohn começou cedo a investir o seu tempo no esclarecimento da história familiar. Ainda adolescente, analisava fotografias antigas, desenhava mapas e árvores genealógicas, organizava arquivos e escrevia cartas, cheias de perguntas insistentes sobre o passado, a quem o pudesse esclarecer. Sem surpresa, o epicentro deste trabalho estava em Shmiel, na mulher e nas filhas, "precisamente porque não sabíamos quase nada acerca dele, acerca deles". À volta dos desaparecidos no grande horror do Holocausto criara-se um silêncio difícil de quebrar, uma espécie de interdito. Mendelsohn sabia que tinham sido "mortos pelos nazis", mas a explicação era insuficiente. Como, quando e em que circunstâncias? A resposta a estas perguntas tornou-se uma obsessão que invadiu a sua vida adulta, em paralelo com as actividades académicas (é doutorado em Literatura Clássica por Princeton), o percurso de crítico literário (colabora regularmente com a "New York Review of Books") e os vários projectos editoriais (ensaios eruditos, a tradução para inglês da poesia completa de Cavafy).

Em "Os Desaparecidos", Mendelsohn narra minuciosamente esta obsessão, que o levou a viajar pelo mundo durante anos (da Austrália a Israel, de Viena a Riga, de Praga a Copenhaga) em busca de sobreviventes de Bolechow que lhe pudessem contar qualquer pormenor, ínfimo que fosse, relativo àqueles seis judeus concretos, devorados pela História mas nunca reduzidos, pelo seu descendente, a uma mera metonímia dos outros seis milhões de vítimas de um dos maiores crimes colectivos alguma vez perpetrados. Pouco a pouco, lutando contra um abismo temporal de seis décadas (essa "fenda que se abriu entre o acontecimento e o seu relato, um vazio onde tanta coisa caiu"), Mendelsohn consegue resgatar, in extremis, "pontas de informação" minúsculas e nalguns casos contraditórias que o levam, através de um labirinto de suposições, falsas pistas, coincidências, enganos e golpes de sorte, até uma narrativa plausível do que se terá passado em Bolechow nos dias do terror, da solidariedade heróica e da traição mais vil.

Com uma estrutura complexa, em que se articulam subtilmente vários planos (entre os quais a história do próprio livro em construção e a vida do autor enquanto o escrevia), "Os Desaparecidos" é também um ensaio sobre a dificuldade de narrar acontecimentos trágicos. Embora conheça melhor a "Odisseia" do que a "Tora", é nas principais narrativas do livro do Génesis (a cuja exegese se entrega com um empenho por vezes exasperante) que Mendelsohn procura um modelo capaz de fazer a ponte entre a realidade brutal que foi exumando e a tradição judaica.

Em última análise, esta obra merece ser recordada como um dos mais brilhantes e pungentes relatos sobre a importância de preservar a memória de um tempo - mesmo se escassa, mesmo se frágil -, antes que esta se perca definitivamente, à medida que morrem as suas últimas testemunhas.




April 21, 2007


The Lost: A search for six of the six million by Daniel Mendelsohn

By Tom Rosenthal

Of the making of Holocaust books there is no end; sadly, for many of us, a kind of compassion fatigue has set in. Even the statistics have become more than we can bear. Yet the truth, like the Devil, is often to be found in the details, which is why The Lost is such an absorbing, as well as vitally important, book. Daniel Mendelsohn is a third-generation American Jew, a professor of classics at a liberal arts college. He was particularly close to his grandfather, a handsome, dandified man who had several wives and who had left his home town of Bolechów in Eastern Poland just early enough to establish himself in America and raise a family there before the advent of Hitler. He and his wives and Daniel's parents all spoke Yiddish, the language which they used when they didn't want Daniel and his four siblings to understand them. One thing Daniel could follow: that when his elders praised his good looks they invariably invoked his likeness to "Shmiel". Shmiel was his grandfather Abraham's elder brother Samuel who had also gone to America to find his future, failed, didn't really like life there and made the catastrophic mistake of going back to Bolechów; a mistake that cost him his life and that of his wife and four daughters.

Daniel knew nothing of this as a child but, when he grew up, his mother told him that Shmiel's entire family, the six of the subtitle, were slaughtered by the Nazis after the four beautiful daughters had all been raped.

Daniel's grandfather, who had drowned himself when he could no longer stand the pain of his cancer, had told him nothing about his great uncle. "On this subject, my loquacious grandpa remained silent, and his silence, unusual and tense, irradiated the subject of Shmiel and his family, making them unmentionable and, therefore, unknowable."

