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Among the grainy photographs of the Mendelsohn family from the old country -- taken in a village called Bolechow, in what was then Poland but is now the Ukraine -- one stood out: that of a dapper father, a proud mother, and four daughters; on the back was the handwritten caption, "Killed by the Nazis." This was Mendelsohn's great-uncle Shmiel and his family, who met the same fate as most of the other Jews in town.
Mendelsohn recalls being told stories as a child by elderly Jews with tattoos on their arms -- stories that Daniel, a typical boy, infused with a sense of adventure and romance, but that, as a man, he felt a responsibility to investigate. The truth of what happened to each person in the photograph is appalling: shot off a plank over a mass grave, dragged from a cellar and executed, forced to watch as others' eyes are gouged out, and compelled to sit on hot stoves. This is testament enough to the incalculable horror of the Nazi occupation. What is truly unparalleled is Mendelsohn's determination to travel the globe, seeking out the few Bolechowers still alive and recording their testimonies. In the process, Mendelsohn has created a living record of a small, vanished world.
The Lost is a deeply emotional work of factual and emotional archaelogy: honest, devastating, humbling, and impossible to put down. (Holiday 2006 Selection)
It's a vast, highly colored tapestry. Indeed, with passion and no little grit, he weaves in snippets of language, fragments of incident, fleeting namesand succeeds in assembling an immensely human tableau in which each witness has a face and each face a story and destiny. There's a survivor's son in Sweden, a relative in Israel, a peasant in Ukraine, a friend of friends in Austria: All are bound together. A reader cannot help but follow the trail breathlesslyfirst the suspense, doubt, surprise and, finally, the discovery. We share his anger, commend his hopes. And, when tears choke his voice, we, too, long to cry.
Despite overlong passages and a minor gaffe here and there…this is a remarkable personal narrativerigorous in its search for truth, at once tender and exacting.
The Washington Post
The New Yorker
Always aware of the danger of misrepresenting his finds…Mendelsohn constructs an artful, looping narrative that includes elaborate digressions on such topics as the Hebrew Bible, Homeric narrative, and tensions within his own immediate family. The technique pays off, showing how the Holocaust continues to affect people who had no direct experience of it.
Mr. Mendelsohn, an evocative, ruminative writer, brings to life the vanished world not just of prewar Poland but also of his childhood and his extended family, and his growing fascination with the story of Shmiel.
The New York Times
As a boy in the 1960s, Mendelsohn could make elderly relatives cry just by entering the room, so much did he resemble his great-uncle Shmiel J ger, who had been "killed by the Nazis." This short phrase was all Mendelsohn knew of his maternal grandfather Abraham's brother, who had remained with his wife and four daughters in the Ukrainian shtetl of Bolechow after Abraham left for America. Long obsessed with family history, Mendelsohn (The Elusive Embrace) embarked in 2001 on a series of journeys to learn exactly what had happened to Shmiel and his family. The result is a rich, ruminative "mythic narrative... about closeness and distance, intimacy and violence, love and death." Mendelsohn uses these words to describe the biblical story of Cain and Abel, for one of the book's most striking elements is the author's recounting of the book of Genesis in parallel with his own story, highlighting eternal themes of origins and family, temptation and exile, brotherly betrayal, creation and annihilation. In Ukraine, Australia, Israel and Scandinavia, Mendelsohn locates a handful of extraordinary, aged Bolechow survivors. Especially poignant is his relationship with novelist Louis Begley's 90-year-old mother, from a town near the shtetl, an irascible, scene-stealing woman who eagerly follows Mendelsohn's remarkable effort to retrieve her lost world. B&w photos, maps. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Mendelsohn (humanities, Bard Coll.; The Elusive Embrace) opens this new work by describing his relationship with his story-telling grandfather and the latter's almost deafening silence about the fate of a brother, Shmiel, killed by the Nazis. While the book revolves around the author's decades-long search to discover the fate of his great uncle's family, this quest also leads to the compilation of a family genealogy and the discovery of various living relatives throughout the diaspora. Such stories of genealogical and historical investigations will often move into a meditation on inner discoveries, frequently embellished with epiphanies of religious or spiritual awakening or the rediscovery of an ethnic heritage. Mendelsohn does engage in some personal meditation on family relations and his Jewishness and intersperses his narrative with analysis from various Parasha, the weekly Torah portions that analyze biblical texts relating to suffering and memory. More than just the discovery of lost relatives, however, his journey serves as an expos of the memory of those who mourn the dead and of the dead who have no one left to mourn them. While occasionally burdened with excessive detail, the book illustrates the enduring legacy of the Holocaust in contemporary Jewish life. Recommended for public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/06.]-Frederic Krome, Jacob Rader Marcus Ctr. of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
