- The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million
Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost is the story of his search for six relatives, his grandfather's brother's family, who were killed in the Holocaust. The search is ocean-going and slow to unfold—held back, yet pushed on by its watery domain. The book presents a handful of memories from a handful of survivors and witnesses, many over 80, from one Polish town. Yet even the mealiest of recollections carry a mystery—and it is this mystery about what might have happened to the six that has aggrieved others and consumes Mendelsohn. The book is a testament to, and an enactment of, the trappings of memory's rituals: how we linger, defend, indulge, and exhaust what we hope to believe about the past, and what we must relinquish as speculation. To plumb its depth, Mendelsohn must reawaken the dormant yet simmering ache of the Jews, re-grieve their loss, if the book is to be true. Author and story are so interdependent that the family's vanishing is indistinguishable from Mendelsohn's elegiac memorial to them.
Among the several juxtaposed narratives—essay, reflection, Old Testament history and analysis, scenes from Mendelsohn's childhood and search today—are two stories, one supposed, the other actual. The primary story is what happened to the author's great uncle Shmiel Jäger, his wife, and their four daughters in their hometown of Bolechow, Poland—today part [End Page 166] of Ukraine. As a boy in the 1960s, the author heard only that Shmiel, his wife Ester, and Lorka, Ruchele, Bronia, and Frydka were "killed by the Nazis." (Sometimes the core detail is changed: first they raped them, then they killed them.) No one knew the whole truth, and no one would ever know. The suspicion of gas chamber or firing squad was too painful to dwell on.
Early in his quest, Mendelsohn finds out that they were probably murdered, though not together, during separate German, Russian, and Ukrainian onslaughts against the Jews in Bolechow. The facts he learns about the Jägers would take no more than two pages of this 512-page book to summarize. The other 510 pages cover the perishing memories of the witness-survivors, tempered and deepened by Mendelsohn's growth as a griever through the five years and half-dozen trips to Europe, Australia, and Israel it takes him to authenticate those two pages of fact.
Of the 6,000 Jews of Bolechow, only 44 survived, some of them hiding for months in forests, barns, and the crawl spaces of the homes of Polish sympathizers. Forty-four Bolechowers! That's 99.2 percent dead, the author reminds us. Added to those few are the Poles and Ukrainians who saw the local Jews' annihilation. Mendelsohn and his brother Matt, a photographer, track these folk down (all were children or adolescents then) and videotape their responses; ponderable but unrevealing photos, from then and now, dot the book. Each is plagued by some fetid horror. Each divulges little without the author's gentle nudges, repeated questions, apology-filled pressing. The intimacy he develops with the aged and their families slows but steadies the book.
Mendelsohn opens by recalling his Orthodox Jewish grandfather Abraham, whose "devoutness" and "wonderful clothes" he cherishes. Most of Mendelsohn's maternal relatives got out of Poland and came to America before the war. Even Shmiel came, but returned, fatefully, to Poland. (That Shmiel's letters, cries for help, in 1940 were ignored or misjudged is a bitter pill Mendelsohn must swallow.) Abraham is the patriarch. Despite his fur-collared success in America, he is "always mindful of the dead." As a boy, Mendelsohn is nourished by this mindfulness. It infects his brooding and leads him, in part, to a career as a classicist, studying Greek texts and explicating the origins of our storytelling traditions. It also prepares him, like a prose Homer, to sing of the sorrow his family bears.
The Lost is a witness narrative, part of the American tale-telling tradition that includes...