Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (Harper, 516 p., 2006)
No one of Jewish descent growing up in America just after World War II could be entirely unaffected by the Holocaust. In my family, Uncle Walter and Aunt Holla were presented to us (I’m tempted to say, “exhibited” to us) in the early 1950s as our “survivor” relatives. They had managed “to make it out just in time,” I was repeatedly told, in what became the recitation of a family legend, a story whose moral concerned the dangers of procrastination and the vagaries of luck.
Yes, Uncle Walter and Aunt Holla, now placidly seated on a sofa across from us in someone’s large living room had sailed on “the last boat out of Europe.” As a ten-year-old, I somewhat confusedly tried to imagine a Europe out of which no more boats sailed.
It would be some time before I would have even an inkling of what had happened. The singularity of the Holocaust in the 20th century, in which six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, is pinpointed by cultural critic George Steiner. The Shoah (as the Holocaust is known in Hebrew) was underwritten, says Steiner, by the unique principle that “a category of persons, down to infancy, was proclaimed guilty of being. Their crime was existence, the mere claim to life.” Not until years later—years of schooling, conversation, and the reading of a dozen or more key books—would it become clear to me what had happened to Jews in Europe, or the “Old Country,” as it was called in the Yiddish-inflected English (“de olt kone-tree”) of my and many other Jewish immigrant families.
Things were not all that different in Daniel Mendelsohn’s family when he was growing up two decades later, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As he says at the beginning of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, “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 rooms that the Long Island, New York-born Mendelsohn entered were those of aging Jewish relatives now living in Miami Beach, Florida, which the Mendelsohns visited during holidays. And what made those elderly Jews weep was the boy’s striking resemblance to his dead great-uncle Shmiel Jaeger, who, along with his wife and four daughters had been killed by the Nazis in the 1940s in the small town of what was then Bolechow, Poland (now a part of Ukraine).
That phrase, “killed by the Nazis,” was all that Mendelsohn knew of his lost great-uncle. It was “the unwritten caption on the few photographs that we had of him and his family… a prosperous-looking businessman of perhaps fifty-five, standing proprietarily in front of a truck next to two uniformed drivers; a family gathered around a table, the parents, four small girls…; two young men in World War I uniforms, one of whom I knew to be the twenty-one-year-old Shmiel.” That phrase, “killed by the Nazis,” was the extent of what Mendelsohn’s grandfather, Abraham Jaeger, one of Schmiel’s several siblings, would permit himself to say about his long-lost brother.
Out of those scant sources—a chilling phrase, some few photographs, and years of conversation with his otherwise loquacious and elegant grandfather— Mendelsohn embarked on an Odysseyan search for his lost relatives. By the time his multi-continent quest reached its almost obsessive heights in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the boy who made elder Jewish relatives cry at the very sight of him, was now a man in his 40s.
Mendelsohn is a humanities professor at Bard College, the author of work in his scholarly field about the Greeks and Romans, as well as a memoir about gay identity, The Elusive Embrace, and an array of remarkably wide-ranging and well-written essays that appear regularly in the New York Review—writings that persuade some readers (including me) that he’s the best American essayist since Gore Vidal.
There are multiple reasons that Mendelsohn’s Holocaust tale, The Lost, won the National Book Critics Award and a host of “best book of the year” mentions in 2006 (it was published in paperback late last year). For one thing, it is likely one of the last Holocaust stories to be based on living witnesses. Already, at the end of his book, Mendelsohn lists in memoriam ten or so of the people he interviewed, then in their 70s and 80s, and now gone. Second, it’s a terrific page-turning tale of detection, filled with astonishing coincidences, last-minute discoveries, and seeming dead-ends that turn into heart-thudding findings about the fate of the perished.
Third, it’s brilliantly written. From the story’s very beginning, in the vignette about the boy who makes old relatives cry, to its conclusion, Mendelsohn conjures up entire lost sub-cultures, from the Jewish diasporas of New York, Miami Beach, Europe and Australia to the almost forgotten shtetl-life of now-gone Jewish communities, as well as the living culture of Israeli habitations and émigré outposts. He captures the strange sounds of disappearing languages like Yiddish and revived ones such as Hebrew and, best of all, he brings to life a remarkable cast of people, beginning with his grandfather Abraham and extending to mentors, guides, interviewees and witnesses. Mendelsohn writes with almost Proustian intensity, or perhaps I should say with the wealth of detail one finds in Israeli author Amos Oz’s recent masterpiece, A Tale of Love and Darkness, a work to which Mendelsohn’s bears some resemblance, just as the boy’s appearance reminds his relatives of his lost great-uncle.