After the grandfather's death some letters from Shmiel in Bolechów are discovered, terrible, agonising documents, full of hauteur and pride, yet unmistakably pleas for help, money, tickets, anything that could rescue Shmiel and his family. The letters started with the need for passage for all six, and ended with a plea only for the youngest daughter - and then silence. None of those already in America had the resources, the influence or the contacts to help.

Mendelsohn decides to find out just what did happen to Shmiel Jäger and his family. He determines to go to Bolechów and to track down those who might remember the facts he so deeply craves. Bolechów was founded in 1612. Its charter decreed that this place, which was successively Austrian, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian, was to consist of one third Jews, one third Poles and one third Ruthenians (ie Ukrainians) and that all three groups were to live in equality and harmony. Mendelsohn sets to work via the Red Cross and various Jewish organisations, pestering every relative and friend who might know, and trawling the internet.

By some miracle, the Jewish archives of Bolechów survived the war. There is a worldwide Bolechów network of survivors, spread over Australia, Israel and even Stockholm, many of whom are eager to help. Some are innocently misleading, one or two are perhaps mischievously misleading or at least excessively reticent when faced with Mendelsohn's tape recorder.

The Lost makes heavy demands of the reader, not merely because at times the narrative is so painful, the story so sad, that, when at one moment the author and his sister are reduced by circumstances in Bolechów to tears, so was this reviewer. But the demanding nature of the book comes also from the author's slow discovery of the mysteries of Hebrew, of Jewish history, mythology, narrative technique so different from the Greek and Roman learning he acquired first. He passes on this relatively arcane knowledge in beautifully clear prose, explaining Judaism in its broadest and deepest aspects not only to Gentiles but to fairly ignorant assimilated Jews such as myself.

As the author acquires more and more information from the survivors, he puts together his own speculations on events in Bolechów. The stories he hears are all pretty convincing until he cross-checks them with his notes and recordings and finds that if A is right in his evidence, B has to be wrong and doubt is cast on C's version. Perhaps that is why he finds himself speculating about the physical horrors, of smell, of sound, of the Aktions in which the Jews were killed. These speculations are horrible because we have now, from books and films, learned so much about the horrors of the Holocaust that to read the imaginings of a mature man who, because his grandparents came to America so long ago, grew up in material and psychological comfort in the Land of the Free are somehow even more painful than reading Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi.

Towards the end he believes that he knows the truth. The kaleidoscope has settled and the characters, the events and the precise locations are known. Daniel, who is claustrophobic, enters a tiny, dark cellar which he thinks was one of the girls' last hiding places. But even that doesn't quite hold water, isn't quite the end. The end comes later, almost by chance, and finally the truth is laid out, accurately and irrevocably, and the journey is over. There is, at last, a sense of accomplishment. While the Augean Stable of wartime Bolechów will never be wholly cleansed, Daniel's quest is at an end.

In the innumerable accounts of the Holocaust as a whole, the relentless accretion of statistics, the six million Jews, the hundreds of thousands of gypsies and homosexuals, all these huge figures with their endless zeros have become barely comprehensible abstractions. What makes Mendelsohn's book so important, and so disturbing, is the focus on one nuclear family surrounded by the extended family of survivors in America, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins; all related by blood and marriage to the six whose fate the author so zealously tracks down.

This is a subtle, beautifully crafted narrative that turns a handful of old photographs and a series of individual memories into a tale of a family destroyed partly by the exigencies of war, partly by the betrayal of neighbours, partly simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time and, ultimately, belonging to a religion which the Nazis were determined to eradicate.



The grass still heaves with the Jewish dead


Last Updated: 12:01am BST 03/05/2007

Ann Wroe reviews The Lost: a Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn

In July 2005, speaking on the phone from a village in Ukraine to his mother in New York, Daniel Mendelsohn accidentally leaves his Dictaphone running. "Wait, you can't believe what just happened, you can't believe. What happened. We met an old man, and he took us to the house... Yes it's unbelieveable, I was just in it. I never thought in my life I would find the place... OK, yes, I'll call again later. OK, I love you too, bye, bye." The paragraph blends with the rest of the book. For 400 pages we are caught in a stream of Mendelsohn's thoughts: searching, querulous, tentative, repetitive; but also gentle, moving and wise.

