Taking issue with Daniel Mendelsohn's Lost.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 29 2006 8:45 AM

The Triumph of the Real

Daniel Mendelsohn's peculiar argument about the Holocaust and fiction.

The Lost.

The history of the Holocaust has been written not by the victors, but by the survivors. The memoirs and testimonials we know best, such as Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz and Elie Wiesel's Night, are those with, as ironic as it sounds, a happy ending—these writers, after all, lived to tell their tales. Even documents that outlived their authors— The Diary of Anne Frank, or the archive buried in the Warsaw Ghetto—can be read optimistically: At least the stories survived, although their writers did not. But the stories without happy endings are the stories of the vast majority of those who perished in the Holocaust, and most of those stories we will never know.

In The Lost, Daniel Mendelsohn chronicles his excavation of six of those stories: the fate of his great-uncle Shmiel, his great-aunt Ester, and their four daughters, about whom his family knows only that they were "killed by the Nazis." As a child, Mendelsohn—who was often told of his strong resemblance to Shmiel—had been the family historian, interviewing his elderly relatives and working out an elaborate family tree. As he grows older, this interest turns into an obsession: Aided by the vast Jewish genealogy resources on the Internet, he seeks out the last remaining survivors of Bolechow, the shtetl in eastern Poland where his relatives came from. Virtually all the town's Jewish inhabitants were murdered during World War II, the majority during mass roundups in 1941 and 1942; those who remained were gassed at Belzec. Mendelsohn, seeking to find out whether his relatives shared the fate of most of their neighbors or managed to hold out for a few more weeks or months, eventually travels to Israel, Scandinavia, and Australia to mine the memories of their surviving friends and neighbors in the hope that "traces of those six might still remain in the world, somewhere."

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A scholar of the classics, Mendelsohn is deeply interested in the way stories are told, from the "spiraling" motion that characterizes the epics of Homer to the oblique, allusive prose of the Hebrew Bible, the latter of which he uses (somewhat pretentiously) as a frame for his own book, drawing analogies between biblical stories and events from the Holocaust and his own family's history. (The book's five sections are named after the first five parashot, or chapters, of the Torah, starting with "Bereishit," or "Beginnings," in which Mendelsohn tells of his childhood.) He tells the story of his quest in a freewheeling, ruminative style, drawing the reader with him down every dead end, providing verbatim transcripts of his interviews with survivors, and offering digressions on medieval Bible commentary and the significance of different days of the week throughout world history. This level of mundane detail, not to mention the apparent inclusion of every thought on the topic to float through the writer's head, can give the impression at times that one is reading an unusually erudite travel blog. In the end, Mendelsohn takes his passion for fact-finding to a troubling extreme, arguing that until the last survivors have died, those who write about the Holocaust should focus on extracting every last bit of information from them rather than seek to transform their experiences into art.

As admirers of his literary criticism (including myself) know well, Mendelsohn is a gorgeous and elegant writer, and it is a testimony to his talent that he manages to make this moving and insightful but also self-indulgent book something of a page-turner. His excitement at uncovering a previously unknown relative or friend of the family is as palpable as his disappointment when faced with fading memories or contradictory accounts. He writes of the elderly, for whom he seems to have a true affinity, with particular care and sensitivity, and his evocation of the culture of Jewish immigrants—the smells, the textures, the style of conversation—will instantly transport anyone familiar with this milieu. Mendelsohn also has an impressive historical imagination that enables him to make some truly uncanny connections: He notes, for instance, that the Torah portion that would have been read in synagogue on the Sabbath before the first roundup of the Jews in Bolechow was the story of Noah, the great catastrophe of the Bible.

And for the most part I could bear with Mendelsohn even through those verbatim interviews—which go so far as to include descriptions of his note-taking techniques—because the how of his search for the facts about Uncle Shmiel is as important as the what. The underlying subject of The Lost is not just the story of Shmiel and his family, but the story of how memories are constructed. As one of the survivors tells him, "What is memory? Memory is what you remember. No, you change the story, you 'remember.'… There is the memory, there is the truth—you don't know, never." Consider the story of Shmiel's daughter Frydka: One of her girlhood friends remembers that she was pregnant by her Polish boyfriend, who hid her in his own house and insisted on being killed along with her when they were discovered; another believes that she was pregnant by someone else, and the boyfriend simply helped her find a hiding place; another refuses to say anything about it at all. When Mendelsohn finally learns the truth, it comes not from any of the survivors—who, after all, were not there for the final moments of Shmiel and his family—but from their gentile neighbors, the eyewitnesses to the fate of the Jews throughout Europe.

