For five years, Daniel Mendelsohn traveled the globe searching for an answer to the question he had first asked as a boy decades earlier: What really happened to his great-uncle's family during the Holocaust? Here, Mendelsohn weaves together his discoveries about the past, family secrets and Judaism itself. He visits nearly a dozen countries on four continents in pursuit of the truth, eventually interviewing the town's twelve living survivors. Along the way, he detects things that challenge family myths and inspire new questions about long-held beliefs. Interwoven throughout the present-day developments are flashbacks to Mendelsohn's youth spent with his immigrant relatives, and more generally to Jewish life, philosophy and tradition over the years. Not only does he come to know his six deceased relatives on this unforgettable journey, but he discovers so much more about himself, his religion, his immediate family and their shared history as well.--From publisher description.
Years of research allowed Mendelsohn to fill in many details on his family tree. As he filled in more and more details about other family members, Mendelsohn began to feel that he needed to learn more about his great-uncle Shmiel to complete the family tree. In order to find what could still be known about Shmiel's family and their fate, Mendelsohn needed to talk with the surviving remnant of Bolechow's Jews who were old enough to remember the Jäger family from before the war. Accompanied most of the way by his photographer brother Matt, Mendelsohn traveled to Australia, Israel, Sweden, Denmark, and Ukraine to meet people who had been there and to find out what they knew and what stories they had heard.
I was particularly struck by this passage:
It's different to write the story of people who survived, because there's someone to interview, and they can tell you these amazing stories. As I said these words, I thought of Mrs. Begley, who had once looked coldly at me and said, 'If you didn't have an amazing story, you didn't survive.'
My problem, I went on..., is that I want to write the story of people who didn't survive. People who had no story, anymore.
That passage sums up how this book differs from other books I've read about the Holocaust. It's not a survival account. It's about six individuals who didn't survive.
This is an inspirational book despite the grim subject matter. Mendelsohn frames his journey with meditation and commentary on weekly Torah readings (parashat) from Genesis. Along the way, he develops a stronger bond with his brother, forms new friendships, and discovers long-lost relatives. The journey is as meaningful as the destination. Highly recommended for readers with an interest in family history, Jewish genealogy, the Holocaust, and the history of Ukraine (formerly eastern Poland), particularly the town of Bolechow/Bolekhiv.
Daniel Mendelsohn tells the story of his search for information regarding the fate of his great-uncle, and that uncle's wife and 4 daughters.
Mendelsohn sets out to find the facts about their deaths, and this books recounts that search. But it does very much more than that.
Constructed as a memoir, a detective story, a meditation on life and on the Torah, full of pain and life-altering coincidence, this book is a marvel. The writer's voice is compelling, and concrete, yet he deals in and with shadows, rumors, whispered confidences, secrets, lies and confusion.
Sorrow, loss, identity, grief and joy all comingle in this masterwork. Who are we? Who is our family? Where do we come from? How does our living and our dying impact our descendants? How can we recover those we have lost?
I could not put this book down. Page by page, chapter by chapter, Mendelsohn peels back layers of history and time, memory and forgetfulness, until at last we know what happened to the six. And in the process of following Mendelsohn's search, we ourselves are changed.
Why did I enjoy it so much? First, author Daniel Mendelsohn’ story seemed so familiar. Like me, Mendelsohn grew up in a large extended family that told him lots of stories about growing up in a small town, about brothers and sisters, about parents and grandparents, about decisions great and small that eventually lead to him and his life. Early on Mendelsohn caught the genealogy bug and from a young age started charting the family tree, also like me.
Where our stories diverge is where Mendelsohn’s takes off. As a youngster he is shown pictures of a great-uncle, his wife and four daughters who, he was told, “were killed by the Nazis.” At a certain point Mendelsohn decides to find out exactly what happened to them, and so armed with tidbits that he had gathered from relatives over the years he begins a journey that will take him literally to the four corners of the earth to find answers. The stories he hears, the facts he gathers, the friendships he makes are all nterwoven masterfully and truly did turn this book into a page-turner for me.
But it isn’t just this one story that Mendelsohn tries to tell. A trained classicist, he breaks the narrative throughout the book to analyze passages of Genesis and their parallels to the story he his telling. Using both centuries-old and modern commentary as a starting point, Mendelsohn brings his own perspective to the ancient story and his more modern one, struggling to find meaning in acts that seem incomprehensible.
This is a really great book! Highly recommended!
It also opened my eyes to the holocaust, a thing more complex and far-reaching than I thought possible.
Many, many stars for this book.
At times, the book meanders or repeats itself in ways that are less charming, but overall it keeps things moving even with a tough premise - it's hard to find specific answers when so many people who could tell the stories are dead (if not in the war, than in the 60 years between then and when Mendelsohn started seriously researching). For me, that was probably the most poignant part - that we often don't pursue asking questions until the people who could answer them are no longer with us.