Mendelsohn wants to know what happened to his maternal grandfather's brother, Shmiel Jäger, his wife Ester and their four daughters when the Germans came to Bolechow - a village then in Poland, now in Ukraine - in 1941. In one sense, the answer is easy: they died. Of the 6,000 Jews who lived in Bolechow, only 48 survived. But Mendelsohn wants to reconstruct the tragedy of six people related to him.

One day the letters sent by Shmiel to his brother in America - wondering if he should appeal to "Rosiwelt" in "Waschington" for asylum - cease. The house is left empty. Rumours about what happened survive in the memories of neighbours and relations. Photographs preserve a ghost family: handsome Shmiel, sleek in his fur-collared coats; dumpy Ester, who kept such a clean house; the pretty girls with pageboy haircuts. They stand by a picket fence or in the ordinary street from where they will be rounded up to be killed.

Yet most of the photographs in this book are not of them. They are of proud, wary-eyed old people, sitting on the edge of a sofa or a bed. They look weary because Mendelsohn has drained them of every detail they can remember, and many they would rather forget. These are the Bolechowers exiled to America, Israel, Scandinavia or Australia, who made new lives in shiny apartments, where only their lavish meals - the tsimmes, the latkes, the knedlach, the coffee cake - bear witness to the old world.

Mendelsohn knows he has little time. We feel his regret that he avoided these old folk when he was young and didn't know the meaning of the number he stroked on his grandmother's arm. Their memories are going. Time after time he is about to cut a conversation short when his subject will clap a hand to his brow and cry, "Yes! I remember!"

They remember tiny, inconsequential things. Shmiel shipped cattle in his trucks; they got stuck in the mud sometimes. He was deaf. He looked like a krol, a prince; he had the first telephone in town, and one of the only two cars. Frydka, his second daughter, carried her case just so as she got off the train from high school. Lorka was a bit snobbish. Ruchele liked going with boys, and was blonder than her sisters. At 16, she was marched out of town in the first German Aktion, to the meadows where Jews used to picnic, and made to stand naked on a plank before she was shot, falling into a mass-grave. Bronia, the youngest, was just a child who liked child's games; the neighbours barely remembered her before she and her mother were gassed in the "Bath and Inhalation Rooms" at Belzec.

Mendelsohn also includes interpretations of the Book of Genesis. These can seem ponderous and self-inflating; but they also illuminate, with rabbinical exactness, his deeper themes. Why do things happen as they do? Why are some men and women lost, and some saved? If a nation contains only 10 just men (as Abraham asked God), should it be called evil or be destroyed? "The Ukranians were the worst," one interviewee tells him. Yet it is Ukranians who welcome the author to Bolechow, give him mugs of Nescafé and little green apples. Their children swing over grass that still heaves with the Jewish dead. But Mendelsohn cannot bring himself to judge or to hate.

Most of all, he wonders why we hurt those closest to us and betray those whom we love. In Australia, one old woman parries his questions with a sharp "I know nussink. I see nussink"; it turns out that her brother, one of the Jews coopted by the Nazis, turned in his neighbours and friends. Mendelsohn himself once broke his brother's arm in a fit of fraternal jealousy. Now he makes Matt his closest companion in hunting for his family. Their love is expressed in mutual help, as their grandfather's never was for the distant, imploring Shmiel.

The book ends in the place where Shmiel and Frydka - having been hidden by Polish neighbours for a while - were shot by the Germans in 1943. It lies at the end of an overgrown garden, under a twisted apple tree. The fragments of the story have been more or less tied up; the ancestors, though still shadows, have been brought to life; the search is over. Under the apple tree, Mendelsohn performs simple rituals for the dead. His book is also a ritual: the beautiful and urgent repetition of simple thoughts for the lost, and a recital of Kaddish for a generation whose voices, though almost gone, must never cease to echo.




THE TLS n.º 5447 August 24, 2007


Need to know?


Gabriel Josipovici


Daniel Mendeksohn

The Lost

A search for six of six million

513 pp. HerperCollins, £ 25 (US $27.95)

978 0 00 725193 3


The opening of Daniel Mendelsohn's ambitious book The Lost encapsulates both its strengths and its weaknesses. Beneath a small blurred photo of a serious looking little boy we read: "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 sentence is carefully crafted for maximum effect, and it is arresting, yet its mock precision ("six or seven or eight years old") and that initial "some time ago" when we would expect "a long time ago" (Mendelsohn is now in his fifth decade), make it seem mannered, narcissistic even, a feeling reinforced by the silent juxtaposition of image and text. This is dangerous in any memoir, but especially in the kind that deals,  as this one does, with the search for the victims of the Nazi genocide.

