Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book 15: The Lost

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn

Due to his love for his grandfather and interest in the family's history, Daniel Mendelsohn became the family historian early in his life. Part of the reason for this fascination was his grandfather's brother, Shmiel, who was "killed by the Nazis," and whom Mendelsohn bore a resemblance to as a child. However, since everyone in the family but Shmiel had already left their hometown prior to the Occupation, no one really knew what had happened to him, his wife and his four daughters. This book describes Mendelsohn's search for answers, and how he slowly realized that less important perhaps than finding out how they had died, was finding out how they had lived - who had these six people been?

Early in the book, Mendelsohn describes his love of Greek and Roman classics, and how he was much less interested in the Torah. He believes this has much to do with the stories' set-ups: the classics would go off on tangents and give background, such as Homer explaining the warriors' backgrounds before they would face each other, while the Torah was much more straightforward and linear. He believes this is because the first way reminded him of how his grandfather, the storyteller, would tell a story. This book follows that structure. Mendelsohn goes off on quite a few tangents to provide background only to return to his earlier point much later. However, having been given this earlier explanation relatively early in the book, it didn't bother me. The book really reads very much like someone telling a story, remembering things as he goes, and tying them in, repeating certain facts and phrases throughout for emphasis (sometimes unnecessarily).

Just like Mendelsohn didn't receive a clear, immediate answer regarding Shmiel, Ester and their daughters, the reader doesn't get the answer in the beginning. While Mendelsohn hints at points that he received further information later, or gives a sentence or two of it, the reader goes through Mendelsohn's journey of discovery with him. Based on what different eye-witnesses and survivors report to Mendelsohn, his conception of what had happened to his long lost cousins change, and sometimes they change repeatedly.

As he traces his roots, he realizes the resources he had had at his disposal at a child without actually being aware of it. Eventually he him makes contact with the survivors of Bolechow, his family's home town, through the Israeli branch of his family and these people help give him answers and lead him to others that may have more answers, both about his family and what their life may have been like, before the Occupation and as the Nazis took control. This leads him to places like Sydney, Copenhagen, and Israel. Their stories not only give some light on what happened (or may have happened) to his relatives, but also put other family stories and legends in a new perspective.

Some answers were much easier to find than others - Ruchele, the third daughter's fate, was the most clear, and there were no surprises later in the story. However, of the other five, some answers were never very clear, and others changed, such as who got transported to Belzec, who was hidden etc. Mendelsohn had to accept that he couldn't find all the answers but he still ended up with much more information than the family had originally. I know personally, there was one thing in particular I was wondering, and I'm sure Mendelsohn may have had a similar question in addition to many others.

I mostly enjoyed the book. As I said, Mendelsohn quite often went of on tangents, so for someone interested in the Holocaust, this book may meander a bit much. Even I thought that towards the end, he could have wrapped it up a bit more tightly or quickly, and maybe cut a few pages. I enjoyed the interviews with the survivors although some of them were only hinted at since the subjects only told them if they would not be put in the book. My one other complaint is that he doesn't have a list of sources or bibliography in the back. While he generally mentions books he read in the text, in some cases he mentions only the author but not the title, and there is no bibliography at the end. Since this is a memoir/family history and not a history book, I understand why there isn't an index and a bibliography but I would have liked one nonetheless, especially since I occasionally forgot who some of the many people he knew, interviewed, and referenced were.

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