The Lost: a search for six of the six million (book #98)

Before I do the book thing, to let you know that I’ve had a lot of internet connexion probs over the last month (and one or two other things that have got in the way), so if I haven’t got back to you yet, that’s why.

Daniel Mendelsohn, 2007.

The book has a Wikipedia page. There’s a review by Elie Wiesel. Review from the Independent. A blog review. Daniel Mendelsohn’s brother has a site with details of the family history and good photographs of the places in the book. There is a facinating podcast in which Mendelsohn talks to Adam Phillips.

I rarely recommend that anyone reads a particular book, except on AskMetaFilter if people actually want recommendations. But I would recommend this, with a whole load of caveats of course. You have to be prepared to let this one take over your life for a bit. And you have to be interested, if not in the Holocaust specifically, in history, research, stories, how we know what we know of other lives and societies. You also have to be prepared, as one might expect, to read about sickening events.

Briefly, this is the story of a quest the author undertakes to discover what happened to his great-uncle’s family. Daniel Mendelsohn’s grandfather was born in 1902 in what is now a town in the Ukraine called Bolekhiv, which was then Polish. He emigrated to America before the war. His oldest brother, Shmiel, born in 1895, briefly lived in America in 1912 to 1913 but returned to Bolechow (as the town was then called). He and his wife, Ester Schneelicht (born in 1896), and their daughters Lorka (b. 1920), Frydka (b. 1922), Ruchele (b. 1925) and Bronia (born around 1929) died in the Holocaust. The author was from childhood somewhat obsessed by what happened to them, and even as a child corresponded with all his surviving relatives to try to find out. This obsession is partly because, as he says at the start of the book, when he was a small child relatives would sometimes cry when they saw him, because, they said “Oy, er zett oys zeyer eynlikh tzu Shmiel!” – “Oh, he looks so much like Shmiel!”. After his grandfather’s death Mendelsohn finds letters Shmiel wrote to his (the author’s) grandfather in 1939, and which his grandfather carried with him for the rest of his life. As part of Mendelsohn’s search he visits Bolechow several times and also tracks down and visits Jews from Bolechow who survived the Holocaust and now live in Australia, Israel, Minsk, Stockholm. The book incorporates the stories of these people as well as Mendelsohn’s relatives. He also discusses the effect his quest has on people around him and on his relationships with his family.

The book is written in an often allusive way and one has to be prepared to hold parts of it in one’s head until later information helps to make sense of them, and to hold described events or facts knowing that later information may contradict them. Mendelsohn finds that even survivors who knew the family well disagree about basic facts such as the number of daughters there were in the family, let alone the dates and manner of their deaths. He establishes that some truth is unreachable or unknowable. He discusses for instance the survivors’ accounts, which are backed up by other sources, of the ferocity of the violence from Ukrainians living in the town towards Jews, and can’t reconcile this with the stories he hears from surviving Ukrainians about being brought up in harmony with the Jewish population, and the warmth with which Ukrainians greet him and try to help him in his search.

I want to quote a couple of paragraphs from the concluding pages of the book. This section follows on from a discussion of the chances that led Mendelsohn finally to discover what happened to Shmiel and his daughter Frydka, and to see the place where they hid and the garden where they were murdered. The specifics in the second paragraph are things people have told him about Shmiel, Ester and their daughters.

So there is the vast mass of things in the world and the act of creation that cuts through them, divides the things that might have happened from those that did. I did not and do not believe that the long dead and disintegrated Shmiel and Frydka somehow reached out from the ether and pointed us, that day, to Bolekhiv and then Stepan and then Prokopiv and then the house and then the women and then the hiding place, the hole in the ground, the awful box, where they had once cowered in the cold and failed, finally, at their bid for survival. But I do believe in some things. I, to whom a friend had listened, quietly and sometimes in tears, one night in September 2001, when I’d just returned from our first trip to the Ukraine and was telling the story of what we’d found there after all that time; had listened to me weeping and finally said, I’m crying because my grandfather died two years ago and now it’s too late to ask him anything; I did and do believe, after all that I’ve seen and done, that if you project yourself into the mass of things, if you look for things, if you search, you will, by the very act of searching, make something happen that would not otherwise have happened, you will find something, even something small, something that will certainly be more than if you hadn’t gone looking in the first place, if you hadn’t asked your grandfather anything at all. I had finally learned the lesson taught me, years after they’d died, by Minnie Spieler and Herman the Barber [who were relatives / family friends whom he overlooked and did not ask things because he did not think they were worth talking to]. There are no miracles, no magical coincidences. There is only looking, and finally seeing, what was always there.

For everything, in time, gets lost: the lives of peoples now remote, the tantalizing yet ultimately vanished and largely unknowable lives of virtually all of the Greeks and Romans and Ottomans and Malays and Goths and Bengals and Sudanese who ever lived, the peoples of Ur and Kush, the lives of the Hittites and Philistines that will never be known, the lives of people more recent than that, the African slaves and the slave traders, the Boers and the Belgians, those who were slaughtered and those who died in bed, the Polish counts and the Jewish shopkeepers, the blond hair and eyebrows and small white teeth that someone once loved or desired of this or that boy or girl or man or woman who was one of the five million (or six or seven) Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin, and indeed the intangible things beyond the hair and teeth and brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror and loves and hunger of every one of those millions of Ukrainians, just as the hair of a Jewish girl or boy or man or woman that someone once loved, and the teeth and the brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust are now lost, or will soon be lost, because no number of books, however great, could ever document them all, even if they were to be written, which they won’t and can’t be, all that will be lost, too, their pretty legs and their deafness and the vigorous way they strode off a train with a pile of schoolbooks once, the secret family rituals and the recipes for cakes and stews and gołąki, the goodness and wickedness, the saviours and the betrayers, their saving and their betraying: most everything will be lost, eventually, as surely as most of what made up the lives of the Egyptians and Incas and Hittites has been lost. But for a little while some of that can be rescued, if only, faced with the vastness of all that there is and all that there ever was, somebody makes the decision to look back, to have one last look, to search for a while in the debris of the past and to see what only what was lost but what there is still to be found.

Mendelsohn makes the point that 48 people are known to have survived from the pre-war Jewish population of Bolechow of 6,000 – 0.8%.

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