Beyond all that, which would be sufficient to make The Lost memorable in any case, Mendelsohn succeeds in doing several novel things with what can easily become a tired genre, the genealogical quest for Jewish relatives lost in the Nazi genocide of World War II. In the necessary Jewish insistence on remembering the Holocaust, there’s the danger of a kind of mis-use of memory, a nagging for attention for sentimental or political reasons. I like the brutal Jewish quip criticising the excesses of exploitation of Holocaust memories, cited by Jacobo Timerman in his book The Longest War, “There’s no business like Shoah-business.” After all, 20th century politics produced so many millions of other deaths, driven by various comparably evil principles, that the Holocaust claim of uniqueness need not be an appropriation of exclusivity with regard to suffering. Mendelsohn avoids all the pitfalls.
In a work one of whose themes must be judgment, Mendelsohn is strikingly non-judgmental and without bitterness, although necessarily sorrowful. One phrase, uttered by many survivors referring to the killings in the multi-ethnic town of Bolechow, that echoes in Mendelsohn’s ears throughout his search is,“The Germans were bad, the Poles were worse, and the Ukrainians were worst of all.” Yet, Mendelsohn’s guide to Bolechow over a period of years is his Ukrainian friend, the historian Alex Danai, who, in Mendelsohn’s vivid portrait of him, demonstrates an emotional and intellectual courage that undercuts all easy generalizations.
What is striking about Mendelsohn’s stance is the way he cautions against quick judgments and instead leaves us with the question, What would you have done?, irrespective of whoever the “you” might be, Jew, or Pole or Ukrainian. Yes, there are countless stories of the inexplicable betrayal of ethnic neighbours with whom one lived in peace for generations, but there are also stories of Ukrainians who hid Jews, or the Polish boy who was in love with one of Shmiel’s daughters, and who died for their actions.
There are two “framing” devices and one textual theme that elevates The Lost above most other attempts to recover the past. In the Jewish tradition there is a prescribed list of weekly readings from the Torah, the core books of the Hebrew Bible, that raise themes of creation, destruction, sacrifice, fratracide, conquest, and covenants. There is also a long tradition of commentary on the Torah known as the Talmud, added to over the centuries by rabbis, scholars, and other writers.
In The Lost, Mendelsohn interleaves his narrative with his own Talmudic commentaries, which relate the Biblical themes to the issues provoked by his quest. Once Mendelsohn does it, it seems like a perfectly obvious thing to do, but I don’t know of any similar works that utilize this mode before Mendelsohn’s. When I very briefly spoke to him at a talk he gave in Berlin recently, he confirmed that his Talmudic commentaries were a relatively late add-on in the composition of the book. They work very well, giving the project an additional layer of meditative depth. What’s more, I like Mendelsohn’s attitude to the biblical texts, which make no theological claims for them but rather treats them as the thematic myths that he has inherited. One can’t help reflecting, however, that it’s a very strange and destructive God that has “chosen” this tribal people.
A second equally effective framing device is the photographs scattered through the book, some from family collections and others, of people encountered on the search, taken by Mendelsohn’s younger brother, Matt. This illustrative notion was introduced, in recent writing, by the émigré German writer, W.G. Sebald, and it’s used here as both an homage to Sebald and something more. After a long introductory lead-up in which Mendelsohn’s great-uncle Shmiel gradually assumes written form, it’s startling to come upon a full-page battered old photo of a strikingly handsome young man in a World War I uniform, gazing out at us through time. This is the man for whom we’re searching.
