'The Lost,' A Holocaust Story

In The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, author Daniel Mendelsohn unearths and reconstructs the lives of six people in his family who died in the Holocaust. Maureen Corrigan has a book review.

Daniel Mendelsohn, Passionately Pursuing 'The Lost'

Author Daniel Mendelsohn i 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 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 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.

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