But a fantastic read and teaching about the reality of the Holocaust and how it continues to reverberate down the generations.
The author begins by telling stories of his childhood, the stories of things that happened to him and things that his family, especially his grandfather, told him. Mendelsohn knows his grandfather's brother, Shmiel, and Shmiel's wife and four daughters, all died during the Holocaust. No one knows exactly how and when. Mendelsohn begins researching these lost family members and about the city of Bolechow, Poland, where they lived. The search takes him all over Europe, to Australia and Israel as well. I can't say too much about what he finds as it would take away from the story. It is a great story though.
Here's a quote:
To be alive is to have a story to tell. To be alive is precisely to be the hero, the center of a life story. when you can be nothing more than a minor character in somebody else's tale, it means that you are truly dead.
I do wish that the pictures had captions. Mendelsohn talks about a lot of people, in his family as well as others he speaks to about the Jagers, and he only randomly posts the pictures but none have captions. sometimes it doesn't matter because he's just described the person in the picture or the picture itself, but other times it is strange because he's talking about the girls and the picture shows several of them. How are we supposed to know which is which? Maybe that is part of his story, the uncertainty of what you think and what you know.
Woody Allen's portrait of a Holocaust obsessed New York Jew fits Mendelsohn to a T. Since his childhood, Daniel Mendelsohn had developed an odd obsession with genealogy, discovering the personal histories of his relatives impacted by the Holocaust. Linked to this is a creepy obsession of spending time in the company of old people, already as a teenager but also while traveling in Europe where he eschews visiting a city's highlights in order to score another interview with an often less than willing Holocaust survivor. His sightseeing is often marred by insufficient preparation. A simple Wikipedia search would have revealed that Theodor Herzl was buried in the Döbling cemetery not the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna. Vienna's Zentralfriedhof is lodged between the industrial zone, the airport and an oil refinery. No wonder that upstanding citizens such as Theodor Herzl did not want to be buried there. The Zentralfriedhof is almost situated in Vienna's equivalent of New Jersey. For marketing purposes, Vienna's administration reburied some of its heroes (such as Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven) in the Zentralfriedhof and even set up empty memorials for others (Mozart). Sometimes, the lack of a systematic approach is vexing. Serendipity often comes to the rescue.
The search quickly turns into a hunt, a mystery of a true crime. What had truly happened to Mendelsohn's grand-uncle and his daughters in 1941 and 1942? Mendelsohn unveils layer upon layer, giving faces and stories to name and places - a task better not left to the professionals: regarding his relatives, the database of Yad Vashem was filled with errors, partly due to the Galician-Polish-Ukrainian multi-linguistic environment. While the re-discovery of his relatives' life and death as well as the stories of the Holocaust survivors is a worthy endeavor in itself, Mendelsohn enriches it with a meditation and analysis of the first books of Moses. Jewish history as a tale of suffering starts early with God evicting and punishing the first humans and later wiping out most of humanity and nature in the flood. Sodom and Gomorrah only continues the story of a jealous and vengeful God. Even the God-fearing and righteous will suffer. Mendelsohn's research reveals quite a number of skeletons in the family closet. Reality is complex and non-fiction offers the best tales. Like an excellently choreographed firework, Mendelsohn's hunt pays off magnificiently, with tiny build-ups aggregating into big reveals. Given Goethe's Faust's famous agonizing over the correct translation of the first lines of Genesis, I found the discussion of its Hebrew translation issues (and its surprisingly frequent non-conventional approaches) very interesting. Another topic I have so much to learn about.
Where Mendelsohn's book could have benefited from was a more general introduction to the Eastern European area, recently labeled "Blood lands". Unfortunately for its inhabitants from Poland to Hungary to Austria to the Adria, the clashes through the centuries between the East and the West proved to be very bloody. Wiping out villages and cities used to be an all too familiar occurrence. Like Mendelsohn, I have often wondered why, for instance, the inhabitants of Hainburg, Austria, did not flee prior to the Turkish invasion of 1683. The Turks wiped out nearly all of the 8.000 inhabitants. Joseph Haydn's grand-father was one of the few survivors. While The Lost ultimately is a personal search for the history of his relatives and the Holocaust, a wider discussion of the violent nature of mankind would have been quite in order. The Holodomor, Stalin's starvation of millions of Ukrainians occurred just on the other side of the border from Bolechow. Since time immemorial, Eastern Europe has seen a lot of suffering (emigration has always been the best strategy). Homo homini lupus. Mendelsohn shies away from its full discussion and implication. This is especially bothersome in his mentioning of Abu Grhaib's "abuses said to have taken place". Call it torture and it is so amply documented that its denial or questioning is just sad. Together with mentioning Evian only as a mineral water, the continued whitewashing of US involvement in blocking Jewish emigration is not helpful in educating the next generation of Americans. Apart from this all too common blind spots, this is a spectacular achievement that is a fast-paced, revealing read. Highly recommended.
