Book Review: Lost and Found

Mendelsohn, Daniel. The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. Harper Perennial (August 21, 2007)

As a boy growing up in a Long Island suburb, Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in his diary every day: “Nothing important.” His father was a scientist, and it was his mother who raised him and his siblings, and gave them a “regular life.” The only exciting events they experienced were visits from his maternal grandfather, Abraham Jaeger, who lived in Miami. He told them the history of their family in Europe and talked about everything – apart from one subject, about which he maintained total silence: the fate of his older brother Shmiel, his wife and their four daughters. They were the only ones in the family who did not immigrate either to the United States or to Palestine before World War II. They remained in their hometown of Bolechow, in Galicia, in order to manage their butcher shop, and all trace of them was lost in the Holocaust. The only thing Daniel knew was that his relatives always said he looked a lot like Shmiel, which only piqued his curiosity more.

Today a well-known American intellectual, who admits to having an obsession with organizing things, Mendelsohn started to compile the family tree as a teenager. He wanted to know what happened to the branch of the Jaeger family that stayed in Galicia: “I wrote to the Red Cross and to archives to get their birth certificates and so on,” he says in an interview in his Upper West End apartment. “There was a superabundance of narrative in my family, but with Shmiel there was this weird dearth. It was the one group of data that could never be organized.”

In 1980, when Mendelsohn was 20, his grandfather died. In his wallet, which he always carried with him, Mendelsohn and his mother found a surprising clue to the past: letters written to him by Shmiel from Bolechow in April 1939: “I know that in America life doesn’t shine on everyone; still, at least they aren’t gripped by constant terror … God grant that Hitler should be torn to bits! Then we’d finally breathe again, after all we’ve been through,” Jaeger wrote. That fall he sent another letter, more sober in tone: “Our lives [are] constantly in terror … I’ve now written you so many times, dear Aby …” And in December 1939 the last letter of his to reach the United States arrived from Poland. By now the tone was desperate: “You should make inquiries, you should write that I’m the only one in your family still in Europe, and that I have training as an auto mechanic … perhaps that might work … For my part, I am going to post a letter, written in English, to Washington, to President Roosevelt and will write that all my siblings and my entire family are in America and that my parents are buried there … I really want to get away from this Gehenim [hell] with my dear wife and such darling four children.”
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But even after the letters were found, no one was able to say exactly who Shmiel, Ester, Lorka, Frydka, Ruchele and Bronia were – or what had befallen them.

“This was a trauma that hung over this family for 60 years,” explains Mendelsohn. “It was an unanswered question that potentially had very disturbing implications: What did the family do or not do for Shmiel? What happened to him?”

Until 2001, Mendelsohn had only scraps of information that were, as he would later discover, mistaken, at least partially. Ester, Bronia and Ruchele, he thought, were murdered by the Nazis (he did not know whether together or separately, whether in the gas chambers or in an Aktion in the forest near their town), probably in 1942; Shmiel and Frydka hid (in a castle near Bolechow, he thought) and were murdered after someone (a neighbor or a servant) informed on them, probably in 1944; and Lorka had fled with a group of partisans and (he did not know when or how) had been killed later.

The story continued to preoccupy Mendelsohn. In 2001, The New York Times Magazine commissioned him to write a piece about Bolechow, and he went there for the first time, accompanied by two of his brothers and his sister. “We didn’t find anything on that trip,” he recalls, “except for the strong emotional responses we had. And my editor asked, can we really publish an 8,000-word article in which nothing happens? But then it turned out that people really seemed to respond to it. They said they got more mail for that article than they’d gotten for any other article published in the magazine for 20 years, precisely because a lot of people have that story. There’s not a Jew in America who doesn’t have an uncle Shmiel.”

But most people don’t set out to discover what happened to him.

Mendelsohn: “Yes, and I really thought it was only going to be an article. I had no idea it was going to be a book.”

But then, suddenly, he got a lead. “One day right here in this apartment, as I was futzing around thinking of how to write the magazine story about what didn’t happen, a man called Jack Green called me up and said, ‘I heard through the grapevine that you’re interested in people who knew the Jaeger family in Bolechow. You should come to Australia and speak about it with some survivors who are living there.’ I almost fell out of my chair.”