An American Jew undertakes a quest to find out what happened to six of his own relatives who died in the Holocaust. When he was a boy, some of Mendelsohn's older relatives would cry when he entered the room. He reminded them of his great-uncle Shmiel, who, along with his wife and four daughters, was a Holocaust victim in Poland. Though Mendelsohn (Humanities/Bard Coll.; The Elusive Embrace, 1999) took on the role of "family historian," the exact fate of the six remained unknown to him. After his grandfather's death, Mendelsohn reads a stash of letters from Shmiel that illuminates his great uncle's desperate efforts to save his family as World War II approached. Mendelsohn then puts extraordinary effort into unearthing their stories. He twice travels to Shmiel's town, now in Ukraine, and makes trips to countries including Israel, Australia and Sweden to interview relatives and other survivors. The author lets the survivors-many of whom have passed away since the interviews recounted here-unfold their own stories. Many Jews from the town were taken into the woods and machine-gunned; others were gassed. Slowly, a picture emerges of Shmiel and his family-his pride in his butcher business, the girls' attractiveness-that reclaims them from the past. His search also brings him back to his own religion-he intersperses the story with Biblical passages as a way to grapple with what happened-as well as his own brother, who travels with him. Only at the very end of his hunt, after he thinks he is finished, does Mendelsohn encounter a man who steers him to the actual house where Shmiel and one of his daughters were dragged from a cellar and shot. A forceful meditation touching on loss, memory,Jewishness and the vagaries of chance in human life.
People (four stars)
“An excellent memoir. . . . The Lost . . . brings to life the struggle of an entire generation.”
“The Lost is a sensitively written book that constantly asks itself the most difficult questions about history and memory.”
The Los Angeles Times Book Review
“A magnificent and deeply wise book. . . . Mesmerizing. . . . Mendelsohn’s accomplishment is enormous.”
“A grand book, an ambitious undertaking fully realized.”
Jonathan Safran Foer
“Epic and personal, meditative and suspenseful, tragic and at times hilarious, The Lost is a wonderful book.”
“A beautiful book, beautifully written.”
J. M. Coetzee
“A stirring detective work, The Lost is … deepened by reflections on the inescapable part that chance plays in history.”
Joyce Carol Oates
“Daniel Mendelsohn has written a powerfully moving work of a “lost” family past. . . . A remarkable achievement.”
“Mendelsohn, a classicist, creates a stunning Odyssey here, an epic world-wandering.”
“A stunning memoir. . . . As suspenseful as a detective thriller, and as difficult to put down.”
“The Lost is the most gripping, the most amazing true story I have read in years.”
“A stunning achievement. . . . Extraordinary.”
“Hugely ambitious yet intensely engaging. . . . Absorbing, novelistic. . . . Thought-provoking and original.”
Samuel G. Freedman
“Stunning. . . . A singular achievement, a work of major significance and pummeling impact.”
(four stars) - People Magazine
"An excellent memoir. . . . The Lost . . . brings to life the struggle of an entire generation."
“An excellent memoir. . . . The Lost . . . brings to life the struggle of an entire generation.”
Read an Excerpt
The Lost A Search for Six of Six Million
By Daniel Mendelsohn
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2006 Daniel Mendelsohn
All right reserved.
The Formless Void
Some time ago, when I was six or seven or eight years old, it would occasionally happen that I'd walk into a room and certain people would begin to cry. The rooms in which this happened were located, more often than not, in Miami Beach, Florida, and the people on whom I had this strange effect were, like nearly everyone in Miami Beach in the mid-nineteen-sixties, old. Like nearly everyone else in Miami Beach at that time (or so it seemed to me then), these old people were Jews--Jews of the sort who were likely to lapse, when sharing prized bits of gossip or coming to the long-delayed endings of stories or to the punch lines of jokes, into Yiddish; which of course had the effect of rendering the climaxes, the points, of these stories and jokes incomprehensible to those of us who were young.
