The International School for Holocaust Studies
Reviewed by Jackie Metzger
So many books have been published on the Holocaust over the last sixty-five years. Histories, survivors’ memoirs, diaries of victims, children’s books, and many more have been published in an unending effort to decipher this dark period in the history of mankind.
The subtitle of this book, A Search for Six of Six Million, informs us immediately that a personal search will be at the heart of the material. The author is in fact the person conducting the search with the result that the reader is drawn into all the emotional aspects of this very personal book. It is written in the first person and Mendelsohn knows well how to draw the reader into all the turmoil of a multi-layered family saga.
The author, born fifteen years after the end of the Second World War, presents his readers with the details of a search which seems to be permeated by the driven determination of those who we call “second generation.”
However, this is not the case with Mendelsohn, whose grandparents were living safely in the U.S. when the Nazis were marching through Europe. The descriptive power employed in returning to war torn and Nazi-infested Poland is fueled by the author’s deep-seated need to find out what happened to his grandfather’s brother, his wife, and their four children.
Already on page five, the author presents his readers with the cause of his need to delve into the unknown part of his family history:
“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.”
Shmuel Jager, Mendlsohn’s great-uncle, visited the U.S. in 1913 but decided to return to his preferred life-style in Bolechow, Poland. At the outset of the saga, he is presented to the reader as the ‘hero’ of the story who, because of his own personal choice, becomes the tragic figure without a grave.
With very little information to go on, Daniel Mendelsohn embarks on his search which will cover repeated visits to various continents until he discovers the details of how, where, and when the six members of his great-uncle’s family were murdered during the Holocaust. The many meetings with people who knew the Jager family in the thirties and until their deaths at the hands of the Nazis take on the elements of a fascinating detective story that only reaches its tragic denouement at the end of the book when Mendelsohn actually stands next to the tree where his great-uncle and one daughter was murdered.
Some of the people that he meets are survivors from the town of Bolechow who remember either the parents Jager or one or more of the four daughters. These survivors are now spread out over various continents, hence the extensive traveling undertaken by Mendelsohn, sometimes with some of his siblings. Others are elderly local townsfolk whom the author seeks out in the desperate hope that someone – a neighbor or a business acquaintance – might remember Shmiel, his wife Ester, and/or one of the four daughters. The quest takes on the determined effort to breathe life, via living details, into the six lives of these murdered members of his family.
But this book is much more than just a detective story. Daniel Mendelsohn intermittently inserts various episodes from the first eighteen chapters of the Book of Genesis as the story unfolds and the reader is drawn into a web of comparing modalities from the bible period to the twentieth century. In fact, the narrative is divided into five parts, four of which bear the Hebrew title corresponding to the first four Parashot, or weekly Sabbath readings from the Bible. But on page 77, Mendelsohn presents the following heading for Part Two: “Cain and Abel,” or “Siblings,” and on the next page, the capitalized heading is: “The Sin Between Brothers.”
The reader with sensitive antennas is projected forward into troubled waters. When the author begins to sort out the stories he had heard of how Shmiel and his family had died, he writes the following on page 101:
“…the terrible betrayal: maybe the wicked neighbor, maybe the unfaithful Polish maid. But none of these betrayals worried me as much as did the possibility of one that was far worse.”
Daniel Mendelsohn was anxious about discovering that Shmiel was in fact betrayed by his siblings in the United States when he wrote them frantic letters in 1939 begging for help. This difficult subject is then crowned with one of the author’s ‘biblical digressions’ when he gives us a one-page window on the biblical siblings with a medieval commentary on Cain’s sin.
So less than a quarter way into The Lost, the reader is enveloped into the saga of the Jager, Mittelmark, and Mendelsohn families, and the search for the missing six members. The book’s engaging style keeps the reader involved in a personal family story whilst the different locations of investigation and Holocaust episodes emanating from the numerous interviews provide a wide, varied backdrop to the personal story of Daniel Mendelsohn’s search.
What is not explained are the biblical asides inserted periodically throughout the text. Thoughts on philosophical questions regarding radical evil, morality and ethics, the Sacrifice of Isaac, and Abraham’s negotiation with God in Sodom and Gomorrah, suddenly appear after a riveting interview in Denmark or after making a discovery in the backyard of a house on a street in the town of the author’s great uncle Shmiel. The reader is clearly led to make his own connections between the story and the biblical inserts.
In conclusion, I will permit myself the following observation from the book.
On pages 15 and 16, right at the outset of the search, Mendelsohn uses the word ‘unknowable’ twice, separated by a period. And on the second to last page we find the following:
“There is so much that will always be impossible to know.” (Italics of the author) So after 503 pages of this personal search, the reader is presented with this sense of the Holocaust paradox, the ongoing quest for knowledge and understanding.