Finding "The Lost"

Salon Book Award winner Daniel Mendelsohn discusses his search for missing relatives, the "overfamiliarity" of the Holocaust, and why we should listen to our elders.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published December 14, 2006 1:13PM (EST)

Over and over again in Daniel Mendelsohn's book "The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million," the author finds himself in the house of some elderly Jewish couple, or widow, of his mother's generation if not older, in various places in the world: Tel Aviv; Stockholm; Copenhagen; Sydney, Australia. There is a ritual aspect to these visits, and not only because Mendelsohn has been invited into these people's houses, cautiously or eagerly as the case may be, in order to remember the dead.

He always comes officially expecting nothing, or almost nothing -- coffee and a sandwich, at most -- and generally leaves hours later, having eaten a gigantic meal of traditional Eastern European Jewish cooking: potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage, blintzes, other things that to a goyish reader such as myself are totally unfamiliar. Someone at the gathering will observe that soon no one will be left alive who knows how to cook this food, not the way they did it back there.

So when I showed up at Mendelsohn's apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on a recent morning, I made some feeble joke about expecting an enormous repast like the ones in his book, chafing dishes full of kasha fried with onions, pierogi, golaki (pronounced "gawumpkee," as you learn in "The Lost"). He smiled politely, but we both knew it wasn't funny. Mendelsohn's book is tightly focused on the stories of six of his relatives who perished in the Holocaust -- he favors that word, "perished" -- but getting to know those six people, as best we can after all these years, forces us to consider the millions of other dead we will never know, and also the astonishing fact that Jewish Eastern European culture, which had endured for centuries across good times and bad, was almost totally wiped out in four terrible years.

Mendelsohn had no pierogi. He had a fresh pot of coffee and doughnuts from the grocery store, which is pretty damn good by interview-subject standards, and we sat down in his elegantly furnished apartment to talk about "The Lost." It is an extraordinary book, entirely unlike anything else ever written about the Holocaust, and although it is the kind of book that will change people's perspectives, and perhaps inspire imitation, I cannot imagine we will see anything like it again. It is a work of avid scholarship -- Mendelsohn is after all a classics professor at Bard College -- and a true-life detective story. It is a study of how history is written and a test case of how much the history of six ordinary people can be rescued from oblivion, long after their deaths. It is a work both personal and literary, combining the passion of the memoirist, the compassion of the novelist and the dispassion of the historian.

Mendelsohn, who is 46, grew up on suburban Long Island, N.Y., during the 1960s and '70s. He is of course not a Holocaust survivor, nor is he the child of Holocaust survivors. Most of his extended family had emigrated from their home village in Poland to America or Palestine by the time of Hitler's rise to power. But one of his great-uncles, a man named Shmiel or Samuel Jäger (like many Eastern European Jews, Shmiel had two names and spoke several languages), hadn't liked New York and had gone back home to Bolechow, a polyglot town of 15,000 Poles, Ukrainians and Jews in Galicia, a province of eastern Poland that bordered first the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. He had become an important Bolechower, a kosher butcher and perhaps the most prosperous merchant in town, owner of a fleet of trucks, liked and respected by Jews and gentiles alike. In 1939 the war started, and in 1941 the Germans came. By 1944, the Jäger family, along with virtually all the other Jews of Bolechow, were gone.

The first thing we learn in Mendelsohn's book is that his presence, as a small child, in certain people's houses in Miami Beach in the 1960s made those people cry. He understood from an early age that this was because he reminded older family members of Uncle Shmiel, and that Uncle Shmiel, Aunt Ester and their four daughters had been killed by the Nazis. But killed how and by whom exactly? Where and when had it happened? Had anything been done to help them? Could anything have been done? He began to formulate some of these questions in his head at an early age, he reports, but no answers were forthcoming.

