Thursday, September 06, 2007

"The Lost - a search for six of six million" Daniel Mendelsohn

There are many reasons to investigate your family’s past: for some it’s about status, proving the wealth and importance of your name; for some grasping in a foggy history a sense of who you are, who you might become; some of us are suckers for a good story, be it a drama or a comedy.

When you’ve grown up amidst whispered rumours regarding part of your family, your curiosity will almost surely be piqued, and the same goes for relatives inhabiting far away lands. However, few of us will have spent our formative years hearing, always in hushed tones, about members of our family who were “killed by the nazis”. The sheer vagueness of the affirmation, makes it even more compelling, more horrid in all the details it leaves to the imagination.

At a time in our adult lives where most of us are starting to face the emotional ghosts in our genealogical trees, Daniel Mendelsohn had already reconstructed his, as far back and wide as possible – a hobby he approached with the extreme seriousness of an academically inclined child. Still, the fate of his maternal great-uncle Shmiel, his wife Ester and their four daughters from 10 to 19 years old approximately, was still a puzzle in his early forties.

In “The Lost” Mendelsohn invites the reader to follow in his footsteps as he unravels the last and most difficult knot of his family’s past.

It is not a straightforward journey, for Mendelsohn has spent his life immersed in Classic Literature, and learned at his grandfather Abraham knee, the value of a good yarn. But the reader will never, in its 500 pages, feel like “The Lost” is taking him for a ride. All the detours that the author apparently leads us on, are nothing other than precious stitches of an amazingly complex embroidery- in the end the pattern doesn’t just make sense –it is truly beautiful.

The Holocaust involved such ungraspable numbers –that it is humanly impossible to think of those six million as individuals – real individuals. We know, of course, that these were real people covering the whole spectrum of economic occupations and emotional temperaments, but still. They can never be truly rendered, rescued from oblivion by official registers or even photographs. As Mendelsohn discovers himself, the only people who can bring these dead (maybe all dead) back to life are those who knew them.

With this in mind, the author spent the last five years travelling the globe, accompanied by his brother Matt, desperately trying to record the last memories of the last jewish survivors of the polish village of Bolechow (now in the Ukraine). And in the “In Memoriam” page at the end of the book we realize how close he came – several of his subjects died months after his interviews. Some had known his cousins personally – one had been a boyfriend of one of the girls, another a girlfriend.
It is speaking with these holocaust survivors (who have each their own startling story of horror and near escape to share) that Mendelsohn comes across what I find the most important and emotional discovery of the whole book: he might share a last name or genes with this family, he might own some photographs of them, but all the DNA or genealogical software in the world will never bring them closer. Their stories, their true inheritance lie in the minds of those who knew them and loved them, and as those last friends slip off the face of the Earth, so will them, finally.

In the end we are left feeling victorious: the author has saved six people from the oblivion of the mass killings of the nazi regime, and we held steadfast through descriptions of incredible cruelty and sadness, and Mendelsohn’s resolve to educate his readers on several parashot (chapters of the Hebrew Bible). And yet.

And yet one can’t help thinking of the meaninglessness of it all – how those millions of deaths never gave pause, didn’t stop a single genocide or mass killing since then –not even in Europe. Memory is obviously something complex and somewhat malfunctioning in the human mind – and as the last Holocaust survivors vanish from our planet it’s impossible to believe we are not inching closer to an unknown abyss.

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