The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn

I’ve been reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s book, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million.

Mendelsohn grew up in an assimilated family in New York. In the background of his visits to his older relatives in Florida lay a story about a great-uncle who remained in the family’s ancestral town of Bolechow, Ukraine, only to be murdered during the Holocaust along with his wife and four daughters. The writer’s grandfather and the other siblings had already emigrated to Israel and the US.

The author intersperses his story with an analysis of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah and that of the modern commentator Rabbi Richard Elliot Friedman. Mendelsohn continuously revisits the theme of sibling rivalry– in the Torah, within his grandfather’s family, and among his own siblings (he broke his own brother’s arm as a child). I’m only about a third of the way through, but we can already see that the relationship between the brother in Bolechow and his American siblings is central to the story.

When Mendelsohn travels to Bolechow, Ukraine with his family, a man named Alex serves as guide and translator. Is this the same garrulous Alex with the hysterically convoluted English that appears in Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Everything is Illuminated? Everything is Illuminated is a (semi-fictional?) book about an American Jew’s search for information about relatives from the Ukraine.

Mendelsohn gives Henry James a run for his money with his sentence structure:

And I might add that virtually all of the information provided by the same important source, the central database at Yad Vashem, for “Shmuel Yeger” (or “Ieger”) and “Ester Jeger” (and the three daughters the database attributes to them: “Lorka Jeiger,” “Frida Yeger,” and “Rachel Jejger”) is demonstrably wrong, from the spelling of their names to the names of their parents (“Shmuel Ieger was born in Bolechov, Poland in 1895 to Elkana and Yona,” an error which, I thought when I first read this, eradicates my great-grandmother Taube Mittelmark from history,* and with her the sibling tensions that may well have resulted in Shmiel’s decision to leave New York in 1914 and return to Bolechow, a decision to which his presence in this error-filled archive is attributable) to the years in which they were born and died.

*Presumably he figures out that Yona is a Hebraicized version of Taube (my own mother’s name), meaning dove.

Despite its length, the passage is readable, and is an example of the way the author maintains suspense by hinting at later-to-be-revealed surprises.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest.

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Comments

  1. I just finished that book.. It was excellent.

  2. WaysofZion says:

    oh, my SIL is reading it, I’ll have to grab it when she’s done! Thanks for the tip on a good book!

  3. virginia from Wisconsin says:

    Hello–Just stumbled across your blog… I just got done reading “The Lost” and was doing a little internet research on Daniel Mendelsohn (i.e. whether he has done any follow-up on the betrayer or Szymanski)…the book was a wonderful read…I couldn’t put it down…This book has everything for a reader…mystery…love…devotion…terror…the miracle of chance encounters…Thanks, Daniel for many wonderful winter weekends in snowy Wisconsin

  4. mominisrael says:

    Thanks Virginia. Somehow I doubt that Daniel read my post, but you never know.

  5. I have just read the book “The Lost” and look at it from a different perspective than some. I am Canadian born of Ukrainian ancestry; (mostly 2nd and 3rd generation except my step father and his family/friends).He came from Western Ukraine after the Second World War. His friends who I grew up around were all from Western Ukraine and escaped after the Second World War. .They shared little of this time with us, like a dark secret.. I am intensely interested in history and of central and western European history. The more I read and study the more I realize that there is some mixed history from those from the Western Ukraine or Eastern Poland at this time. I hope to better understand what happened in those horrible days. I know some Ukrainians were saviors and some were the opposite. For my own reasons, I want to understand some more of that reality. If you care to share I understand and if not, I also understand. This is one of many books I have read on this part of man kind’s history. I continue to study and hope to find an answer that I am sure does not exist. I have traveled much of Europe, seen the small villages of Ukraine and realize that something there no loner exits. I don’t have Daniel’s great passion but only a wish to better understand.

    • mominisrael says:

      Thanks, John, for your comment. I recently met the descendants of Jewish girls who escaped and returned to their village after the war. They share the last name of my grandmother and are almost certainly relatives. They were not treated well in the Ukraine.

  6. It’s the story from the book that says that Daniel and his travelling companions were so well treated, and yet with a hint of suspicion and reservation. Was it his quest that made him “special”. I don’t know. The one thing I laugh at when I think of our drive through Ukraine and into Lviv and then Kiev was smiling people in the streets. Small pretty houses with flowers and beautiful gardens. In the old Checkoslovakia, the towns were grey and drab but once we crossed the border the houses were painted and the gardens were well cared for and full of late spring colour. We went from Check children pretending to shoot us with their toy guns as we drove by to Ukrainian villages with young girls walking arm in arm and singing in the streets. So difficult to reconcile this pastoral scene to the stories and realities of what happened in those seemingly peaceful and loving communities. I may hope to, but expect that I will never understand. For whatever it may be worth, those of that community of Ukrainians who came to Canada after the war, the old animosities died with the war. Only the ghosts remained. JD

    • Soo interesting to here of the joy and beanuty that is now in the Ukraine. My mother had a diferent experience in her Schetle and I did also when visiting St. Petersburg.

  7. Yes, of couse the quest makes him special. He is not the only special one nore can any person be more special than others. One of my step fathers friends, John L, had the Aushwitz numbers on his arm (he was Polish/Ukrainian). I grew up with his children. They went to see the camps and the old home land. I heard little and I think few others did but of course what could be a more personal experience. All the more credit to DM and his Bolichowers for opening their hearts and sharing so much. Looking for 6 opened the world to so many more by personalizing the story of a small group of people and making the current generation look at this from an individual perspective. Yes, a human tragedy, but also the story of so many families and how they lived and died. We should always remenber that these were family, friends, neighbours, cousins, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, those who were loved. I think of John L, a lovely man, and his children and wonder how he survived his nightmare. He did, was a good man with a good family and a strength born from things we can only hope we don’t have to.

  8. Yes, I think more is better. I have my perspective/bias but have always tried to look at mankinds history both good and bad, with a questioning mind. I don’t think many of us thought of the colour or religion of our neghbours when we were 5 or 6 years old, we were play friends. The family stories of those from that time and world will show many things good and bad. If not shared now they are gone. We should not let that happen. As with DM and his search, we know many others have followed a similar path. One more can’t hurt.

  9. mominisrael says:

    Was it his quest that made him “special”.

    Yes.

  10. mominisrael says:

    Would you like me to ask your readers to share their family’s stories?

  11. My grandfather was named Shmuel Yeger and grandmother was frida yita. Not sure of the exact spelling but both perished at Auschwitz. Sad but true.

  12. mominisrael says:

    Freyda, do you think you were related?

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