Thoughts on Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost
We must now balance everything
with heavy dreams, and set
upon what was once today.
- Yehuda Amichai (trans. by Robert Friend)
At the heart of the enterprise of History is the problem of narrative. How do we tell the story of the past? Do we put it down as a clean, logical sequence of dates and events, convert it into abstractions and call them facts? Or do we focus on the human, the everyday - tell the story of one household, one person - and risk drowning in subjectivity, find ourselves walking the line between truth and fiction. Because it is impossible to ever truly know another human being, especially across the distance of time; impossible to understand how they lived, what they thought, how they felt. And is there, perhaps, a middle ground between these two extremes - a version of history somewhere between the dry narrative of the textbook and the exciting yet unreliable yarns of our grandparents?
Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost is an attempt to construct one such narrative. Mendelsohn starts with simple curiousity: his grand uncle Shmiel, he has been told, died in the Holocaust along with his wife and four daughters. Because the memory of this loss is so painful to those of his parents and grandparents generation, and because the Holocaust itself is both too well understood and too horrible to bear speaking about, this fact - that the family of six was killed by the Nazis - is almost all the young Daniel can learn about them. He knows nothing about who they were; what their lives were like; how, when and where they died. In the case of the four daughters he does not even know their names. In trying to protect themselves from the pain of this memory, his family have ended up erasing the memory itself - these six relations of his have been truly lost.
The Lost is the story of Mendelsohn's quest to recover this lost family. It is a journey that takes many years and involves travelling all over the globe, meeting with the few remaining survivors from those distant days to try and learn as much as he can about these long dead relatives of his - both about the circumstances of their death, but also about their personalities, their interests, who they were. It is a search for a missing branch of the family tree, but it is also a search for its roots.
Why, you may well ask, do we need another book about the Holocaust? There are, after all, thousands of books already in print describing the facts of that terrible time in carefully studied detail - few episodes in history can have been as exhaustively researched and documented. And if it's a more personal take you're looking for, there are innumerable survivor accounts, as well as the books of people like Primo Levi and Imre Kertesz, which provide haunting explorations of the horrors of the Shoah.
The Lost differs from these accounts in three important ways. First, it is not a survivor's story - it is the story of a family that didn't survive, and of which little trace remains. Second, Mendelsohn is not so much interested in describing the acts of cruelty themselves (which have already been documented) or in imagining the emotions of the victims (a task that, he is quick to admit, is impossible, given that none of us will ever experience the horrors that these people witnessed and suffered) but rather in contextualising the terror, in trying to recapture a sense for who these victims were. What Mendelsohn gives us (or tries to give us) is a portrait of what it was like to live and grow up in a small Polish town; to recreate, before it is forgotten forever, the everday world of European Jewry - a world that the Holocaust destroyed forever. Six million is a unforgivably large number, but to think of the victims in figures is to reduce them to numbers, render them anonymous. If we are to truly honour the dead we must remember not (or not only) how they died but also how they lived - who they dated, what they were like, how they spent their time.
And this, I think, is Mendelsohn's third point - to break away from the traditional narrative of the Holocaust - a narrative that, by this point, has become a cliche. Writing about a trip to Auschwitz Mendelsohn reflects on why the site of the infamous concentration camp, today a living symbol of the Holocaust, leaves him unmoved. The problem, he suggests, is that dealing in the symbolic has the effect of desensitizing us. We visit the usual tourist spots, see the famous signboards, the familiar gas chambers, the ubiquitous cattle cars, and we think we've understood what happened here. But the truth is we have understood nothing - we have not even really thought about what happened - we have simply fallen back into a series of intellectual platitudes, into mechanical habits of thought and feeling.
