Book Review: The Lost

Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million tells the story of how Daniel Mendelsohn searched for all he could learn about one family that perished during the Holocaust. What particularly intrigued me about this prize-winning book was the author’s decision to cast it mainly as a memoir about the process of searching for a lost ancestral family, rather than as a much shorter story of the family itself.

Mendelsohn traces his quest to bring to life and to honor the deaths of one family of six — his great-uncle Schmiel Jäger, Schmiel’s wife Ester, and their four daughters. His quest was ignited by childhood experiences during family gatherings in which he learned from elderly Jewish relatives who had immigrated from Poland that his face carries traces of Schmiel’s face. Who was Schmiel? All he knew initially was that Schmiel, his grandfather’s brother, was lost in the Holocaust along with his family.

Mendelsohn explains that early on as he was “passed from relative to relative,” he became obsessed with genealogy. It was “because I didn’t like being confronted with the undifferentiated mass of relations, was irritated by the mess, that I thereafter devoted hours and weeks and years to researching my family tree, to clarifying the relationships and ordering the branches and sub-branches of genetic connection, to organizing the information I eventually gathered on index cards and charts and in folders.” This obsession led him to writing to relatives to find out more about them.

But the family about which he learned only tentative scraps was that of Schmiel who, unlike the rest of the family now living in America, had returned to Bolechow, Poland, where Jägers had lived for about three centuries.

Throughout The Lost, in the context of telling his story, Mendelsohn describes using a variety of genealogy data sources. These include old family photos and letters, background reading (particularly about Bolechow), two visits to Bolechow and to Nazi concentration camps, interviews, and Jewish genealogy databases, particularly JewishGen and Yad Vashem

The most revealing information came from interviews with people who had been living in Bolechow at the time Schmiel and his family lived, then died there. These interviews came about after word of Mendelsohn and his siblings’ first visit to Bolechow made it to Australia, where two elderly Jewish men from Bolechow were living. Of the roughly six thousand Jews living in Bolechow, only 48 survived either by going into hiding or fleeing to Russia. Mendelsohn visited the two elderly men in Australia, who put him in contact with other survivors living in Australia as well as elsewhere (e.g., Sweden, Israel, Denmark). Over the next several months, Mendelsohn (usually with his brother Matt, a photographer, and sometimes with others) visited as many of the survivors as possible, recording interviews with them.

These interviews, which I found fascinating although in some cases very hard to read because of the horrors they described, reveal much about the construction of memory. People saw, heard, or recalled different things. For example, did Schmiel have two daughters? Three? Four? Was one of them pregnant, and if so, by rape or by a lover? What were Schmiel and Ester like?

As he tried to put together varying and sometimes conflicting accounts of his family, Mendelsohn reflected repeatedly on the social construction of memory. There was the difficulty anyone would experience trying to recall details about people one knew decades ago during childhood. Memories of the Holocaust in Bolechow were second-hand — there were no Jewish survivors of extermination campaigns. Some memories were too difficult to tell, and at least one key informant did not want her memories to become stories someone else told in a book he was writing. Although I regard oral history interviews as an extremely important family history research tool because they can reveal stories that are not available otherwise, the partial and often conflicting information Mendelsohn gathered illustrates vividly the gaps between the “facts” of what happened, and how people remember and interpret what happened.

Family historians will find the memoir of the search — which Mendelsohn wrote almost as a mystery — fascinating. Mendelsohn placed his search within two different kinds of larger stories. One is the story of the Holocaust itself. While The Lost focuses on his search for the six members of his own family, the story of the Holocaust, particularly as it played out in Poland, serves as a vivid and horrible backdrop. For example, Bolechow had been home to three ethnic groups historically: Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews. Mendelsohn researched the history of their peaceful coexistence, then how that coexistence was ripped to shreds as Jews became targets of violence, then genocide, across much of Europe.

The other set of stories are the first parashot of the Torah. A classical scholar, Mendelsohn has immersed himself in scholarly debates about the meanings of the parashot, particularly those in the book of Genesis. He used them to consider perennial questions of human life, such as sibling rivalry. Does the story of Cain and Abel illuminate what might have been sibling rivalry between his grandfather and great-uncle, that perhaps led his grandfather to do less than he could have to help Schmiel and his family escape when they could? Lacking definitive details of the brothers’ relationship, but seeing sibling rivalry underlying family tensions commonly and perhaps explaining why Schmiel was unable to escape, Mendelsohn uses to the story of Cain and Abel as the basis for questions to pose. Personally, I got bogged down in discussions of how different scholars have interpreted the stories in Genesis, and what light then may (or may not) shed on Mendelssohn’s family. I ended up skimming or skipping entirely some of these sections in the book.

As a family historian, I have grappled with how to write about my own work. Many stories I have constructed about individual ancestors are of interest mainly to my family rather than a wider audience. To draw readers into larger questions about social relationships today that family history illuminates, I have chosen to write fiction, and to speak to scholarly audiences through journal articles. Mendelsohn’s The Lost illustrates beautifully the power of memoir. Perhaps I will attempt that genre one day.

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