Mendelsohn's adult quest for answers to these questions, no matter how partial, takes him to Ukraine twice (Bolechow, today called Bolekhiv, is now a town in the western Ukraine, where no Jews at all live), Israel twice, Australia, Denmark, Sweden and all over central Europe. He meets essentially every living Jew who was in Bolechow when the Nazis came; it is not a large number, and half of them have died since he interviewed them. Beginning with almost nothing, some fragmentary family anecdotes, a few letters and a handful of photographs, he discovers and reconstructs an amazing amount of information about the lives and deaths of Shmiel and his family, restoring at least a little of the individuality that was taken from them.

He does come up forcefully, sometimes, against what he calls "the dead brick wall of the unknown and unknowable." Almost nothing can now be known about his great-aunt, born Ester Schneelicht in 1896, or about his cousin Bronia, the youngest Jäger daughter, who was no more than 13 when she was taken away in 1942, probably to the gas chamber at Belzec. But along with this tragic blankness comes powerful illumination. Shmiel Jäger and his beautiful, infamously flirtatious second daughter, Frydka, hid for a time in the house of a Polish neighbor. Thanks to a remarkable sequence of accidental encounters in present-day Bolekhiv -- like every good historian or journalist, Mendelsohn has a way of creating his own fortuitous accidents -- he actually sees the basement where Shmiel and Frydka lived for some weeks or months, and learns exactly what befell them when they were betrayed and discovered.

He learns about a local Polish Catholic boy named Ciszko Szymanski, who was Frydka's lover and who died heroically, trying to save her. He comes to believe that Frydka's older sister Lorka escaped into the forest near Bolechow to fight with a band of Polish partisans (a band that was open both to Jews and to women), although what happened to her after that can only be conjectured. These redemptive details about the friendly neighbor, the stout-hearted lover and the ecumenical band of rebels are almost life-saving talismans for the reader. That's because the story of what actually happened to the Jägers and all the other ordinary Jewish civilians of Bolechow -- the various ways in which they were persecuted, tortured and killed, by their neighbors and fellow townspeople as well as by German invaders -- is a story of dumbfounding cruelty and unimaginable moral darkness, the kind of story that raises questions about human nature that can never be answered.

Not that Mendelsohn doesn't try. Or at least he tries to pose the questions in a useful way. His journey around the world is also partly a journey of personal discovery and an account of his own reconciliation with his semi-estranged brother Matt (whose photographs are found throughout "The Lost"), as well as a sort of scholarly reconciliation with his Jewish heritage. He interrupts his narrative with interpolated comments on the passages from the Book of Genesis, known in Hebrew as "parachot," that observant Jews read in order throughout the calendar year. (There are a lot of languages in "The Lost." Mendelsohn speaks excellent German and pretty good Yiddish, and while he claims not to know Polish or Hebrew or Ukrainian, we get bits of those languages too.)

"I don't think this is a memoir," Mendelsohn says over coffee and doughnuts. He is a lean, bald, handsome man of middle height, with piercing eyes, a mellifluous voice and a scholar's analytical demeanor. "This is a book about how to use everything in my life -- what I know as a scholar, as a classicist, as a recent and not very good student of the Torah; my family history and my own relationship with my parents and siblings -- how to use all of that to find out about Shmiel and his family and what happened to them.

When I told my mother, who is a writer, that I was reading your book, she asked me what it was like. I said the first thing that came into my head, which was that it's a profoundly literary work with a tremendous debt to Proust.


And then, five seconds later, I was like, isn't that a profoundly offensive thing to say? I mean, this is a true story. It's a personal investigation into the fate of your family members who were killed by the Nazis.

I don't think there's anything shameful about it. The book is very self-conscious about its debt, I would say to Proust and to Sebald as well. [That's the German-born novelist W.G. Sebald, whose books include "The Emigrants," "The Rings of Saturn," "Vertigo" and "Austerlitz."] Clearly, the book is in some large sense about the possibility of recovering the past, so it's automatically a Proustian book.

Of course, in Proust, the past is recuperable. That's the final punch line of Proust. This worked to my advantage because of coincidence: In Proust it's because of accidental triggers that one recaptures the past, and my book is filled with strange coincidences and accidents. That was a sub-category of Proustian reference that I had nothing to do with. But on the one hand you have Proust, who believes that memory and accident can work to recover the past whole. On the other hand you have Sebald, who fills his books with terribly poignant wisps and fragments of the past, often in the form of photographs and images. One doesn't know where they fit in, or even what they depict. One always senses that there's some way of getting at the past, but Sebald's vision is deeply tragic: All there are are these fragments, and sometimes it works and sometimes not.