But the self-absorption that is evident throughout this bloated memoir represents a deeper problem with the book's method. Mendelsohn's focus on his own family is so single-minded that he can be strangely crass when he must confront the fact that they were, as his subtitle puts it, just "six of six million." Dragged along by his siblings on an excursion to Auschwitz, he complains, "To me Auschwitz represented the opposite of what I was interested in." Mendelsohn is not entirely unselfconscious about this: At one point he acknowledges that there is something "myopic" about his focus, which leads him at crucial moments to overlook important information because he erroneously believes that it has no connection to his relatives. Indeed, he owes his final discovery about Shmiel's death to his travel companion Froma Zeitlin, who insists on doggedly questioning anyone who will listen and always going back to have "one last look." "I wanted to know what happened to Uncle Shmiel and the others," Mendelsohn writes; "she wanted to know what happened to everybody."

Of course, it is impossible to know what happened to everybody, and in a way it is unfair to criticize Mendelsohn for focusing his inquiry on a few figures. No single person could ever excavate them all; not even an army of researchers, furnished with limitless notebooks and tapes and round-the-world plane tickets, could succeed in eliciting even a trace of the vast majority of those who perished. "Everything, in time, gets lost," Mendelsohn writes toward the end of his book:

the Polish counts and the Jewish shopkeepers, the blond hair and eyebrows and small white teeth that someone once loved or desired of this or that boy or girl or man or woman who was one of the five million (or six or seven) Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin, and indeed the intangible things beyond the hair and teeth and brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror and loves and hunger of every one of those millions of Ukrainians, just as the hair of a Jewish girl or boy or man or woman that someone once loved, and the teeth and the brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust are now lost, or will soon be lost, because no number of books, however great, could ever document them all, even if they were to be written, which they won't or can't be. … But for a little while some of that can be rescued, if only, faced with the vastness of all that there is and all that there ever was, somebody makes the decision to look back, to have one last look, to search for a while in the debris of the past and to see not only what was lost but what there is still to be found.

But Mendelsohn goes too far in his insistence on the primacy of factual evidence over all other ways of conjuring the past—particularly art. Standing in the spot where his great-uncle and cousin were killed, he muses: "There is so much that will always be impossible to know, but we do know that they were, once, themselves, specific, the subjects of their own lives and deaths, and not simply puppets to be manipulated for the purposes of a good story, for the memoirs and magical-realist novels and movies. There will be time enough for that, once I and everyone who ever knew anyone who ever knew them dies; since as we know, everything, in the end, gets lost."

It is impossible not to share Mendelsohn's urgency to preserve the memories of the survivors; half of his interviewees died while he was writing his book. But to say that it is inappropriate to write fiction about the Holocaust so long as a single survivor still remains—which is not unlike Adorno's famous claim that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric"—discounts the possibility that literature can have its own restitutive power. What is more important: that we know what happened during the Holocaust (whether Shmiel and his family were shot or gassed, for instance), or that we try, in whatever hopelessly limited way, to understand what occurred? If the greatest tribute that can be paid to the victims is, as Mendelsohn says, to remember not just how they died but also "how they had lived, who they were ... the Ping-Pong games and the volleyball and skiing, the movies and the camping trips," such understanding cannot be achieved without an act of imaginative empathy on the part of the reader. Indeed, the most moving episodes in Mendelsohn's book are when he steps outside himself and allows his creative powers to take over: his reconstruction of the death of one of the daughters, when he wonders whether she heard the sound of the bullet that killed her; or his recounting of his chilling descent into the cellar in which some of the family were hidden, where he cannot help but be overcome with emotion. Like the Holocaust fiction of Imre Kertész, W.G. Sebald, or Cynthia Ozick, these moments in The Lost go beyond "the facts" to touch deeper truths about human experience that are uniquely accessible via literature.