The book has its flaws, in my opinion. The author weaves in narrative of rabbinical scholars which I thought distracted from the story (even though interesting by its own merit - but just out of place).
Even though I found the narrative distracting, but it is in italics so it's easy to skip if you choose.
Since this is a biographical novel on several level (the uncle, the cousins, those who knew them and the author himself), I felt it would have been more profound if the author would have shared more of himself. After I finished reading the book felt I knew the long departed Uncle Schmiel better than the man who is telling the story about his own search.
Daniel Mendelsohn grew up surrounded by older relatives who survived the Holocaust either because they got out of Europe in time or by luck or divine intervention they survived the Nazi’s. Daniel knew this. He knew about the events of World War II. What he did not know if why elderly relatives would begin to cry when they saw him and mention he looked like a person Daniel did not know. Shmiel Jäger was Daniel’s great uncle. Shmiel, his wife, and four daughters did not survive the Holocaust. When they died, how they died and why they died were not know. The only know was “they were killed by the Nazis.”
The Lost is the story of Daniel learning of his lost family and as adult his quest to find them. They were not “killed by the Nazis” of meticulous records. They were not all killed at the same time or the same place. In his quest to find their fates, Daniel and his family learned an incredible amount. They learned about Ukrainians who turned in neighbors. They learned about Poles who hid Jews. They learned about the non-Jews who lost their lives trying to save lives. They learned about the unending cruelty that accompanied the last moments of so many people. The hardback edition contains photographs from the author’s family. There is a certain level of heartbreak, which thank whatever Gods you believe in we do not experience often, on seeing two smiling teen girls and knowing their death will come before they experience love, marriage, and motherhood.
When I read the book, it was powerful. I expected the audiobook to be the same. It was not. Bronson Pinchot’s narration is masterful and devastating. Pinchot is fantastic at the accents. Whether it is Daniel’s mother’s New York accent or his grandfather’s Yiddish, they are clear and believable. The voices, whether male or female, old or young, are very well done. He creates Daniel’s voice but he also creates so much more. He infuses every word with emotion. But there is a power within Pinchot’s narration that the listener must be prepared for. I was driving and thankfully could pull over for a moment. When Pinchot describes what they believe happened to his one relative, a teenage girl, who was rounded up by the Ukrainians at the direction of the Nazi authorities, held with a thousand other people, naked, without food or water or access to facilities, made to watch their rabbi have his eyes cut out and a cross carved on his chest, then taken to the forest where group by group they walked onto a plank over a pit, to be shot and if God was merciful, they died immediately; if not they lay wounded under covered by other bodies and eventually earth. That was difficult to read. Pinchot’s narration contains so much rage, sadness, and horror that it is devastating to hear. Bronson Pinchot should have the 2016 Audie just for that passage alone. If you have to chose between reading The Lost or listening to Pinchot’s narration, take the narration. The power of his performance will stay with you.
"The words “truly great book” set a very high bar, don’t they, in the context of the last couple of centuries. Therefore I’d have to pick “The Lost,” by Daniel Mendelsohn. Nonfiction, but only incidentally. It’s a memoir, a Holocaust
If only life was that f*ck*ng simple.
Mr. Mendelson constructs a marvelous investigation sixty years after the fact. His training as a classicist lends a unique angle to his research. The idea of using Dido as an apt metaphor is astonishing: victim and exile, she prospers from her wits only to kill herself. If ever an example antiicpated the Survivor, this is it.
Daniel decides to find and write Shmiel’s story. Over many years he performed multi-faceted research, studied family photos and letters, visited, and spoke with and interviewed family members as well as strangers from Bolechow who knew a little something about Shmiel, Esther or their daughters, or who had ‘witnessed’ or ‘heard about’ an occurrence to Shmiel, Esther or their daughters. Daniel pieced together not just their pre-mature, abrupt, horrific murders by the Nazis and Ukrainians but the beauty of their friendships and daily lives. Mendelsohn’s thoughts and feelings coalesced into a greater understanding of his grandfather’s hidden anguish and guilt, and the unwillingness to speak of Shmiel, the brother he couldn’t save.
Using analysis of the weekly Parshiot read in synagogue on Shabbat to counterbalance his family’s painful story is brilliant. Especially meaningful to Daniel are the Torah segments about divisiveness between brothers; perhaps because Daniel had broken his brother, Matthew’s arm when young. And perhaps because he realized the guilt his grandfather suffered.
I both enjoyed and was saddened by everything Daniel shared but did feel the book ran on too long.