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The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Millionby Daniel Mendelsohn
Synopses & Reviews
In this rich and riveting narrative, a writer's search for the truth behind his family's tragic past in World War II becomes a remarkably original epic — part memoir, part reportage, part mystery, and part scholarly detective work — that brilliantly explores the nature of time and memory, family and history.
The Lost begins as the story of a boy who grew up in a family haunted by the disappearance of six relatives during the Holocaust — an unmentionable subject that gripped his imagination from earliest childhood. Decades later, spurred by the discovery of a cache of desperate letters written to his grandfather in 1939 and tantalized by fragmentary tales of a terrible betrayal, Daniel Mendelsohn sets out to find the remaining eyewitnesses to his relatives' fates. That quest eventually takes him to a dozen countries on four continents, and forces him to confront the wrenching discrepancies between the histories we live and the stories we tell. And it leads him, finally, back to the small Ukrainian town where his family's story began, and where the solution to a decades-old mystery awaits him.
Deftly moving between past and present, interweaving a world-wandering odyssey with childhood memories of a now-lost generation of immigrant Jews and provocative ruminations on biblical texts and Jewish history, The Lost transforms the story of one family into a profound, morally searching meditation on our fragile hold on the past. Deeply personal, grippingly suspenseful, and beautifully written, this literary tour de force illuminates all that is lost, and found, in the passage of time.
"As a boy in the 1960s, Mendelsohn could make elderly relatives cry just by entering the room, so much did he resemble his great-uncle Shmiel Jger, who had been 'killed by the Nazis.' This short phrase was all Mendelsohn knew of his maternal grandfather Abraham's brother, who had remained with his wife and four daughters in the Ukrainian shtetl of Bolechow after Abraham left for America. Long obsessed with family history, Mendelsohn (The Elusive Embrace) embarked in 2001 on a series of journeys to learn exactly what had happened to Shmiel and his family. The result is a rich, ruminative 'mythic narrative... about closeness and distance, intimacy and violence, love and death.' Mendelsohn uses these words to describe the biblical story of Cain and Abel, for one of the book's most striking elements is the author's recounting of the book of Genesis in parallel with his own story, highlighting eternal themes of origins and family, temptation and exile, brotherly betrayal, creation and annihilation. In Ukraine, Australia, Israel and Scandinavia, Mendelsohn locates a handful of extraordinary, aged Bolechow survivors. Especially poignant is his relationship with novelist Louis Begley's 90-year-old mother, from a town near the shtetl, an irascible, scene-stealing woman who eagerly follows Mendelsohn's remarkable effort to retrieve her lost world. B&w photos, maps. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Why memory? 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 so 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,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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 Jager, 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." Reviewed by Elie Wiesel, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"More than just the discovery of lost relatives, however, his journey serves as an exposé of the memory of those who mourn the dead and of the dead who have no one left to mourn them....
"Mendelsohn's tenacious yet artistic, penetrating, and empathic work of remembrance recalibrates our perception of the Holocaust and of human nature." Booklist
In this rich and riveting narrative, a writer's search for the truth behind his family's tragic past in World War II becomes a remarkably original epic—part memoir, part reportage, part mystery, and part scholarly detective work—that brilliantly explores the nature of time and memory, family and history.
About the Author
Daniel Mendelsohn was born on Long Island and educated at the University of Virginia and at Princeton. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books as well as the New York Times Magazine and the New York Times Book Review, and is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure. His first book, The Elusive Embrace, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. He teaches at Bard College.
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