For the people on whom the young Daniel Mendelsohn had that effect were mainly old East European Jews, members of his grand-parents' generation, now in retirement in Miami Beach, and the reason he had that effect on them was (it seemed) that he bore a striking resemblance to his maternal great-uncle Shmiel, the brother of his mother's father, and the only one of his family to have been still living in his native town of Bolechow - now in the Ukraine - when the Second World War started. Shmiel, his wife and four daughters all perished in the Holocaust, and it is the need to know precisely what happened to them that preoccupies the growing boy (himself one of five children) and forms the subject of this book. "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", he writes of his first visit to Bolechow. That is why he feels so uneasy with his siblings' insistence that they visit Auschwitz first: "To me Auschwitz represented the opposite of what I was interested in, and - as I started to realize on the day I actually did go to Auschwitz - of why I had made this trip. Auschwitz, by now, has become the gigantic, one-word symbol, the gross generalisation, the shorthand, for what happened to Europe's Jews - although what happened at Auschwitz did not, in fact, happen to millions of Jews from places like Bolechow." To find out what happened to Shmiel and Ester and to their four daughters, Lorka, Frydka, Ruchele and Bronia he travels to interview survivors from the town now living in Australia, Israel and Scandinavia, as well as in Bolechow itself (twice). In the course of this he comes to a growing understanding not just of how they died but of how they lived:


She talked about how she used to ski in the hills outside of Bolechow, how they'd played volley- ball in school, how she had played Ping-Pong. (Matt and I exchanged a swift look: Ping­ Pong!?) She remembered the school' uniforms: berets for the girls, caps for the boys. Every school had a different color, she said. She talked about the homework she and her friends had to get through before the Hanoar meetings. What do you expect? she said suddenly. People ,lived as usual .... Life as usual!


Then the war arrived. First came the Soviets, terrorizing the Ukrainians; then came the Germans, with their pestilential dream of a world without Jews. All that time Shmiel was writing more and more desperate letters to his relatives in America, begging them to find a way of helping him and his family get out. Perhaps they tried, but if so they failed. And why, Mendelsohn wonders, did his grandfather, that dapper gentleman, that great ladies' man and raconteur, the one who first told him about the old place, end his life by committing suicide? He does not speculate, merely notes that the Holocaust is not something that happened in the past: it's something that's happening now. And now, in the present of the narrative, he contacts his informants and asks his questions, while his brother takes pictures:

Now, for the first time, I got a clear picture of the first Aktion. I needed to know about it in as much detail as possible .... How, I wanted to know, did they round up the people for this Aktion? Bob said, The Germans were going round with Ukrainian policemen, because at first they had a list.

In this first Aktion, in all probability, the third daughter, Ruchele, died, having been picked up as she walked the streets of her home town with her girlfriends. She was sixteen. A year later there was a second Aktion. This time the Germans were better organized. Men, women and children were caught in their houses, attics, hiding places. About 660 children were taken. After the usual incarceration in the Catholic community centre, with the usual beatings and tortures, those still alive were herded to the cattle trucks and taken to the extermination camps. Here Shmiel, his wife and the youngest daughter most probably died.

In his search for the detail that will rescue these events from the banalities of generalization ("Killed by the Nazis"), Mendelsohn does hot spare himself or us. He copies out an account of what happened in the Dom Katolicki in the first Aktion:


The rabbis were especially targeted. Rabbi Horowitz's body was literally chopped and shredded. Rabbi Landau was ordered by one of the Gestapo men to stand naked on a chair and declaim a speech in praise of Germany. When he said that Germany is great, the Gestapo man beat  im with a rubber stick, shouting: `You're lying!' After that he shouted: `Where is your God?'.... Completely naked, Szancia Reisler, the wife of Friedmann the lawyer, had to dance naked on naked bodies. At midday, the Rabbis were led out from the hall and there is no trace. of them. It is said that they were thrown into the sewer.


Later Mendelsohn spends four pages describing in detail exactly what he thinks Shmiel, Ester and Bronia would have experienced as they were dragged out of the cattle trucks, made to strip naked, and entered what they thought was the shower-room.