What Mendelsohn does with The Lost is force us to see things differently. Again and again through the book he points to things that we usually don't know or don't think about. That many of the atrocities commited against the Jews were committed not by the Germans but by the local population. That not all Jews were killed in concentration camps; in the early days thousands were shot and buried in mass graves. That the real impact of the Holocaust can be seen in the large tracts of empty land in the Jewish graveyards in Europe - graveyards that would have been full if the people who were to occupy them had not been killed and buried (or left unburied) elsewhere. These facts are important not because they change the basic facts about the Holocaust, but because by challening our set views of the event they force us to think about what happened afresh.
The other thing that makes The Lost a fascinating read is the way it is structured. Mendelsohn does not tell us the story of his lost relatives, he tells us the story of his search for information about them. The facts about Shmiel and his family emerge slowly, pieced together bit by bit, stray jigsaw pieces of information, some of it contradictory, that slowly assemble into the full story of what happened to this one family. In telling the tale this way Mendelsohn not only recreates for us his experience of discovery - an experience that makes the story more emotionally involving than it might otherwise have been - he also creates a structure that allows him to connect his central story to other stories. As he meets with other people who lived in his ancestral town of Bolichow during the war, and gleans from them the tiny bits of information they still remember about the family Jaeger, he (and by extension the reader) also learns their stories: what they were like before the war, what they lived through in those bleak days, how they survived, and perhaps most fascinatingly of all, where they are now and what their lives have become. Living in Australia, Scandinavia, Israel, the Jews of Bolichow have spread far and wide, have become parents, grandparents, have built lives that to the casual observer would appear unexceptionally normal. And yet under this mundane surface runs an undercurrent of loss and tragedy, a hidden narrative of families obliterated, loved ones lost. And it is this that Mendelsohn is trying to tap into, knowing that when this generation of survivors dies, their stories will die with them, and be lost to us forever.
The Lost is non-fiction, but it reads, in many ways, like fiction. Mostly this is because the survivors he talks to all have stories that sound like they could have come out of a novel (as one person he talks to puts it - if you didn't have a dramatic story, you didn't survive). But it's also because the plot of The Lost (if one may call it that) is a string of happy coincidences, accidents of chance through which Mendelsohn eventually learns the true fate of his lost relations.
Some things about this book are annoying. For one thing, Mendelsohn has a habit of foreshadowing coming revelations. Time and time again he says things like "It would be years before we would find out the true story about" or "little did we know then how far we would have to travel to learn the truth". This seems unnecessary, and I suspect the book would have greater impact if the reader were allowed to share fully in the error-filled process of Mendelsohn's discovery. It's frustrating and a little alienating to be told, as soon as some new information is revealed, that it isn't actually true (or is incomplete) and that the full story will emerge at some unspecified point a few hundred pages later.
Mendelsohn also intersperses the basic narrative with a discussion of the first few books of the Jewish bible, drawing on interpretations from well-respected scholars to provide a sort of philosophical / intellectual frame through which to view the story he is telling. Some of the resonances here are interesting, but on the whole these discursions did little for me, and many of Mendelsohn's 'insights' struck me as both obvious and a little forced. What Mendelsohn is doing, I think, is taking us through the emotional journey he underwent on his quest, and the way he sought meaning in religion, used the text of the Bible to make sense of what he was learning. This is not entirely uninteresting, but it detracted, for me, from the immediacy of the book.
Ironically, the thing that struck me the most in the stories that Mendelsohn finally unearths, the thing that I realised I'd never really thought about - was the role the non-Jews played in the Holocaust. Certainly there was widespread anti-semitism, with locals collaborating with and even, at times, surpassing the Nazis in their cruelty towards their erstwhile neighbours. But as Mendelsohn points out, every single survivor he spoke to had a story that involved being helped / saved by a non-Jew. This is not, of course, to take away from the horror of what the Jews of Europe went through. But it is worth remembering that in a world gone mad with hate and fear there were still those (if only a handful) who, for the sake of love or friendship or plain humanity, were willing to risk (and often lose) their lives and the lives of their families to help other people survive. Where there is life, there is hope, the saying goes. But in a world grown inhuman hope exists because someone, somewhere is willing to die rather than compromise his or her humanity. And that, more than anything else, is a message worth remembering.