How Daniel Mendelsohn Remembers the Holocaust

Daniel Mendelsohn's resemblance to his great-uncle Shmiel, who died in the Holocaust, is so stark that young Daniel could make his relatives weep just by walking into a room. Should it come as a surprise that this writer is so … Read More

By / January 11, 2007

Daniel Mendelsohn's resemblance to his great-uncle Shmiel, who died in the Holocaust, is so stark that young Daniel could make his relatives weep just by walking into a room. Should it come as a surprise that this writer is so obsessed with identity? The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million has been one of the most critically lauded books of 2006 (you’ll find it on every major list), not least for the fact that it reinvents the shopworn genre of the Holocaust memoir. It never confines itself to a single terrain, be it literary or geographic. Mendelsohn alternates his investigation – which takes him from Poland to Scandinavia to Australia – with rich discourses on Cain and Abel and the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah. His subjects are love and death, rootedness and Diaspora, and the protean nature of narrative itself.

Trained as a classicist, Mendelsohn rejects the trappings of what he terms "Holocaustiana" by refusing to see his subjects as "puppets to be manipulated…for the movies or magical realist novels." The twentieth century was enough of a deus ex machina; it doesn't need a curatorial sentimentalist to intervene on behalf of its victims. The Lost, as a result, is firmly "anti-redemption," a stance that will hardly win its author fans of the Schlinder's List tendency. Not that he minds much.

The Lost was completed fairly recently but occupied you for at least five years. What is the date you recognize as the book's beginning?

The first 75 pages of my book are an attempt to answer this question, to describe in considerable detail how the search, and hence the book, began. Despite the fact that I'd always been possessed by family stories and histories, and had always hoped, in some vague way, that it might one day be possible to find out what happened to Uncle Shmiel, things didn't really get moving until I had the idea late in 2000 or early in 2001. That’s when I decided to go back to Bolechow and see if there wasn't anyone around who might remember Shmiel and his family—just walk around and talk to people and find "traces" of them.

So I and two of my brothers and my sister went to Ukraine in August 2001, an experience I subsequently wrote about as a cover story for the New York Times Magazine in July 2002. I should also emphasize that when I went on that trip, there was no notion in my mind that this might become a book. What made me feel strongly that there was a book to be written was what happened subsequent to our return from Ukraine—my being contacted out of the blue by one of the few Jewish survivors from our town, now living in Australia, and the consequent realization that there were these people still alive who had been intimates of my lost relatives and could help me learn about them. Naturally, at the starting point, I had no idea of what stories would develop, so it was a bit of a crapshoot. But as it turned out, I got so much more than I could ever have dreamed of. I always wanted to make the “search" the armature on which to hang a narrative that was complicated and rich in a way that I enjoy as a reader myself, and (more important) that allowed me to talk about many issues that have always been interesting to me: history versus narrative, family romances, storytelling, and so forth.I always thought of The Lost as referring not only to these six people who were murdered, but to a lot of things: A certain interwar European culture that has vanished; the world of people like my grandfather, European immigrants at the turn of the century through the 1920s, whose experiences as immigrants made them into a very specific kind of person that doesn't exist any more; a certain kind of Jewishness represented by those people; the kind of child I was in the 1960s who grew up around those people; the survivors I came to know, who although they survived had "lost" so much of themselves; and so on.

All those things are now "lost," I feel, and I wanted to find a way to write about all of it, from the start, and knew that the investigation, the search for Shmiel would, somehow, provide me with a structure from which I could hang the things you refer to – the circling digressions, the mini-histories, the reveries from childhood.
As to the book’s being "as much about me as about the six "lost"': I feel strongly that the book is about me only in as much as it needs to be in order to illuminate the issues I'm interested in, about family, about how people relate to the past (a subject as interesting to me as a classicist as it is to me as a Jew or a relative of Holocaust victims), about how one becomes the kind of person who is a searcher or scholar.

