Circling the Black Hole

Although most of humanity has still not read "The Lost," things are looking up. The recent publication of Daniel Mendelsohn's memoir in both Britain and Australia, and the book's impending release this fall in much of Europe and here in Israel, means that hundreds of millions more will soon have at least the opportunity to share in the writer's experience of piecing together the mystery of what happened to one small branch of his family during the Holocaust.

Which is good news, as we would all be better off having read "The Lost."

Not because it is a preachy or prescriptive book; rather, the redemptive quality of Mendelsohn's prose derives from the author's lack of romanticization or self-righteousness about either his subject or mission. By striving to compile a portrait of his maternal great-uncle Shmiel, Shmiel's wife Ester, and the couple's four daughters (Ruchele, Bronia, Frydka and Lorka), as ordinary people living under extraordinary conditions, he removes some of the sacred aura from the entire subject, restoring to the Holocaust its power to teach us something about the experience of being human - and therefore something about ourselves - not just about being a "martyr."

By the end of the book's more than 500 closely spaced pages, the author has come up with pretty credible versions of how each of his relations met his or her end, but he also comes to feel that learning how they lived is far more important than the details of their deaths. And as that is a far more elusive undertaking, the book ends up being a rumination on memory, with its great irony, as the author himself noted in a conversation with Haaretz, being that it "reminds you that much more has been destroyed than rescued."

Mendelsohn, 47, a professor of classics at Bard College in upstate New York, spent five years doing the principal research for the book, which took him twice to Bolechow, the town in Poland (today Ukraine) where his mother's family came from, as well as to Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania, Austria and Israel. But his "search for six of the six million" (as the book is subtitled) really began when Mendelsohn was a child.

"When I was six or seven or eight years old," he tells us in the book's seductive first sentence, "it would occasionally happen that I'd walk into a room and certain people would begin to cry." That was because of his resemblance to Shmiel Jaeger, the only one of Daniel's beloved grandfather Abraham's siblings to perish in the Holocaust. (Shmiel had actually moved to the United States in the 1920s, but he didn't like it, and returned to Bolechow, where he could be "a big fish in a small pond," as his younger brother Abraham put it.)

'You know one-hundredth of it'

Between 1934 and 1942, the year Bolechow's Jewish community essentially ceased to exist, its members endured a half-decade of Polish institutional anti-Semitism, two years of Soviet occupation, and then the arrival of the Germans. Letters that Shmiel, the owner of what had been a thriving butcher shop, sent to his relations in America - and which were found in Abraham's wallet when, mortally ill with cancer, he ended his own life in 1980 - testify to the growing precariousness of his situation.

Shmiel was a proud man, so these appeals could not have been easy for him to write. First he asks for financial assistance, to help him get back on his feet after a business setback, but he is quickly reduced to asking his siblings to put up the bond that would allow his daughters, at least, to leave Poland and survive. Writing about the conditions Jews were facing, he tells them: "What you know is just one-hundredth of it: when you go out into the street or drive on the road, you're barely 10 percent sure that you'll come back with a whole head, or your legs in one piece." And that was the situation in 1939.

After Germany broke its non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, it completed its occupation of Poland, and the Russian troops in Bolechow, near the country's eastern border, were replaced by Germans.

The natural Jewish population of the town at the start of the decade had stood at some 3,300 (out of 12,000), but as the Germans moved east, so did Poland's Jews, hoping to escape, and so Bolechow's Jewish population nearly doubled. There was of course no escape, and by the end of two Aktions, or mass killing operations, in October 1941 and late summer of 1942, fewer than 50 were still alive. Those who had not been killed on the spot were transported to the nearby death camp in Belzec and murdered there. (Witnesses recalled that the Germans forced them to sing the Yiddish song "My Little Town of Belz" while being marched out of town.)

As the rare child who had an interest in the history of his family from a young age, and who always enjoyed the company of old people, Daniel began methodically assembling the clan's chronicles after his bar mitzvah. His resemblance to his great-uncle Shmiel, and the fact that the story of the Jaegers was like a black hole, sucking up all the information about how each individual family member met his or her end, understandably helped focus his attention on that branch of the family. As Daniel matured, and as technologies like the Internet made it easier to locate sources of information anywhere in the world, he assembled more details about the family. But still feeling as if he was just circling that black hole, never getting close enough to the edge to peer in, he decided finally to visit Bolechow in the summer of 2001, in the company of his four siblings.