Instinctively, Mendelsohn felt there was a story here that was no less fascinating than the ones he had heard from his grandfather as a boy. “And that’s when I thought: This is going to be a book. I sat down and wrote a proposal before I’d even left home. I had no idea what would happen, but I knew that something would.”

And he was right: He and his brother Matthew, a photographer, spent the next four years traveling between Australia, Israel, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Bolechow. In the end, he managed to meet with 12 of the town’s residents, the only survivors. They helped him discover, at least in part, the true fate of his six relatives.

That journey of discovery is set forth in “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million” (paperback edition: Harper Perennial, 2007; now published in Hebrew translation). The book opens with a visual memory: “Some time ago, when I was six or seven or eight years old, it would occasionally happen that I would walk into a room and certain people would begin to cry … I would walk into a room and they would look at me and (mostly the women) would put both twisted hands … to their dry cheeks and say, with a stagy little indrawn breath, Oy, er zett oys zeyer eynlikh tzu Shmiel! Oh, he looks so much like Shmiel!”

Perhaps it was this physical resemblance that helped motivate Mendelsohn to undertake the journey, which he describes as a chain of mistakes: “This is mostly a story about finding out how wrong I was, the dumb mistakes that I made. A lot of this book is me not finding what I’m looking for, or looking in the wrong direction, or getting something wrong, talking to the wrong person. But that’s how history happens, as we learn toward the end of the book. I’m interested in the way in which accidents and mistakes and coincidences are as much a part of history as our intention or our planning. At each step of the way, there was something that happened that led me to the next stop. It was like following a bouncing ball.”

There were many such stops, but it is difficult to relate what exactly happened during each of them. “The Lost” is constructed like a detective story, and it would be unfair to spoil its surprises for the reader. In the course of our conversation, Mendelsohn mentions one particularly astonishing coincidence that occurred during his search for the history of Shmiel Jaeger and his family, adding: “But you won’t want to write about that, because you don’t want to ruin it for the audience that hasn’t read the book.”

The visual format of the book hides more than it reveals, like a good detective story. The photographs interspersed throughout (some of them old family photos, others taken by Matthew Mendelsohn during their trips) appear without captions, on purpose.

“Some readers have complained that one flaw of the book is that the pictures don’t have captions,” Mendelsohn notes. “And I thought: No, no, no! Why should you get it so easy? I wanted to recreate for the reader my progress from ignorance to partial knowledge, because I think there’s something productive about not knowing. In general, we need to remember that some things we will never know, and maybe we’re not supposed to know.”

Isn’t that a rather unusual approach for a book that deals with the Holocaust?

“We think we have to know everything. There’s this causal assumption that we deserve to know everyone’s story. It’s part of the ‘Oprah [Winfrey] culture’ that everyone is raised on nowadays. I think that the fact that some survivors don’t want to tell their story is also an important part of the historical record.”

One of the most intriguing characters in “The Lost” is a survivor named Meg Grossbard from Bolechow, whom Mendelsohn met in Australia and who refused to talk to him. “She said: ‘You think you deserve to know my story because it’s history with a capital ‘H,’ but it was my life, and while I live it belongs to me.’ Hers will be a Holocaust story no one will ever know, and I think it’s important to recognize the validity of that, because it reminds you that the Holocaust happened to specific rather than generalized people.”

Even if Mendelsohn does recognize the importance of not knowing, however, he admits that during his quest, he turned into an obsessive detective who took an interest in every minute detail that might be informative about Shmiel and his family. A singular element of the book is the manner in which Mendelsohn gets the reader excited about seemingly small details that are discovered about “the six,” which turn them into people of flesh and blood. For example, Aunt Ester’s beautiful legs, Uncle Shmiel’s poor hearing, and Frydka’s flirtatiousness.

“This book is informed by a sense of anxiety,” Mendelsohn says of the “humanization” of the protagonists, “because it’s the product of a specific historical moment. We’re the hinge: the last generation on the face of the earth who will know people who lived through the Holocaust. We have a window of opportunity, which is rapidly closing, to transform victims like Shmiel into distinct, specific people, instead of symbols. We all, as educated people, think we know what the Holocaust was like and how it worked. And I’m not saying this disdainfully, because I was one of those people. But actually the details I’m manically interested in show us a richer, more complicated picture than we usually get.”

