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I would not have expected that I could still be utterly shaken by a book about the Holocaust. I have been to the museums, read the books, seen the films, visited the camps, and listened to lectures and first- person testimonies. But a new book called The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million by a 45-year-old American, Daniel Mendelsohn, managed to take all I thought I knew about the Holocaust and render it obsolete.
I don't mean obsolete in the sense of "wrong" but rather "old." Mendelsohn took what I thought I knew and made it outdated. This book, for better or worse, makes the Holocaust new again. This is not something everyone will welcome. It is safer to let one's images and thoughts of the Holocaust remain stale. That way they are safe and no longer so disturbing. Learning about it as if you have never heard about it before is not pleasant, although for many, including myself, it is necessary.
The book itself is reminiscent of the two Holocaust books I most often recommend: The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart and The Diary of Anne Frank. Like those volumes, this one evokes the meaning of the loss of 6,000,000 by describing what happened to just a few. The few here, just six, are Mendelsohn's relatives: his uncle, Sam Jager, 48, and aunt, Ester Jager, and their four daughters, ranging in age from 13 to 23.
These are ordinary people, neither wealthy nor prominent. The only thing that distinguishes them from any other half-dozen Holocaust victims is that their American cousin, born more than two decades after their murder, has the will and the ability to find out what happened to them - not to mention the talent to tell the story.
IT WOULD seem to have been an impossible task to discover, 60 years later, what happened to six random people. To find out, Mendelsohn and one or more of his siblings traveled to Poland, Ukraine, Australia and Israel trying to find people who knew them and what happened to them.
Remarkably, he succeeded. This book is the product of that success and it is a masterpiece, the best work about the Holocaust that I have experienced. Daniel Mendelsohn is an astonishing writer - sometimes his prose forced me to simply close the book, unable to read another word, until I collected my thoughts and myself.
He actually manages to bring these people back. And, because this is non-fiction, just when you get to know them and care about them, they have to be murdered.
I should say that I read the book in a particular context. My wife, Mindy, was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany to Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, and she and I are the parents of two children who are first-generation Americans i.e. just one generation away from the events described in the book.
Also, because of the nature of my work - advocating for Arab-Israeli peace - I could not help but read this book in that context as well. I have always been involved in the struggle to secure Israel. I grew up believing, as I still do, that the State of Israel is essential not because Jews have a Biblical claim to Palestine but because, in the wake of the Holocaust, it is plain that Jews need one place on earth where they control their own destiny. Some people visit the holy sites of Jerusalem and wish that the Jews who died in the Shoah knew that these sites are now in Jewish hands. But the survivors I knew believed that infinitely more significant to the Jews of Europe would be the knowledge that the Israel Defense Forces exist and that they provide an umbrella of protection to all Jews, everywhere. (I know that last sentence is controversial but I am a Zionist and believe that that Israel's existence provides security even to Jews like myself who choose not to live there and who consider the United States to be our home and country).
READING THIS book, I kept imagining how different the story might have ended if the six members of Mendelsohn's family had a Jewish state to flee to in 1939. It would not have had to be a large Jewish state. It might have been based on one of the British proposals of the 1920s and 1930s for a strip of land essentially running from Tel Aviv to Haifa. It would only need to be large enough to accommodate the fleeing Jews of Europe and to control its own borders so the refugees would be allowed to enter.
The Zionists, in fact, did accept plans for a state of that size but the Arabs did not, and eventually the British backed away from the offer. There was to be no refuge.
The world in 2006 is very different than it was in 1942 but, just as in 1942, Jews need a state. Miraculously, they have one.
But it is a state whose security, and very existence, is threatened by the continuation of the Arab-Israeli war and, in particular, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, just yesterday I spoke to a Middle East analyst of some renown who said that he fears that Israel could be "overrun" within the next few years ("the Israelis could lose their state") unless a peace agreement is reached.
FORTUNATELY, the terms of the conflict have changed. Today the Palestinians and the Arab world in general have largely come around to acceptance of Israel's right to security within the pre-'67 borders. The differences dividing the two sides are not about pre-'67 Israel but about the territories and east Jerusalem.
That is very significant. Before 1967, Israel had no extra territory it could trade for peace. But it does now and has for 40 years.
But, sad to say, Israel has not seized the opportunities that have arisen since 1967. How many times has the media reported, as it did yesterday, that "Olmert Says He Will Meet Abbas Soon?" How many times have Palestinians come up with some tentative formula for peace, one still in the process of being sold to the more radical factions, when Israeli officials preempt the process by saying they won't accept the formula anyway? How many times has there been a long period without terror which Israel has refused to acknowledge only to have it end when some act of violence by Israel or the Palestinians explodes the cease-fire and sends everything back to square one?
I understand that I am only talking about Israel's failures here, not the Palestinians'.
But I just read a book about the Holocaust, not about the Palestinian tragedy. Nor am I a Palestinian. As a Jew, the central lesson I learned about the Holocaust is that Israel is simply too significant for its survival to be trifled with. If there is an opportunity to talk, then talk.
And, for us in America, if our government tries to get Israelis and Arabs back to the negotiating table, then our mission must be to support it, not to demand that Congress prevent the White House from acting. We all need to understand - especially with the looming Iranian threat - that to be pro-Israel means being pro-negotiations and pro-peace.
Read this book.
And note the last letter from Mendelsohn's uncle, Sam Jager, to the relatives in America. Sam Jager had no place to go, no one to turn to. But he had a plan: "For my part," he wrote, "I am going to post a letter to Washington, written in English to President Rosiwelt, and will write that my entire family are in America and that my parents are even buried thereâ€¦.Perhaps that will workâ€¦.I really want to get away from this Gehenim (hell) with my dear wife and darling four children." That's it.
In the end all he could hope for was that FDR would read his letter and decide to personally intervene.
Today, there is Israel. With all its problems, all its defects, we are blessed to be living in the era of Israel reborn. But if we want it to be there for our kids and grandkids, we need to do some serious re-thinking. There is absolutely nothing pro-Israel about supporting a status quo that is deteriorating every day. Forget the sound-bites, the slogans and the simplistic saber rattling from people who should know better.
Israel is seriously endangered by the continuation of this conflict. As we liked to say in the 60's, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. It's that simple.
The writer is director of the policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum.
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