I am not interested in, and not a fan of, books about personal experience per se, even when they lead, as they almost inevitably do these days, to "redemptions" that readers will identify with or derive solace from. As both The Elusive Embrace and now The Lost should make clear, I'm anti-redemption. I'm suspicious of using the world to make ourselves feel better. Feeling good about oneself is, I think, a fairly low ambition. You have already mentioned that you wanted, not surprisingly, to write a book that you would want to read. In pursuit of that, what Holocaust-themed books did you read? Strange as it may seem, I'm not in any way what I call a "Holocaust professional." I don't particularly seek out Holocaust books – or films or whatever – as a rule, simply because they're about a subject I've been connected with. I suppose I've read all the usual books, starting with an electrifying encounter with Anne Frank when I was a teenager (mostly because of the teen-love stuff, if I recall, which is as it should be). Primo Levi is admirable for the moral rigor. Naturally, I read Hannah Arendt at some point, although I have to say after working on my book all these years, I'm not so sure evil is so banal after all.

Over the years I have read this or that if it seemed good or was well-reviewed. But I am not and would never claim to be a scholar of the Holocaust, and while writing my own book I actually avoided reading Holocaust lit in general. For the purposes of writing my book, I had this feeling that I wanted to be cocooned in my own story, and wanted to avoid "static" from other writings. I just wanted to go out into the world and listen to these Bolechowers talk about the occupation in their town, the way I used to listen to my grandfather tell stories about the town, and to piece together a story of what happened that way. (The Homeric, oral narrative, as it were, rather than the Thucydidean, written one, the history.) Because it was so important to me to focus scrupulously on just six people, as if one didn't know any of the rest, and in that way to recover a sense of what was done – done to people, as opposed to done to the Jews – that I avoided lots and lots of Holocaustiana during the writing of this book. It's odd, because it's precisely the opposite approach I normally take when preparing to write something, which (given my philological training) would be to read every word written on a subject before sitting down to write a single word of my own. I think it's probably fair to say that I'm far more interested in certain aspects of Central European Jewish and non-Jewish life from the turn of the last century up until the Holocaust. That’s a subject I'm happy to seek out books about. I'd much rather read Joseph Roth's The Radetsky March – a truly great book – than Schindler's List, any day. In beginning of the panoply of narratives that is The Lost, when and how did you decide to adopt this ring-like Greek story telling style?
There was no conscious decision as such to adopt a style, since, as is already evident in my first book, this is the style I've always had when writing about family narratives (since it is the style of those family narratives, as I describe in the book.) So it wasn't as if I sat down and said, "For this book, a bissl ring composition!"

When I write in my "book mode," as opposed to my critic mode, to some extent I'm channeling my grandfather's storytelling voice. Indeed I think I'm writing often as a kind of transcription of a basically oral narrative, if you know what I mean: the long winding sentences, the circling back to the starting point after digressions, etc. I started writing this book on Labor Day, 2004, and as I wrote these stories down, the sentence and paragraphs and sections just sort of happened that way: it was all, from the start, big, circling, and broadly arced. And I just went with it. Is your role of family historian self-appointed or assigned? Though you end the book poetically by not looking back at Bolechow, you wonder about how your children will apprehend this story. The kids have certainly been aware of my research, the search, since it involved my being away for large chunks of time. I have explained to them what it's all about, and certainly my older boy is old enough to be told, in a limited way, what World War II was about. But to be perfectly frank, I suspect that, like most writers' children, they will be blithely indifferent to my books and never read them until much later in life. I asked about your kids because soon the history and memory of the Shoah will be mediated exclusively through secondhand accounts. Despite your mother's appeal to "genug ist genug" as well as your own insistence that the book is over, the fact of a next generation suggests maybe it's not. I point to an aside late in the last chapter when you meet Francis Begley's granddaughter and wonder to yourself about writing a book for her generation. Did I read that incorrectly? Well, of course I am a fervent believer in the necessity of carrying over the testimony to future generations. In a way, the central obsession of the book is: How do you become responsible for other people's narratives? And I think I spend a great deal of time worrying that question (not worrying about it: worrying it, the way a dog worries a rag doll.) I go to great lengths, I think, to articulate this notion that my generation – the "generation of the grandchildren," as I call it; the grandchildren of those who were adults during the Holocaust—is the last on earth who will have had the opportunity to know people who were survivors. I grew up going to family events attended by people with tattoos on their arms; my children won't. I keep referring to my generation, therefore, as the "hinge" generation, because we are the last ones who'll have been living receptacles for the stories of those who were in the event itself; and I'm acutely conscious, obviously, of what it means to be someone who becomes the "transmitter" of another's stories, another's past. As for genug ist genug: I do think that this pull in the opposite direction – the impulse to forget about the past and live in the present and future – is worth bringing up, because as we know, it's possible to get so obsessed with the past that one becomes unable to live in the present.

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