Is Auschwitz also part of this “regular” story?

Describing his visit there with his brothers and his sister, he writes: “I alone hadn’t wanted to come. I was leery. To me Auschwitz represented the opposite of what I was interested in and … as I started to realize on the day I actually did go to Auschwitz … of why I had made this trip … The extent of what [Auschwitz] shows you is so gigantic that the corporate and anonymous, the sheer scope of the crime, are constantly, paradoxically asserted at the expense of any sense of individual life … But for me, who had come to learn about only six of six million, I couldn’t help thinking that the vastness, the scope, the size, was an impediment to, rather than vehicle for, illumination of the very narrow scrap of the story in which I was interested.”

Mendelsohn acknowledges that there were in fact people who did not understand what he was getting at in regard to Auschwitz. However, “I think most people understood what I was saying in my Auschwitz meditation. It’s not like I was saying ‘I’m not interested in Auschwitz,’ although some people have read it that way. Is the number six million important? Of course it is. Auschwitz has become a symbol, and that’s very useful, because you need symbols to convey what happened. But one thing I discovered on my book tour is that a lot of people think everyone who died in the Holocaust died in Auschwitz.

“This is of course not true in the absolute sense, and it happens exactly because Auschwitz has become this enormous symbol. The type of history my book does and what a site like Auschwitz does are not mutually exclusive, but complimentary. My book would make no sense if we didn’t have big-picture Holocaust histories like Raul Hilberg’s, for instance. But because of the temperament of what I do, when I saw the mountains of shoes and eyeglasses in Auschwitz, I wanted to know who these things belonged to.”

Another of the author’s stops in his search for the truth was Israel, which he visited twice. “I’d never been to Israel before I started researching the book,” he explains. “It’s a very interesting place, and it was very moving to spend time with my Israeli mishpaha [family], my cousins twice removed. I would love to come back. But in the book I’m also very blunt about my lack of interest in Israel for many years. Some people say, I can’t believe you hadn’t gone for all those years, and I say, well, there were a lot of countries I never went to where I have relatives. Part of the overarching agenda of my book is to do justice to things by not pretending about them, and my presentation of my reaction to Israel is part of that. I didn’t want to fake a narrative of an American Jew going to Israel and how it becomes the climax of the book. Because Israel wasn’t the last stop, not by a long shot. When I write about Israel I’ll write about Israel.”

Daniel Mendelsohn is a prolific writer. He was well known in the American world of literature and criticism long before he published “The Lost.” For more than 10 years he has published learned articles regularly in prestigious newspapers and magazines, covering a wide range of subjects, from Herodotus to the film “Brokeback Mountain.” He has a Ph.D. in classical studies from Princeton, where he also taught for many years, and he currently teaches at Bard College in upstate New York. In 1999, he published an autobiographical work that dealt with the connection between his identity as a homosexual, and Greek and Roman classical texts. “The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity” (Vintage paperback edition) was chosen in 1999 as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Nowadays he divides his time between his apartment in Manhattan and the Bard campus. He also spends half the week in suburban New Jersey, staying with his close friend, Lily, with whom he shares the task of raising their two sons, aged 13 and 9. However, Mendelsohn’s life, full as it is, became even more overwhelming after he published “The Lost”: The book turned him into a star of a magnitude he had not previously known, and he is now in great demand as a speaker on issues relating to the Holocaust and Jewishness.

In his apartment, the shelves are laden with the works of Proust and Balzac, and with photos of Lily and the children (“Here we are at Thanksgiving”). A charming man and a model host, Mendelsohn apologizes for not having cream for coffee. He only got back the day before yesterday from the American Academy in Berlin, where he had been invited as a guest of honor; on his calendar are trips to San Francisco and Lyon to promote the book. “I’ll never be one of those authors who pretends to be over it all. I’m not kvetching,” he says, as he chain-smokes, “but this is a particularly crazy year for me.”

“The Lost,” which became an instant best-seller in America, has been translated into 10 languages thus far, and has won tremendous acclaim as well as prestigious awards. It is not a regular “Holocaust book,” Mendelsohn says, but a distinctive blend of family saga, detective story and theoretical discussion about the importance and nature of historical memory at the present time, when most Holocaust survivors have already passed away.