Like many elderly residents of Miami Beach in those days, these people lived in apartments or small houses that seemed, to those who didn't live in them, slightly stale; and which were on the whole quiet, except on those evenings when the sound of the Red Skelton or Milton Berle or Lawrence Welk shows blared from the black-and-white television sets. At certain intervals, however,their stale, quiet apartments would grow noisy with the voices of young children who had flown down for a few weeks in the winter or spring from Long Island or the New Jersey suburbs to see these old Jews, and who would be presented to them, squirming with awkwardness and embarrassment, and forced to kiss their papery, cool cheeks.
Kissing the cheeks of old Jewish relatives! We writhed, we groaned, we wanted to race down to the kidney-shaped heated swimming pool in back of the apartment complex, but first we had to kiss all those cheeks; which, on the men, smelled like basements and hair tonic and Tiparillos, and were scratchy with whiskers so white you'd often mistake them for lint (as my younger brother once did, who attempted to pluck off the offending fluff only to be smacked, ungently, on the side of the head); and, on the old women, gave off the vague aroma of face powder and cooking oil, and were as soft as the "emergency" tissues crammed into the bottom of their purses, crushed there like petals next to the violet smelling salts, wrinkled cough-drop wrappers, and crumpled bills. . . . The crumpled bills. Take this and hold it for Marlene until I come out, my mother's mother, whom we called Nana, instructed my other grandmother, as she handed her a small red leather purse containing a crinkled twenty-dollar bill one February day in 1965, just before they wheeled her into an operating room for some exploratory surgery. She had just turned fifty-nine, and wasn't feeling well. My grandmother Kay obeyed and took the purse with the crumpled bill, and true to her word she delivered it to my mother, who was still holding it a number of days later when Nana, laid in a plain pine box, as is the custom, was buried in the Mount Judah Cemetery in Queens, in the section owned (as an inscription on a granite gateway informs you) by the First Bolechower Sick Benevolent Association. To be buried here you had to belong to this association, which meant in turn that you had to have come from a small town of a few thousand people, located halfway around the world in a landscape that had once belonged to Austria and then to Poland and then to many others, called Bolechow.
Now it is true that my mother's mother--whose soft earlobes, with their chunky blue or yellow crystal earrings, I would play with as I sat on her lap in the webbed garden chair on my parents' front porch, and whom at one point I loved more than anyone else, which is no doubt why her death was the first event of which I have any distinct memories, although it's true that those memories are, at best, fragments (the undulating fish pattern of the tiles on the walls of the hospital waiting room; my mother saying something to me urgently, something important, although it would be another forty years before I was finally reminded of what it was; a complex emotion of yearning and fear and shame; the sound of water running in a sink)--my mother's mother was not born in Bolechow, and indeed was the only one of my four grandparents who was born in the United States: a fact that, among a certain group of people that is now extinct, once gave her a certain cachet. But her handsome and domineering husband, my grandfather, Grandpa, had been born and grew to young manhood in Bolechow, he and his six siblings, the three brothers and three sisters; and for this reason he was permitted to own a plot in that particular section of Mount Judah Cemetery. There he, too, lies buried now, along with his mother, two of his three sisters, and one of his three brothers. The other sister, the fiercely possessive mother of an only son, followed her boy to another state, and lies buried there. Of the other two brothers, one (so we were always told) had had the good sense and foresight to emigrate with his wife and small children from Poland to Palestine in the 1930s, and as a result of that sage decision was buried, in due time, in Israel. The oldest brother, who was also the handsomest of the seven siblings, the most adored and adulated, the prince of the family, had come as a young man to New York, in 1913; but after a scant year living with an aunt and uncle there he decided that he preferred Bolechow. And so, after a year in the States, he went back--a choice that, because he ended up happy and prosperous there, he knew to be the right one. He has no grave at all.
Excerpted from The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn Copyright © 2006 by Daniel Mendelsohn. Excerpted by permission.
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