In Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Frederick, the artist, comments on a TV show he’d been watching on Auschwitz:
“More gruesome film clips, and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question “How could it possibly happen?” is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is “Why doesn’t it happen more often?””
The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn doesn’t answer this question and it doesn’t attempt to “explain” the Holocaust. The author travels all over the world talking to people who may have known his Great-Uncle Schmiel and his family and others who experienced the Holocaust in the attempt to provide a narrative of survivors. But the book is not merely a collection of testimonials. The Lost is an attempt to understand memory itself, and because in this story the search for memory revolves around the events of the Holocaust, we come to realize how far we are from understanding what took place just 65 years ago.
The Lost was recommended to me by my Cousin Barbara from Ithaca, New York and it was a book I considered reading on several occasions but avoided, honestly, because of the subject matter and the memory of how many nights I was kept awake as a kid horrified by Anne Frank’s diary. But The Lost is ultimately about the survivors, the living, and the generations moving farther and farther away from the Holocaust. And though I did have nightmares from this book they weren’t due to gas chambers and piles of empty shoes. It was from the realization of just how close this history remains and how widespread its effects were that left me dreaming images of unreturned letters and unacknowledged pleas for help.
Early in the book, the author professes his love for the Greeks from a young age, always preferring the way they told their stories, how they “demonstrated that a story needn’t be told in a straightforwardly chronological . . . way (34).” This anecdote is a prescription for the reader on how to understand the story that is to come and the structure by which he tells his story of his search for the story of his ancestor’s death. He is attempting to learn the truth behind the final years and death of his Grandfather’s brother, wife, and daughters. His Grandfather, whom the author knew very well as a child, lived in America during the Holocaust and is the author’s link to Orthodox Judaism and, through his letters from Schmiel (the author’s Great Uncle), to the Holocaust. Hearing occasionally about his Great Uncle Schmiel as a child was never satisfying enough for the author and so he embarks on a journey to try to discover what happened to this relative. This journey takes him to Bolechow, Poland, the Jewish ghetto his family came from, to Florida, and to as far as Sydney, Australia, interviewing people as familiar as his own mother and as distant as Jack Green, a man now living in Sydney who had dated one of Schmiel’s daughters
The Lost guides,the reader through a complex narrative that unveils several significant truths. First, our author and guide addresses what memory means in relation to family and history. Six million lives were destroyed and so six million webs of family, community, and friends were torn apart. The author, at one point, compares Schmiel’s letters to America, his pleas for help in the days before the siege of his ghetto, to the memory of his mother and other family members and finds a gap in his understanding. Is this the cause of trauma on the part of the surviving family? Is it the shame of not doing enough to help, or not being able to do enough? Or is it simply the trauma and shame of experiencing one’s memories fade over time? Mendelsohn consistently searches this question of memory to try to understand how individual humans comprehend (if at all) the fate of other individuals violently killed in a massive and horrifying slaughter. At times it seems it is far easier to understand, respect and honor the six million, than to admit and comprehend the fate of just six, because for those who would remember, each of the six’s lives has a definite character captured in photographs, in plaintive hand-written letters, in stories told, in aspirations deferred or achieved, all of which continue to live, despite the annihilation, in relatives’ memories,
The other major affect is the reminder that the world is not as small as we like to believe in our hyper-informed world. We can read about the Holocaust, repeat figures and statistics, learn about methods of execution, violent acts of guards and SS agents, but not until a person walks into the dark basement that served as a hideout for his family in Poland, does he really understand. The author has Schmiel’s letters, family stories, and photos, but he isn’t content with the distant echoes he hears from these artifacts. He must go further. He must experience the original voices themselves, the dank scent of the Polish basement. And yet, resisting his effort, the Holocaust and our memories of it recede, slowly, but inexorably fading, drawing away from the historian. Its history must now be actively reassembled and pieced together from millions of archives in order to preserve it within our living memories. In exploring this issue, The Lost helps to define knowledge itself by demonstrating the subjectivity of history, the dependence of what we know of history on those who choose to remember and to preserve theirs and others’ memories through story-telling, authorship, archiving, etc.
Most subtitles for books seemed added by publishers to try to sell more books, but this book’s subtitle, “A Search for Six of Six Million,” seems essential to the theme of the book, because it demonstrates the scale of the event in comparison to the book. At times, while reading, despite the enormity of the Holocaust itself, I forgot the larger “historical” events through which the narrator searches for his family, thinking only of this single man trying to find his family in Europe. When I think of the exhaustive search it took to uncover Schmiel’s history and then recall the subtitle of the book, I realize that to even begin to talk about the history of six million it would not take the 500 pages of The Lost, but 500 Million small type, minimal column, pages. That’s just to begin to talk about the experience of those who perished.
The Lost is an essential read. It must be read. This review cannot describe the experience of reading this book and how it feels to watch (to read) one man’s struggle to create memories. But the quote at the beginning of this review should accompany you along the way because ultimately, while the book is about the subjectivity of memory and the exhaustive journey one must go to uncover it, it also demonstrates how the Holocaust was not an enclosed isolated event, how it wasn’t simple or academic or solely historical. It is still today very personal.
“It is of course possible to learn about the sufferings of the Jews of Bolechow,” our author tells us, “without having to go to a town that is now called Bolekhiv and track down elderly ladies who witnessed certain of those sufferings.” Our author has consulted the Holocaust encyclopedia, and many Holocaust historical societies, but only by going to Bolekhiv did he hear stories about how the Jews of the town were gathered into a Catholic church yard, and forced to throw a rabbi off the roof of the church. Or how many of the towns Jews, later that same evening, were taken out to the forest by German soldiers, shot in the head, and buried in a mass grave. And only by going to Bolekhiv could he hear these stories from a woman who had witnessed it. The major effect on the reader is to remind us that the Holocaust still very much exists on this earth and occupies physical space: inside homes and old church yards in Bolekhiv, in a home in Sydney, and in letters, which the author is constantly staring down at and contemplating, that were written just 65 years ago begging for help.
And then “Why doesn’t it happen more often?” asks Woody Allen’s character. It of course does happen more often: in the Sudan and Rwanda and Kosovo. Perhaps the world will only acknowledge this as time passes and an objective history allows itself to be written. The Lost, however, is a book that has the power to prevent these horrors by creating a history so tangible that we can examine it from all angles. We do not walk from this history believing it to be foreign and inevitable or distant and unpreventable. The true horrors of the events in a little town called Bolechow, early in 1941, lies in the decisions of individuals and the perceptions of individuals, and in how far reaching the effect of those decisions are. The Lost is the history of not just these decisions and events, but of their contemporary consequences.