So the book oscillates between a fantasy of the recovery of the past, which is the motive behind the book, and the frustration of being faced with these fragments. Structurally, I thought that was interesting. It was something I would be interested in reading. As I keep telling people, the book keeps telling you how you should read it. It talks about Proust and Sebald, it talks about Greek history, it talks about ring composition, it talks about my grandfather's way of storytelling, starting out with lots and lots of apparently random information and then zooming in at the end where everything comes together -- which is the structure of the book. Look, I'm a critic, I'm interested in these issues.

I would also say there are maybe six moments in the whole book, the most emotionally fraught moments -- such as the scene where Shmiel goes into the gas chamber [an imaginative reconstruction of what might have happened to Shmiel, which turns out to be incorrect] -- where there are these long, Proustian sentences. Those I did not write to be "Proustian." I always write long sentences. Ideally, I would write every piece that I write as one sentence, because everything is connected.

Obviously the great problem with the Holocaust, at least as a literary subject, is representation. How do you represent this? There are times where you should feel that language is being stretched to the absolute limit, because one is faced with the problem of representing the unknowable, the unimaginable. When I was writing those sections, I felt strung out, I felt like, how far can you go? I realized after the fact that they were obviously Proustian. When I was writing them, I felt the exhaustion of the ability of any given sentence to talk about this experience. I'm telling you these things now, but at the time I was writing I was not so analytical about it, of course.

You do learn a tremendous amount about what happened to your family, more, I suspect, than you thought you would. But of course you can't answer every question or solve every mystery. On one hand, this is a very surprising and fulfilling experience for the reader. But on the other hand, we have to face that there are aspects of the past we can never recover.

At every reading I do, somebody says, "Don't we know what happened to Lorka?" And I always have to say no, because nobody survived from the Babij partisans. And they say, "Well, it's so frustrating," and I say, "Well, why should you be satisfied?" There's so much in the book that does get revealed, by accident more often than not. I think one should feel, as I felt, that sometimes you just come up against the dead brick wall of the unknown and unknowable. There is a frustration: Seven decades have passed, many millions of people died. So, you know, there should be frustration.

I now see that I was trying to structure the book so that the reader would have the same experience that I had when I was on this search: the frustrations, the sudden recognitions. The greatest technical challenge of writing this book was to load things at the front that would later, much later -- and this is very Proustian -- come to fruition. Sometimes in an offhand sentence: Oh, that's what that was! He'll see someone at a party, across the room, and you'll realize it's a character from two volumes ago. It's my favorite thing about Proust.

There are a lot of those moments in your book. My favorite might be when you interview some impossibly old Bolechower, early in the book, who appears to be senile and non-functional, and he tells you two things about your Uncle Shmiel: that he was tall and that he was deaf. You don't believe either of those things, you think he's totally detached from reality. But they turn out to be true.

Both things I dismiss. No one in my family is tall, and I had never heard anything about Shmiel being deaf, and was sure I would have. Later on, in a living room in Tel Aviv, the first thing I hear a lady say is, "Well, you know, he was deaf!"

When I had those moments, they were devastating, because so much of the book is about tragically belated knowledge. You realize, years or decades too late, that someone had crucial information that, just because of who you are in time, you didn't appreciate or want to know when you had the opportunity. If I had Herman the Barber for five minutes now -- five minutes! -- I could accumulate 800 times more information than I accumulated in five years of traveling.

Herman the Barber is a key presence, or rather a key absence, in your book. Explain who he was.

Well, when I was growing up there was this character who came to family events named Herman, Herman the Barber. He was old and decrepit, and I would avoid him. You go to family gatherings and you're told that people are cousins or relatives and you take it on faith, you never care how they're related to you. He was always interested in me, always fussing over me, and he was old and I didn't like it. It was 35 years later that I found out that he was the figure standing next to Shmiel in a photograph that was very important, and I was later told he was Shmiel's best friend. That's why he was in the photograph. That was heartbreaking.