But there is a problem here. The idea that we need to know what happened in the past in order to be free of it is an old and powerful one, given a new impetus by Freud. But, as J. M. Coetzee has noted, there are some places into which we venture at our peril, places of the imagination where we may easily be corrupted by what we find. Even the need to know, far from being an unquestioned good, may, as Nietzsche thought, be just as much the product of pathology as the refusal to face the past. For, like jealousy, it has no end and can become a drug without which we cannot live. We find ourselves wanting to know more and more and more, and nothing will ever wholly satisfy this thirst. Mendelsohn is too American, too much a child of his age and place, to see this. "As a profoundly Jewish person", he writes of his one-time Classics teacher, and companion on some of his trips, Froma Zeitlin, "and, in a way, as a person ' who had devoted her professional life to the nature of tragedy, how could she not, in the end, become obsessed by the Holocaust?" (My answer: Very easily.) Though his travels make Mendelsohn acknowledge that "the world is so much bigger than you can possibly imagine, if you grow up in a provincial place: a New York suburb, a Galician shtetl', one does not feel that he really understands this. He writes, for instance, about "my later desire to study the culture and language not of the Jews, the people to whom I belonged, but of the Greeks and Romans, the Mediterraneans of whom Nino himself was so obviously one". For him Jews are the inhabitants of East European shtetls; it never enters his mind that Jews have lived in Mediterranean lands for more than three millennia.

To differentiate his book from other accounts of the search for Holocaust victims, Mendelsohn interlaces the story of his quest with meditations on the different portions of Genesis read in synagogue on different days, the parashot. Thus the start is linked to the opening chapters of Genesis; the exploration of the tensions between his grandfather and the brother who returned to Boleshow and died there, and of the relations over the centuries between Poles, Ukrainians and Jews in Eastern Europe, is linked to the episode of Cain and Abel; the deluge that overwhelmed European Jewry to the parashah of Noah; his travels in search of information to the parashah of Abraham and God's injunction to him to leave his home and family and set out on his travels. This at first seems like a brilliant insight, but what is it really saying? That history repeats itself? That it's all in the Bible? Besides, his actual discussions of the parashot do' little to inspire trust in him as a Bible reader. He parades his knowledge with an air of authority, but what he says is too often banal and rarely incisive.

Nor is he much more reliable on the Classics, his academic speciality. There is a wonderful early moment when a remark by his mother suddenly makes him realize that the man in a photograph with his great-uncle, which he had often looked at without ever thinking of the other person, is none other than the frightening and repulsive old man he used to see as a child in those Miami apartments, Herman the barber. The shock caused (to him and to us) by this collision of two worlds which had previously seemed hermetically sealed off from one another, is worthy of Proust. A similar shift of perspective occurs when, in Australia, he hands some family photos to the survivors he is interviewing. Suddenly he realizes what he is doing: here he is,


traveling around the world talking to these survivors, who had survived with literally nothing but themselves, and showing them the rich store of photographs that my family had owned for years, all those photographs I had stared at and, later, dreamed about when I was growing up  images of faces, that, for me had no emotional meaning at all-in and of themselves, but which to the people to whom I was now showing them had the power to recall, suddenly, the world and the life from which they'd been torn so long ago. -How stupid, how insensitive I had been.


This is terrific. But the insight is diluted if not negated because it is followed, by a long: excursus on Aeneas arriving in Carthage and seeing, depicted on the walls, the story of the' sack of Troy, from which he himself had only narrowly escaped. “For the Carthaginians, the war is just a decorative motif", writes Mendelsohn “something to adorn the walls of their new temple;-for Aeneas of course, it means much more." But that is not quite right: the whole Story of Dido and her infatuation with Aeneas cannot be understood without realizing that she has long heard of and admired him, and that it is she who has had his deeds painted here. Not a very important point in the general economy of Mendelsohn's book; but indicative of the way in which his style' and how he has chosen to tell his story, far from enriching it, as he seems to imagine,. actually detracts from it because it dilutes his point and, in the search for large and powerful resonances, makes even what is genuine in his book start to sound hollow.

The same holds of his use of photographs,  which is clearly indebted to W. G. Sebald, but without Sebald's sure touch both as to what to show and how to position it on the page. Too often it feels like a rhetorical ploy. This is a pity because the themes Mendelsohn is dealing with are interesting and important, and, once he gets caught up in his quest, what he has to say is very much worth hearing. One strand, which grows in importance as he interrogates the survivors, and visits the town in which the events took place and talks to the present day inhabitants, is that of moral responsibility. By refusing to talk in generalities, by searching for specific details, he slowly unpacks the role of chance and choice in human affairs..