The testimony he collected there led to a phone conversation with one Jack Greene, of Sydney, Australia. Jack had grown up in Bolechow, and he and his brother had survived both Nazi Aktions by hiding in a stable. He told Mendelsohn that he had been a boyfriend of Shmiel's daughter Ruchele, and he invited the young scholar to visit him in Australia, where he promised to introduce him to other Bolechow natives.

"The Lost," then, is about the "journey" no less than it is about the destination, and Mendelsohn's portraits of the survivors he meets and of present-day denizens of Bolechow, among others, are no less meaningful than what he learns about his own relations. In a very post-modern way, the author dwells on the fallibility of memory, which very often is our only connection to what is gone. And when those repositories of memory - the Jack Greenes and Abraham Jaegers - are gone, the stories they have to tell are forever lost, too. "We cannot go there with them," he writes.

'He would have known them'

Mendelsohn, who spoke to Haaretz by phone from his residence near Bard, believes this is "the most poignant thing about the book - the preciousness of others' existence, which can only be transmitted via narratives. Without the narrative, you've missed the boat. There are things in the archives, but once things that are in the brain tissue are gone, that's it."

He recalls his first visit to Bolechow, when, basically, just by stopping people in the street, he met Maria, a woman in her 70s, who explains that she was too young to have known his family. "It's too bad, she says, because her husband was much older, he would have known them, but he died three years ago." The husband had been in the butcher's union, so he would have known Shmiel.

Even if you do get to people who were there, you're still reliant on their ability to recall and describe. "The only way to [recreate the past] would be if every living person was Marcel Proust," says Mendelsohn. "It's not just the facts - it's the smells, it's the weather. I say that I have tried to avoid a phony, you-were-there reconstruction. That's why I go on about the cattle car in the Holocaust Museum [in Washington], which I found so repulsive to think about."

In the book he mocks the significance of a visit to the authentic Polish train carriage that has been so faithfully installed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The effort was obviously intended to give the museum-goer an authentic experience, but it can't: It just can't approximate the feeling of "being in that space after you've had to smother your toddler to death and to drink your own urine in desperation - experiences that the visitors to such exhibits are unlikely to have recently undergone." (He also was reluctant to visit Auschwitz, which, he writes, "has become the gigantic, one-word symbol, the gross generalization... for what happened to Europe's Jews," when his goal was "to rescue my relatives from generalities, symbols, abbreviations.")

It's iconoclasm like that, and the author's refusal, on the other hand, to judge either perpetrators or their victims too readily - over and over he wonders how he would have behaved under similar circumstances, and leaves the question open - that made me wonder what sort of reactions Mendelsohn has received. It is, after all, easy to offend people when you begin to question certain pieties about the Holocaust, and the outrage can be expressed with great sanctimony.

"I have to say," says Mendelsohn, "that I have had hundreds of e-mails from people, Jewish and non-Jewish, but there hasn't been a strong negative reaction so far." The reviews, too, "were almost unanimously great," with "The Lost" ending up on numerous best-books-of-the-year lists for 2006, including those of the New York Times, the Washington Post and National Public Radio. It also has received a number of major prizes, including the National Book Critics' Circle Award (for best autobiography) and the National Jewish Book Award (for best biography) last year.

Despite those awards, "The Lost" is not really a biography, neither of Shmiel Jaeger nor of the author. In fact, Mendelsohn maintains a disciplined distance from the reader, revealing about himself only what is needed to advance the story he is telling, and never exploiting the forum he's controlling to turn himself into the subject. Mendelsohn says that he was "scrupulous about eliding everything that was gratuitous," as he wanted to avoid turning "The Lost" into being "about how I discovered large things about myself." This, he feels, would have risked trivializing his subject.

Of course, as he points out, Mendelsohn has already written a memoir, his 1999 book "The Elusive Embrace," in which he described his own identity as a gay man living the sybaritic life in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, and the meeting of that identity with a second life he was leading, helping to raise a young boy together with a single mother living in Princeton, New Jersey. At the time, Mendelsohn, was a young classics lecturer at the university, where he had also earned his PhD five years earlier. Today, he is a full professor, and he divides his time between those two bucolic venues, while still maintaining an apartment in the city as well. He also has a career as book reviewer and film critic, with his deep but accessible writing appearing in the New York Review of Books, New York magazine, and other periodicals.

'Do you believe in God?'