The declared intellectual influences in the book are diverse, ranging from Virgil to Proust and the late contemporary author W.G. Sebald. Each chapter of “The Lost” contains a close reading of verses from the Book of Genesis. These, Mendelsohn notes, are presented in order to examine the parallels between the specific story he is dealing with and familiar themes in human history. But above all, he explains, the book is about how stories are told and which stories people cannot or do not want to tell.

“I’m not a Holocaust historian,” he says, “and this book isn’t ‘about’ the Holocaust in the way in which other historians have written about it. My involvement in it isn’t abstract, but personal and family directed, and obviously geared toward my grandfather, whom I idolized, and who was an amazing storyteller.”

Is that why you refrained from drawing any political conclusions, especially in regard to Israel?

“It’s not the place of this book to comment on the politics of the Holocaust. Someone asked me, ‘Why don’t you say in the book that Israel is the place we need after what happened?’ I may or may not believe that, and I’m not saying which, but I really didn’t want to get into those arguments in this book because then it distracts from the story I’m telling about Uncle Shmiel. This book is the only monument this man will ever have, and I didn’t want people arguing about something else in front of his grave – so to speak.”

Mendelsohn is quite critical of monuments and other modes of commemorating the Holocaust in the United States: “What’s potentially dangerous about how we remember the Holocaust, and I think is part of a bad current in contemporary American culture in general, is what I call phony identification. Everyone’s pain belongs to everyone, and everyone’s trauma is available for everyone to identify with and consume. I think it’s really dangerous, for instance, that in the Holocaust Museum in Washington you can go inside a cattle car they installed, so potentially people can come out and say, ‘Oh, it’s so terrible, now we know what it was like to be in the Holocaust.’ Some people react negatively when I say this, but when you step out of the cattle car, you can go have an Asian chicken salad – excuse me, but the people who were actually in that car can’t. You have your identity and they have theirs.”

So what’s the solution? How can we keep on remembering?

“Not by thinking or pretending that we’re Holocaust victims. We throw around the word ‘memory’ a lot, but how can you remember something that didn’t happen to you? Look, the example I always think of is Pesach. Twenty years after the Exodus from Egypt, there were a million amazing stories about individual families. They walked through the Red Sea, and they remembered the Golden Calf, and how one of his horns was crooked, and so on. But that has all been smoothed out by time. What remains is the large contours of the story. And I think that’s what happens, and it’s already started to happen, in the 60 years since the Holocaust. I think about it all the time because I’m the author of this book, but for many people it’s already distant enough that we don’t think about it all the time. When the last survivor dies, then it becomes abstract history with a capital ‘H’ … You [will] go to shul [synagogue] on Holocaust Remembrance Day and you’ll think about the victims, and then you’ll go home and the next day you’ll go out and see a movie.”

Can you accept that?

“To me it sounds bizarre and disturbing, because I know the individuals, but it’s inevitable. That’s how all history gets written. You could write a book like I wrote about each and every one of the six million people who died in the Holocaust, but that will never happen. Nobody will be reading my book 2,000 years from now, and the story that will be told then about the Holocaust won’t include almost [any] of the details that are in it.”

In the meantime, seemingly against all odds, Mendelsohn is continuing to work actively so that the story of the Jews of Bolechow will not disappear into oblivion. “I’ve become Mr. Bolechow, essentially,” he says, amused.

He has established a nonprofit organization to raise money to commemorate Galician Jewry: “I’m the CEO and Shlomo Adler [a Bolechow survivor, who helped Mendelsohn when he visited Israel] is the president. It started when some very religious Bolechow descendants here in Brooklyn wanted to raise money to clean up the town cemetery, which is a desecrated place with many mass graves that have never been dealt with. And while I wanted the cemetery to be cleaned, I knew that no one would ever go there, because there’s no one left to go there. So I got to thinking: What if we raised some money and built a museum of Jewish Galicianer life in the Bolechow synagogue? It’s only an hour and a half away from Lvov, and finally people could see not just where Jews were killed, where they were gassed, where they were put on trains, but where and how they lived, before they became statistics. So that’s one dream I have.”

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