Confronting the past

In Sydney, Tel Aviv, Copenhagen and Stockholm, Daniel Mendelsohn pieces together his family's story.

lost book 88 298 (photo credit: )
lost book 88 298
(photo credit: )
The Lost By Daniel Mendelsohn HarperCollins 528 pages As a child growing up in a New York Jewish family Daniel Mendelsohn would overhear fragments of whispered conversation about six relatives who perished in the Holocaust. When, at 12, he dared ask his mother what happened to his great-uncle Shmiel Jager, great-aunt Ester, and their four daughters - Bronia, Frydka, Ruchele and Lorka - she replied flatly: "They raped them and they killed them all." Yet his querying mind was not stilled. For one, his resemblance to his murdered great-uncle "killed by the Nazis" was so striking that he'd sometimes inadvertently cause members of his extended family to cry. And he was passionate about history, researching archeology and teaching himself Egyptian hieroglyphics and ancient Greek by age 12. As a precociously curious child obsessed with lost worlds, the silence which shrouded his slain relatives spurred, rather than impeded, his imagination. By 13, Mendelsohn had became the family's unofficial genealogist, compulsively amassing data about his family tree. He also recorded conversations with his loquacious maternal grandfather, whose sinuous tales of prewar shtetl life awakened his love of storytelling. Yet his grandfather never discussed his brother's murdered family. It was only after his suicide in 1980, while in the throes of cancer, that Mendelsohn discover that the strange ostrich-skin wallet his grandfather had carried around in his breast pocket ever since the war contained a series of letters from Shmiel, dated 1939. The missives were desperate appeals to help his family escape to the US. "We didn't know anything about this guy, so it was so uncanny afterwards to hear this man's voice crying out for help," says Mendelsohn, now a classics scholar and one of the most respected literary journalists in the US. "It seemed to suggest that my grandfather lived his whole life tormented by terrible guilt - otherwise why would he carry these letters?" In 2001, Mendelsohn travelled to Shmiel's hometown of Bolekhiv in Ukraine (formerly Bolechow, Poland) to see whether any of its elderly inhabitants remembered his ancestors. So began the five-year odyssey recounted in his book The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, in which Mendelsohn journeyed to Sydney, Tel Aviv, Copenhagen and Stockholm, interviewing 12 of the 48 Bolechow Jews who survived the Holocaust (from the town's original Jewish population of 6,000). OVER THE phone from New York, Mendelsohn, 46, discusses The Lost with the same relaxed, unaffected eloquence of his celebrated New York Review of Books essays. He is speaking from bed; it is from here, reclining against pillows with his laptop, that he begins his essays - "to trick myself into writing." Mendelsohn approaches his subject as a literary critic, exploring how narratives are constructed, rather than as a conventional historian, seeking to master the past. "A book, especially a fat 500-page book, gives an appearance of totality," says Mendelsohn. "But what I want is to keep reminding people that this totality is elusive." The Lost is by turns a travelogue, a historical fact-finding mission, and a suspenseful detective inquiry. Last week, Mendelsohn won a National Book Critics Circle award in the autobiography category. It has been hailed as a major work of Holocaust writing in the US, with critics lauding Mendelsohn for providing a new way of mentally grappling with the inconceivable events. But Mendelsohn resists this interpretation. "This is not a book about the Holocaust," he says. "This is a book about how to write a book about the Holocaust. This is a book about people in the present confronting the past. The intense focus on my experiences, as I'm undergoing this worldwide, years-long search, is meant to remind the reader that the story of the past is something that was constructed in the present." There's a compelling moment in The Lost when former Bolechower Meg Grossbard of Melbourne - once the closest friend of Shmiel's daughter Frydka - lays down a condition for being interviewed: She will share her memories of Mendelsohn's lost relatives but anything touching on her own wartime experiences would be strictly off the record. "'You think you deserve to know this because it's History with a capital 'H,'" Mendelsohn recalls her saying. "But this was my life. If I tell you my story, it will become your story." Over a four-hour interview, she relayed horrifying tales about the war - stories which, as Mendelsohn provocatively reminds the reader, he cannot share. Most non-fiction authors wouldn't bother mentioning parts of their investigations which fail to advance the story. But Mendelsohn is as much concerned with what is unknowable about his ancestors as he is with exhuming the residues of their lives. Grossbard's determination to cling possessively to her survival story testifies to Mendelsohn's theme: "that the concreteness, the authenticity, of an experience cannot be duplicated, cannot be imagined, and that whenever it is, it's somewhat eroded or diminished." He describes Grossbard as a "figure of resistance of narrative - the story that won't be told, not because it doesn't exist but because the person doesn't want to tell you." At a point in history when the survivors are passing on, Mendelsohn wanted to explore what happens to the memory of the Holocaust when the protagonists are no longer alive: "The book is obsessed with narrative: the narratives of survivors - what they tell you, what they leave out, what you find out later - and how you tell the story of people who can't tell their own story." As the "In Memoriam" page in The Lost reveals, five of the 12 former Bolechow Jews interviewed by Mendelsohn have since died. THROUGH RESEARCHING The Lost, Mendelsohn grew closer not only to his dead relatives, but also his younger brother, Matt, a professional photographer who accompanied him on his travels, taking the enigmatic black-and-white photographs dispersed throughout the text. While speculating about the possible fraternal tensions between his grandfather and Shmiel, which perhaps explain his failure to respond adequately to Shmiel's pleas, Mendelsohn recalls his own boyhood rivalry with Matt; at 10, Daniel broke his brother's arm in a fit of jealousy. "I talk about my relationship with Matt not to regale the reader with dirty family laundry but because that is a tool to think about Shmiel," he says. Mendelsohn leaves Matt's photos uncaptioned, and often positions them at unlikely points, in an effort to wean readers away from the tendency to be complacent about photographs in books. "Often there's, like, a photo section in the middle, and you breeze through and think, 'Oh yes,'" says Mendelsohn. "This is a book about piecing people together from the very tiny fragments that are left and you have to pay attention to every one. That is how we know about history, painstakingly and sometimes tediously." No less audacious are the long passages of commentary on the Torah which Mendelsohn interpolates throughout the book. "I thought it was intellectually important to give a framework for thinking about the ethical, moral and emotional issues that were arising in a more abstract way," he says. "I began to see how aspects of Genesis related to my story. I thought: This is what the Noah story is about. It's about what happens when the world disappears and a few survivors hold themselves together and go on living." Mendelsohn draws on the biblical tale of the brothers Cain and Abel to throw light on his grandfather's relationship with Shmiel and to explain the tensions between the Jewish and Ukrainian residents of Bolechow. The Ukrainians were so thoroughly enmeshed with their Jewish neighbors that many spoke Yiddish. Yet with the ascent of fascism, they turned on their Jewish brethren with a primal ferocity. "The Germans had this abstract need, so to speak, to get rid of the Jews, and they did it ultimately in an abstract way - the death camps," Mendelsohn says. "But the kind of killing you got in small towns, when neighbors were turning on neighbors, was of a savagery that betrayed a particular emotional content. It was the kind of violence you do to people you have a personal connection to. There was nothing abstract about it." Mendelsohn feels that by reanimating his dead relatives he has finally expiated his family's lingering guilt: "My reason for writing the book was to confront at last, as best I could, a family mystery that had tormented many of us for a long time. In a metaphorical sense, I'm saving them 60 years later by restoring to them some sense of who they were." The Lost will be published in Hebrew by Books in the Attic this fall.