Mendelsohn doesn't go into any of that in "The Lost," but he does draw on his training as a Greek scholar, and the natural draw of the classics for him, writing that he always found "pagan peoples... more interesting, more alluring and potent and, I suppose, more sexy than my ancient Hebrew ancestors." He compares the nature of Greek mythology with the way in which a tale is presented in the Hebrew Bible, subsequently interpreted and given alternate meanings by commentators both classical and contemporary. Mendelsohn describes his self-study of Hebrew and Bible in the book, and also his first visits to Israel.

Has he found himself being "embraced" by Jewish readers, I wonder, happy that someone with his secular upbringing - not to mention his unconventional, from the point of view of Jewish tradition, way of life today - is now so openly identifying as a Jew? Mendelsohn says that often at readings, "people will ask me, 'Are you more Jewish now than you were? Do you believe in God?' Since I never didn't identify as a Jew, I'm always a little surprised by this. But I know what they mean. There's actually a lot about Jewishness in my first book. This one, though, has a strong biblical and scholarly element, and it rolls up its sleeves and deals with history in a way I didn't before.

"I have no problem being claimed as part of the Jewish community. To my mind, the title always referred to more than those six people, or even the six million. It's a memorial to a whole echelon of Jewish people I knew in my life. The immigrants like my grandfather ... the survivors I interviewed ... The whole book is about memorializing Jewish people. These people don't exist anymore."

Do you mean the type of people who drink tea in a glass, I ask.

"Yes, a glezl tey. My mother says, whenever we end a phone conversation, 'goodbye and good luck, live and be well.' No one will say that when my mother dies. You're conscious of yourself as a receptacle of memories. That's what my whole book is about."

In a review of "The Lost" in the New York Observer, philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein also welcomed Mendelsohn back into the fold, in her own way, suggesting that "the story he works toward in 'The Lost' gradually renders him less a Hellenist, enthralled to an image of heroic, beautiful death, and more Hebraic, cherishing life for life's sake and seeing death as defilement."

I wondered what Mendelsohn made of that observation. He responds, graciously, that "I can see what she meant," but adds that he wouldn't "write off all of Greco-Roman culture as being a lust for death. My first book, I would say, was written as a person who hadn't had a lot of experience at parenthood. That was the critique of gay culture in my first book - and I repeat, of gay culture - that children are the secret weapon of straight culture. They take you out of the solipsistic existence and force you into the fold."

Newly released Soviet records

This autumn will see the appearance of "The Lost" in most of Western Europe, as well as in a Hebrew edition. Poland will follow in 2008. The latter two publications especially excite the author, in part because he anticipates the book being read by people who may be able to offer new information about his relatives that goes beyond what his own research uncovered.

Already last fall, the initial publication of "The Lost" brought Mendelsohn a call from Yaacov Lozowick, who directs the archives at Yad Vashem, who told him about a database that contained the newly released records of the Soviet Extraordinary Commission, which documented what the Germans had done in territories later reoccupied by the USSR.

"They had just uploaded 350,000 records, and one had to do with Bronia," Shmiel's youngest daughter. Mendelsohn's work had turned up minimal information about Bronia, who was only 13 when she likely died; also, witnesses remembered little about her mother, Ester, other than that she was a "friendly woman" who had nice legs. "Clearly, the Poles had reported to the Soviets on what had happened to Bronia" under the German occupation. The forthcoming editions of the book will include a new postscript describing the revelations.

Mendelsohn expects this process to be ongoing. So, even though he hopes to get working on a new literary project in 2008, which he prefers not to discuss, it is clear that Bolechow will continue to occupy him. He and his family have established the Bolechow Jewish Heritage Society, which, according to its still-minimal Web site (, is dedicated to preserving Jewish sites in the town, "and to keeping alive the memory of Bolechow online and, possibly, in the form of a museum to be located on the site of the town's Great Synagogue."

"Every time you think you're finished, you're not," says Daniel Mendelsohn. "As my very sardonic father says, 'Who knew that Bolechow had 500,000 residents?' People keep coming out of the woodwork."

Nonetheless, he resists sentimentality about his mission. The name of his book, after all, is not "The Found." He may have learned some things about his family, but to paraphrase a former U.S. defense secretary, speaking in a completely different context, mainly what he knows now is that there are things that we don't know. "We didn't save or rescue [the Jaegers]," he tells me. "They're lying in a ditch in Bolechow."