In presenting his brother Matt Mendelsohn’s photos, Daniel Mendelsohn also talks frankly and autobiographically about the tensions of sibling relationships, a subject that has some point because not only are there questions about the relationships of the lost, but because Mendelsohn dragged most of his kin into his occasionally obsessive quest, schlepping them, as he would say, halfway around the world. Not entirely coincidentally, the subject of sibling relationships is one of the themes of his Talmudic commentary, since the murderous tale of Cain and Abel is one of the founding myths of this particular tribe, and resonates in the stories of relatives and neighbours who turn upon each other.
Finally, the narrative is filled with reflections on the nature of story itself, in this case a story about loss. “How easy it is for someone to become lost, forever unknown,” Mendelsohn reflects. “At night, I think about these things. I’m pleased with what I know, but now I think much more about everything I could have known, which was so much more than anything I can learn now and which is gone forever.” This is a truism that clearly applies not only to those lost in the Holocaust but to those all of us have lost.
Well along in reconstructing something of the life and death of Shmiel, his wife Ester and their four daughters, but with the story still incomplete, Mendelsohn asks himself, “For whose benefit, exactly, is the wholeness that I want so desperately? The dead need no stories; that is the fantasy of the living…” At this point Mendelsohn had met and interviewed many of the living survivors of Bolechow—out of some 6,000 Jews, perhaps 50 escaped with their lives; a half-century later a dozen of them were still alive, scattered around the globe—and various elderly residents of the town who might remember some priceless detail. So, Mendelsohn could tell himself that there was now more of a story than there had been when he set out, and “surely that counted for something, if as some people think the dead need to be appeased.” That’s not good enough for this intrepid searcher.
“But of course, I don’t believe this,” he says. “The dead lie in their graves, in the cemeteries or forests or roadside ditches, and all this is of no interest to them, since they have, now, no interests of any kind at all. It is we, the living, who need the details, the stories, because what the dead no longer care about, mere fragments, a picture that will never be whole, will drive the living mad.” The need for the story is not a sentimentality, but a matter of survival.
Mendelsohn’s methods, described in considerable detail, which range from scouring genealogical Internet sites to jetlag-inducing distant journeys, amount to what I think of as “following the story to make the story.” In a sense, there is no intrinsic story. The story of Shmiel and his family could have remained no more than the phrase “killed by the Nazis.” Mendelsohn and the rest of us would have been none the wiser, although we would have been considerably worse off, as we can see from the results. What “following the story” amounts to is pursuing various faint clues, paying attention to unexpected encounters, going back to a seeming dead-end one more time, just to be sure. And if something happens, new trails open up, to be followed further. What unfolds is the story (what happened in Bolechow in those years) and the story of the story.
Near the end of his journey, a phrase from one of the women he had interviewed stays in Mendelsohn’s mind: “It was like what she was interested in was not so much the story of her grandmother but how to tell the story of her grandmother, she had said that night. How to be the storyteller.”
Mendelsohn reiterates the point again, and more explicitly, just after a last-minute coincidental encounter leads him to go back to a previously examined site one more time and to discover something startling and unexpected that helps the story click into place. “I did and do believe, after all that I’ve seen and done, that if you project yourself into the mass of things,” he says, “if you look for things, if you search, you will, by the very act of searching, make something happen that would not otherwise have happened, you will find something, even something small, something that will certainly be more than if you hadn’t gone looking in the first place, if you hadn’t asked your grandfather anything at all.”
Mendelsohn’s justifiably large book in search of a very few people, people seemingly insignificant, and irrevocably lost, is a testament to an investigative idea that succeeds in breaking through the abstraction of the Holocaust, something “so big, the scale of it so gigantic, so enormous, that it becomes easy to think of it as something mechanical. Anonymous.” Of course it isn’t anonymous, as we well know, but we are tempted to forget. As Mendelsohn says, “Everything that happened, happened because someone made a decision. To pull a trigger, to flip a switch, to close a cattle car door, to hide, to betray.” At the highest Nazi bureaucratic levels, there may have been, as Hannah Arendt famously put it in her Eichmann in Jerusalem, a “banality of evil,” but on the ground, as Mendelsohn demonstrates in The Lost, what we need to know are the exact details of evil, if we are not to succumb to forgetting, the “forgetting of being,” as one philosopher phrased it.
Berlin, April 16, 2008. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in N. Vancouver, B.C. He’s the author of Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education (2007) and The Short Version: An ABC Book (2005).