You're so hard on yourself about not noticing things, not paying attention, and in that way I think you are also challenging the reader. I was forcefully and tearfully reminded that there were certain things I never talked to my great-aunt about -- the last survivor of my own immigrant grandmother's generation -- and now it's too late. I suspect every reader is going to have moments like that.

I published this New York Times Magazine article in 2002, which in some sense was the germ of this book, before I knew it was going to be a book. I had made my first trip to Ukraine and had these encounters. People reacted very intensely, and I was getting hundreds of e-mails. People were leaving messages on my voice mail, literally in tears, saying, "My grandfather died two years ago, and now I realize I could have gotten so much from him. I don't even know what country my family is from," and so on.

That is the deepest appeal of this book, and I think it's not a Jewish thing. First and foremost, this is about one's relation to one's family and the past of one's family. That recurrent sense of poignant, belated recognition of who people were and why you should have paid attention to them. The fact that you cannot get anything from a dead person. When I finally did begin to pay attention, I was so desperate to get to these people, having had the Herman the Barber experience, having lost people. I then understood that you had to talk to people and get them to tell you everything they know. Because they might die, before you get to them or soon after, and that goes on forever. That's why people get very involved in this, of course; they think about their own family. So many people have told me that. And that's great, that's what I wanted.

There's a powerful scene in your book when you visit Auschwitz and you reflect that it represents all the things you don't want to write about the Holocaust.

The project of this book is to rescue particularity from generality. That's not the only way to write history, but my project is a personal and family project. I'm interested in the specific. Auschwitz is devastating; it's not like I didn't have a reaction. But it reminded me that what I wanted to do was not to write a history about what happened to millions of people. The problem with the Holocaust as a subject is, at this point, a kind of overfamiliarity. My book is about six people, not 6 million people. My book is about trying to find out exactly, specifically, what happened to those people. Not that "they went to the gas chambers." People say that, and they have no idea what that process consisted of. At one point in my book, I try to tell you exactly what that was like, as far as I could glean.

I'm not denigrating Auschwitz. I'm saying, this book is not like these other kinds of books, which describe the kinds of things that happened to large numbers of people. Auschwitz has become the symbol of the Holocaust, and, fine, who am I to say what the symbols should be? But a million and a half people perished in Eastern Europe before the death camps really got going, in the first year of the German occupation, 1941 to '42. My people were killed in that period, and people don't know about that. They think that everyone went to the gas chambers, and they didn't.

So your focus is on six people, one family, in one small town, which was in eastern Poland at the time, and today is part of Ukraine. You write that there were 6,000 Jews living there when the Germans arrived in 1941, out of maybe 15,000 people total. And when the Russians liberated the town in 1944, there were 48 Jews left alive, hiding in basements and attics and barns, out of 6,000. Somehow that intimate statistical reality -- what happened in that one town -- was harder for me to face than the total enormity of the Holocaust. It finally seemed real to me, which I suppose is just human stupidity.

It's not stupidity, it's the limits of the mind. Six million is an unimaginable number. Look, my friend Froma Zeitlin, who is a real scholar of the Holocaust, always says that what the deniers have going for them, rhetorically, is the event itself. Because it is unbelievable. It is unimaginable. So when they say, "Oh, how could you kill 6 million people in that amount of time?" it does sound incredible. You cannot believe it, and there's nothing wrong with that. It should be incredible.

Whenever I say that statistic -- there were 5,500 to 6,000 Jews in Bolechow, and 48 came crawling out of their holes in 1944 -- everyone gasps. But that was a very typical statistic for Poland. Poland had 3 million Jews, and there were about 2,000 still living at the end of the war. Ninety-nine percent of them were killed. As a statistic, you say, "Oh, that's so terrible," but you don't grasp it. The mind needs contours that it can imagine. That's the whole point of the book. It's not that you don't think about the other 5,999,994. It's that you can think about six people. There's nothing wrong in finding a small thing to think about, as a symbol of the big thing.

