A Search for Six of Six Million
By Daniel Mendelsohn
512 pages, $34.95
Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost is a remarkable accomplishment.
Un livre sur rien. Gustave Flaubert dreamed of writing such a work, a book about nothing. Its substance would be its style. Even if he never fulfilled this ambition, the very urge made him a pioneer of the modern. Flaubert's world had fragmented into meaningless bits and he revelled in the chaos. In The Lost, Daniel Mendelsohn, too, confronts such a world, but rather than celebrating, he is saddened and distressed. He needs to make connections, to reassemble the pieces. He doesn't mention Flaubert, but Mendelsohn is at the opposite end, our end, of the same modern-postmodern trajectory. The Lost is his version of un livre sur rien.
Flaubert had little time for fathers -- they generally die before his stories begin. Mendelsohn wants to resurrect the fathers. The world he sets out to recreate is that of his great uncle, Shmiel Jäger, and his family, who had lived in the town of Bolechow in Polish Ukraine and had disappeared in the Holocaust. Beyond that, Mendelsohn, a classicist by training, author of a scholarly study of Greek tragedy and self-appointed family genealogist, knows little about these relatives. In family gatherings, the topic of Shmiel's fate is off-limits.
For Mendelsohn, Shmiel, along with his wife Ester and his four daughters, takes on a ghostly significance. And eventually, propelled by the discovery, in the belongings of his late grandfather, of a few of Shmiel's letters from 1939, he goes in search. This book is the compelling account of that search.
He locates 12 surviving Bolechowers on four continents and goes to meet them one by one, in Australia, Israel, Denmark and the United States. Little by little, he learns more. He is fascinated by every tidbit he can glean about his six lost relatives: the turn of an ankle, the hint of youthful promiscuity, the location of a house. The details accumulate, but in the end they remain few and indistinct. He can't get the composite picture into any proper focus.
Sight -- the last word of his book -- is a constant motif, but it always remains blurred. Witnesses are not reliable. Memory -- that extraordinary mechanism for human survival -- produces images and stories more akin to fiction than truth. But at the end, fortuitously rather than deliberately, he does discover a spot, in a garden, where several of the killings are likely to have taken place. In the garden is a tree. In a poignant moment, Mendelsohn associates it with the tree of knowledge. He falls to his knees. This tree, he concludes, "brings both pleasure and, finally, sorrow."
The narrative of the search provides the basic structure, but it is the reflections on memory, family and the human condition, interwoven skillfully into the travelogue, that give the book its multidimensional power. Historical knowledge about the Holocaust is not advanced by Mendelsohn's efforts. If anything, he deconstructs the record further by showing how little we as historians can know for certain and how unreliable much evidence, especially that of memory, is.
What he does do most admirably, however, is to connect his personal "story" with such great meta-narratives as the Story of Creation and Homer's Odyssey. Here destruction, be it in the Great Flood, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah or the fall of Troy, is always followed by re-creation and life. Yet, just why some people choose to do evil and others good remains for Mendelsohn a mystery. As his search unfolds, so too do world events, especially the current war in Iraq. You can almost hear the IEDs exploding between his lines.
There is indeed much artifice to the writing. One section ends with the words: "The doorbell rang and Mrs. Grossbard walked in." You could think you were watching a bad soap opera -- time for the commercial. Even more horrific is the canned question the author asks all his interviewees: "What is the one most important thing you remember?" One shrinks at that point with discomfort. What is this, Fox-TV? Larry King Live? Jerry Springer? These are Holocaust survivors you are interviewing, man, and you are asking them what is the most important thing they remember!
But Mendelsohn is setting us up. Irritation -- and mine was intense -- is gradually replaced by a realization that these devices may represent a contrived vulgarity, and thus weakness and humility, rather than a narrator's omnipotence. To the question of importance, one of his subjects responds, appropriately: "There were the Egyptians with their pyramids. There were the Incas of Peru. And there was the Jews of Bolechow." One is reminded at this point of Flaubert's comment that books are as useless as pyramids.
The endless repetition of detail, the long conversational sentences that begin again and again, circle and then drift off on tangents, the tiresome Yiddish passages, cited ad nauseam and then translated for our benefit, are there to bring us down to earth, from any realm of abstract intellectualism, into the kitchens of Brooklyn, Haifa, Sydney and Bolechow. Eat . . . enjoy. Food, alongside sight, is another motif.
In the face of mass murder on an absolutely unimaginable scale, Theodor Adorno insisted back in 1945 that any attention to individual fate was mere sentimentality. One of Mendelsohn's subjects, with whom he has a particularly affectionate relationship, levels this very same charge against him: You are a sentimentalist, she says.
Mendelsohn, however, doesn't immediately object to that verdict. As surprise, mistake and accident continue to govern human affairs, and as one cataclysm follows the last, sentiment may be all we are left with.
But then later, pondering the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he balks. Lot's wife, he decides, was turned into a pillar of salt not because she saw Sodom as beautiful but because she could not face the future. Tears, the unstoppable weeping, can, as the Greeks recognized, become a narcotic pleasure. Sentiment can paralyze.
This is the book of a skeptic who wants to be a believer but in the end shies away from any leap of faith -- or, more accurately, never finds the right moment because he is always being distracted. Mendelsohn promised himself that when he left Bolechow for the last time he would look back on the town from the car window. "I wanted to be able to remember not only what the place looked like when you were arriving there, but what it looked like when you were leaving it forever." Yet unlike Lot's wife, who did turn, with terrible consequence, to look back, Mendelsohn misses the moment. "By the time I remembered to turn around and take that one last look, we had travelled too far, and Bolechow had slipped out of sight."
Gustave Flaubert said that he was Emma Bovary. If Daniel Mendelsohn's book has a point, it is that we are all Bolechowers.
Modris Eksteins teaches history at the University of Toronto. His reflections on history and memory were published as Walking Since Daybreak.