There are no evil peoples, he insists. Phrases like "the Ukrainians were the worst of the lot" are unhelpful. When the Russians came in, the Ukrainians cowered and the Jews felt safe; when_the Russians retreated and the Germans replaced them, the Ukrainians were at last able to give vent to the anger and resentment they had felt for generations at what they saw as .their privileged neighbours. But there were good Ukrainians and Poles, who sheltered Jews, knowing full well that their lives were at risk, just as there were bad ones who denounced them out of spite or, worse, tortured them in a spirit of sadism, encouraged by the Germans. There were also Jews who did the Germans' dirty work for them, the so-called Jewish policemen, because if they did not they and their families would suffer, and there were Jews who refused. Who can say how you or I would have acted in the circumstances?

Another strand which grows in importance as the book nears its climax concerns the nature of stories. When Mendelsohn began he was full of confidence that "a story, however ugly, would give their death some meaning - ... make their deaths be about something". But he soon comes to see that no one who has lived to tell would actually have been there when others were killed, so that everything comes to us at second or third hand. And then gradually he comes to see that perhaps all we can ever have are conflicting stories and defective memory. In the end, though, he understands that it was not, after all, stories he was in search of, but something else, something much more difficult to grasp, but fundamental to our relationships with others.

Frydka, the second daughter, is the one  who from the first seemed the most independent, more beautiful and wilful than her sisters. Did she join the partisans, as one rumour has it? Or was she hidden in the town by her Polish lover? Was she pregnant by him at the time? Was her father with her? (Then he hadn't died in the gas chambers?) And who denounced them? Rumour had it that they were concealed in a kessle, as Mendelsohn writes it, anxious to give us a flavour of Yiddish accents whenever he can.  

But as he enquires about a possible castle in the vicinity no one seems to have heard of one. Then, by a series of extraordinary chances, he suddenly finds himself in a house where, he is told, a Jewish girl and her father were hidden by her Polish lover with two Polish teachers. He is shown a cellar, reached by a trapdoor, and, though he suffers from claustrophobia, he descends into the darkness. The cellar, which is no more than an underground box, is now used to store jams. Suddenly he understands: he had the information all along but his roman­tic imagination had misled him once again: kessle, he now remembers, is the Yiddish word for box; his informants were using a Yiddish word, not an English one with a Yiddish accent. He emerges. How were they killed? he wants to know. Shot in the back garden, he is told, while the Poles who hid them were taken to -the nearest big town and hanged, pour encourager les autres. He asks to be taken out into the garden. He is shown the tree next to which they were shot. And as he stands on the spot where they met their end, he has a final revelation:


For a long time I had thirsted after specifics, after details, had pushed the people I'd gone all over the world to talk to to remember more, to think harder, to give me the concrete thing that would make the story come alive, But that, l now saw, was the problem. I had wanted the details and the specifics for the story, and had not - as how could I not, I who never knew them, who had never had anything but stories them, who had never had anything but stories - really understood until now what it meant be a detail, a specific .... As I stood in this most specific place of all, more specific even than the hiding place, that place in which Shmiel and Frydka experienced things, physical and emotional things I will never begin to understand, precisely because their experience was specific to them and not me, as I stood in this most specific of places I knew that I was standing in the place where they had died, where the life that I would never know had gone out of the bodies I had never seen, and precisely because I had never known or seen them I was reminded the more forcefully that they had. been specific people with specific deaths, and those lives and deaths belonged to them, not me, no matter how gripping the story that may be told about them.


So, in the moment he finally finds them, he understands that he has to let them go. At such a moment, as religions from time immemorial have always known, thought and imagination need to be replaced by a gesture, an act. And as Jews have always done in the presence of their dead, he bends down, picks up a stone, and places it in the cleft of the branches.

As I read this book I could not but help think of two great novels, one about the search for one's lost ones, Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the other about the return to a Ukrainian town after the war, Aaron Appelfeld's The Age of Wonders. At the end though, it was Wallace Stevens who came to mind, as Mendelsohn finally grasps (and helps us grasp) that there comes a point when all stories must be left behind in the acknowledgement of the mystery of other lives and deaths. That The Lost can make one think of such illustrious predecessors, in spite of the sometimes annoying preening and self-consciousness of the early pages, is a testimony, in the end, to Daniel Mendelsohn's hard-won artistic and ethical integrity.