In trying to rescue the particular from the general and focus on the small things, you succeed wildly when it comes to your cousin Frydka. She must have been a strong personality, because people remember her so well and she comes into focus so sharply. She's pretty, she's vain, she's flirtatious, she's self-absorbed. She stops being part of the grand horrific narrative, stops being a saint or a martyr, and becomes a real person, one we might like or not, find attractive or exasperating. It's a kind of miracle.

Well, for me the literary necessity and ethical necessity was to give these people back what was taken away from them. To the people who ended up controlling their lives, there was only one salient fact about them, which was that they were Jewish. They didn't ask if they were religious, if they went to shul on Saturday, if they were agnostic or atheist, they didn't care. They were Jewish, that was all. Any success in giving them back themselves as normal people -- flawed, everyday, boring, nice, not nice, whatever -- seemed to me to be the great imperative of the book. Here was a girl of 19, and, look, who at the age of 19 is not vain, self-absorbed, self-important and self-dramatizing, as this girl clearly was? I always describe her as the girl from high school that everyone remembers: She's flirty, she blows everyone off because she thinks she deserves better. That made her come alive for me, certainly.

Then there's the other example, your great-aunt Ester, who lived a full and active family life, it seems, but about whom you can learn almost nothing.

Basically I was traveling around the world and talking to people, saying, "Oh, this person that you knew 70 years ago -- what can you tell me about their mom?" Which is loony on the face of it. I think I say this in the book, but if you asked me today what I remembered about my friend from second grade, I would say, "Oh, he was a nice guy." Let alone his mother! We grew up, we knew our friends' mothers as nice ladies who gave us milk and cookies. And here I want to know everything about her. "What was she like?" It's crazy.

With Ester, the poignant moment comes when this one lady remembered that she had nice legs. That always brings a tear to my eye. Here is this woman, my age when she died. She was 46. I'm 46. Just a lady with four kids, and nothing is known about her in the world. I scoured the face of the earth and I found that she had nice legs. At least that was preserved. What was done to these people was done to erase them from memory. So anything is important. Even nice legs.

Another aspect of your tendency to self-judgment is your extreme reluctance to judge others. You don't judge the Jews who joined the "Jewish police" and followed the Nazis' orders. You avoid judging the Ukrainian and Polish neighbors who looked the other way, or turned people in, or did things worse than that, even though you very well might.

You cannot come up against this material without being forced to wonder about how one would behave oneself. I don't think it matters whether you're Jewish or gentile, actually. People say, "Oh, well, you know, if I were the gentile neighbor, I'm sure I would have hidden the Jews." I give graphic descriptions of what was done to people who tried to help, and it was terrible. Little babies, 6 months old, hanged in the town square. I can say, well, yes, if somebody came to my house and said, "Where are you hiding the Jews? Give them up or we'll shoot you," maybe I would do the right thing. Maybe I would think it was worth it. But if somebody came to my house -- which is a more accurate scenario -- and held a gun to my children's heads and said, "Where are you hiding the Jews?" well, that's the kind of moral complexity you have to envision. And then you have to really think what you would do. That was the point of the totalitarian terror imposed on these people. It wasn't a nice choice: I'll die to do a good thing. It was: Your family is going to die for you to do a good thing.

My book ends with a story about a remarkably good person who tried to save members of my family, and clearly a bad person who betrayed them to the Gestapo. My friend Louis Begley said to me, "Well, there it is in one sentence. The extremes of human good and the extremes of human evil." This may be an ethical failing on my part, but I don't want to judge that 19-year-old boy who joined the Jewish police in 1943. He thought he was going to be a hotshot, or he thought he might save his mom. What history keeps giving you is unbearably complicated moral problems. Because the event is receding in time, because the people who were faced with those choices are vanishing off the face of the earth and can't tell you what it was like, we all want to think we would have done good. As my interviews with survivors make clear, they are still haunted by the decisions they and their relatives made 60 years ago.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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