Daniel Mendelsohn, Passionately Pursuing 'The Lost'

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Author Daniel Mendelsohn i

Daniel Mendelsohn, above, and his photographer brother Matt Mendelsohn traveled the globe to document the stories of distant relatives in The Lost. Photo courtesy Matt Mendelsohn hide caption

itoggle caption Photo courtesy Matt Mendelsohn
Author Daniel Mendelsohn

Daniel Mendelsohn, above, and his photographer brother Matt Mendelsohn traveled the globe to document the stories of distant relatives in The Lost.

Photo courtesy Matt Mendelsohn
Adam Kulberg and his granddaughter Alma, photographed in Copenhagen. i

Adam Kulberg and his granddaughter Alma, photographed in Copenhagen. Kulberg, one of Daniel Mendelsohn's distant cousins, lived in the Ukrainian town of Bolechow; he left the town and his family on his 20th birthday, essentially on instinct, thinking he'd walk to Palestine. He joined a Polish regiment in the Soviet army, fought in the Berlin offensive of April 1945, and learned much later, in a letter, that his entire family in Bolechow had perished. Photo courtesy Matt Mendelsohn hide caption

itoggle caption Photo courtesy Matt Mendelsohn
Adam Kulberg and his granddaughter Alma, photographed in Copenhagen.

Adam Kulberg and his granddaughter Alma, photographed in Copenhagen. Kulberg, one of Daniel Mendelsohn's distant cousins, lived in the Ukrainian town of Bolechow; he left the town and his family on his 20th birthday, essentially on instinct, thinking he'd walk to Palestine. He joined a Polish regiment in the Soviet army, fought in the Berlin offensive of April 1945, and learned much later, in a letter, that his entire family in Bolechow had perished.

Photo courtesy Matt Mendelsohn
Ukrainian children play amid headstones at Bolechow cemetery. i

When the Mendelsohns paid their first visit to the old Jewish cemetery in Bolechow, the very first headstone they saw was the plain marker for a distant ancestor, Sima Jager. Though executions were carried out there, and many believe a mass grave exists beneath it, nowadays the cemetery doubles as a cow pasture — and a playground for local children, who "see the area mainly as a make-believe 'fort,'" Matt Mendelsohn says. Photo courtesy Matt Mendelsohn hide caption

itoggle caption Photo courtesy Matt Mendelsohn
Ukrainian children play amid headstones at Bolechow cemetery.

When the Mendelsohns paid their first visit to the old Jewish cemetery in Bolechow, the very first headstone they saw was the plain marker for a distant ancestor, Sima Jager. Though executions were carried out there, and many believe a mass grave exists beneath it, nowadays the cemetery doubles as a cow pasture — and a playground for local children, who "see the area mainly as a make-believe 'fort,'" Matt Mendelsohn says.

Photo courtesy Matt Mendelsohn

Last year, Daniel Mendelsohn's best-selling memoir The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million won a National Book Critics Circle Award. It tells the story of his grandfather's brother, who stayed behind in his Ukrainian town after his siblings left for America, and later died in the Holocaust. The book has just come out in paperback.

When he was a child, Mendelsohn's elderly Jewish relatives told stories of family members killed in the Holocaust. As an adult, the award-winning author and critic went on a quest with his photographer brother Matt Mendelsohn to unearth those family members' stories from among the millions of individual tragedies of the World War II era.

During his investigation, Mendelsohn discovered letters from the family begging relatives in the United States to help them get out of their Ukrainian town.

He also learned that his Uncle Shmiel came to New York in 1912 — only to decide that America held no future for him. Shmiel returned to his Ukrainian home, and it was from there that he later wrote, increasingly frantically, to his American relatives.

In this interview, Mendelsohn reads from those letters — and tells Terry Gross that The Lost was inspired by his desire to "resuscitate the personalities of these lost people .. to make the book be about humans, with human frailties, and human failing and human emotions, and not just these idealized people from the 1940s, which is how I was always forced to see them" in family albums.

Inevitably, he tells Fresh Air, "much of what happened in my research was accidental," and the search for the stories of his family and their town became a lesson in "the limits of memory, the almost blurred quality that is characteristic of so many of the stories that become the written, authoritative histories we read."

Mendelsohn says another realization came to him as he researched The Lost.

"One of the things you get from being immersed in the study of the Holocaust," he tells Terry Gross, is "a sense of ... the wrongness of Europe today. You're constantly reminded ... of the bizarre absence of these many millions of people — and now, 60 years later, many more millions of people who would have been.

"You can't get that out of your head," Mendelsohn says. "Not least because ... so many of the physical remains, the synagogues, the storefronts with Yiddish lettering still on the bricks ... the ritual-bath buildings, still with Stars of David carved above the lintels, all of these things are still there."

The evidence of a genocide, Mendelsohn says, "is still there — and nobody has bothered to clean up. And to be confronted with that is to have brought home, in the most devastating way, both the sense of the recentness of this event" and an overpowering awareness that "Europe is completely other than it would have been, in a way from which it will never recover."

This interview first aired on Nov. 8, 2006.

Excerpt: 'The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million'

Book cover: The Lost

Chapter One: The Formless Void

Some time ago, when I was six or seven or eight years old, it would occasionally happen that I'd walk into a room and certain people would begin to cry. The rooms in which this happened were located, more often than not, in Miami Beach, Florida, and the people on whom I had this strange effect were, like nearly everyone in Miami Beach in the mid-nineteen-sixties, old. Like nearly everyone else in Miami Beach at that time (or so it seemed to me then), these old people were Jews—Jews of the sort who were likely to lapse, when sharing prized bits of gossip or coming to the long-delayed endings of stories or to the punch lines of jokes, into Yiddish; which of course had the effect of rendering the climaxes, the points, of these stories and jokes incomprehensible to those of us who were young.

Like many elderly residents of Miami Beach in those days, these people lived in apartments or small houses that seemed, to those who didn't live in them, slightly stale; and which were on the whole quiet, except on those evenings when the sound of the Red Skelton or Milton Berle or Lawrence Welk shows blared from the black-and-white television sets. At certain intervals, however, their stale, quiet apartments would grow noisy with the voices of young children who had flown down for a few weeks in the winter or spring from Long Island or the New Jersey suburbs to see these old Jews, and who would be presented to them, squirming with awkwardness and embarrassment, and forced to kiss their papery, cool cheeks.

Kissing the cheeks of old Jewish relatives! We writhed, we groaned, we wanted to race down to the kidney-shaped heated swimming pool in back of the apartment complex, but first we had to kiss all those cheeks; which, on the men, smelled like basements and hair tonic and Tiparillos, and were scratchy with whiskers so white you'd often mistake them for lint (as my younger brother once did, who attempted to pluck off the offending fluff only to be smacked, ungently, on the side of the head); and, on the old women, gave off the vague aroma of face powder and cooking oil, and were as soft as the "emergency" tissues crammed into the bottom of their purses, crushed there like petals next to the violet smelling salts, wrinkled cough-drop wrappers, and crumpled bills. ... The crumpled bills. Take this and hold it for Marlene until I come out, my mother's mother, whom we called Nana, instructed my other grandmother, as she handed her a small red leather purse containing a crinkled twenty-dollar bill one February day in 1965, just before they wheeled her into an operating room for some exploratory surgery. She had just turned fifty-nine, and wasn't feeling well. My grandmother Kay obeyed and took the purse with the crumpled bill, and true to her word she delivered it to my mother, who was still holding it a number of days later when Nana, laid in a plain pine box, as is the custom, was buried in the Mount Judah Cemetery in Queens, in the section owned (as an inscription on a granite gateway informs you) by the First Bolechower Sick Benevolent Association. To be buried here you had to belong to this association, which meant in turn that you had to have come from a small town of a few thousand people, located halfway around the world in a landscape that had once belonged to Austria and then to Poland and then to many others, called Bolechow.

Now it is true that my mother's mother—whose soft earlobes, with their chunky blue or yellow crystal earrings, I would play with as I sat on her lap in the webbed garden chair on my parents' front porch, and whom at one point I loved more than anyone else, which is no doubt why her death was the first event of which I have any distinct memories, although it's true that those memories are, at best, fragments (the undulating fish pattern of the tiles on the walls of the hospital waiting room; my mother saying something to me urgently, something important, although it would be another forty years before I was finally reminded of what it was; a complex emotion of yearning and fear and shame; the sound of water running in a sink)—my mother's mother was not born in Bolechow, and indeed was the only one of my four grandparents who was born in the United States: a fact that, among a certain group of people that is now extinct, once gave her a certain cachet. But her handsome and domineering husband, my grandfather, Grandpa, had been born and grew to young manhood in Bolechow, he and his six siblings, the three brothers and three sisters; and for this reason he was permitted to own a plot in that particular section of Mount Judah Cemetery. There he, too, lies buried now, along with his mother, two of his three sisters, and one of his three brothers. The other sister, the fiercely possessive mother of an only son, followed her boy to another state, and lies buried there. Of the other two brothers, one (so we were always told) had had the good sense and foresight to emigrate with his wife and small children from Poland to Palestine in the 1930s, and as a result of that sage decision was buried, in due time, in Israel. The oldest brother, who was also the handsomest of the seven siblings, the most adored and adulated, the prince of the family, had come as a young man to New York, in 1913; but after a scant year living with an aunt and uncle there he decided that he preferred Bolechow. 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.

The foregoing is excerpted from The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

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