These past few weeks, I’ve been working my way through Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Lost—A Search for Six of the Six million.” It’s a long book, 518 densely packed pages, but it’s fascinating, as it reveals the holocaust in great and chilling detail and yet, at the same time, this book, a masterpiece in its own way is fundamentally wrongheaded.
In this unique memoir, Mendelsohn, turns the tragedy of European Jewry up close and personal, narrowing the focus from six million to six, the six victims who happened to be members of the authors own family.
Mendelsohn sets out to gather up as much knowledge as he can about his now extinct tribe of relations, the proud Jaegers of Bolechow, Poland. He seeks out all traces of them from the details of their physical appearance—swarthy, tall, blue eyed, to their work life–butchers, their hobbies, card playing and embroidery, their friendships and love affairs and of course the circumstances of their demise
Though he is intellectually honest enough to admit that “the living can never truly know the dead” Mendelsohn, devotes five years to this project starting online at Jewish genealogy websites and then traveling four continents and interviewing dozens of people who may have encountered these lost Jaegers. Slowly , painstakingly, a portrait emerges of six good but ultimately ordinary human beings who had the terrible luck, as Mendelsohn sees it, to have lived and died in the worst of times.
Sadly, there is one major gap in his inquiry and that is religion, spirituality, what his relatives would undoubtedly have called Yiddishkeit. As a secular American Jew Mendelsohn just can’t fathom that in a shtel like Bolechow, ran according to the timeless rhythms of the Jewish calender and that even a wealthy, dapper, beardless fellow like his Uncle Shmiel wasn’t just a prosperous butcher, a macher, he was first and foremost a Yid.
Reading between the lines, I’d bet the Jaegers were by the war years, not Haredi anymore but somewhere on the cusp between traditional and orthodox. Shmiel dealt in kosher meat and he and his family had Jewish names– Shmiel and Esther, Rochel , Rochel , Leah Frydka (Frieda) and Bronia (Breindel).
Sadly, Mendelsohn’s inability to apprehend this facet of his relatives lives reduces the book’s poignancy. At one point, Mendelsohn imagines his late uncle’s as he walked from the cattle cars into the gas chambers at Belzec. What might he have been thinking? Nothing special it seems., at least according to Mendelsohn. Although it is widely known that many holocaust martyrs died with reciting the Shema or the Ani Ma’amin the possibility of those final moments being devoted to prayer is never considered.
It is this lack of understanding that makes it impossible for Mendelsshon to interpret the holocaust . Unlike his assimilated brother, a believing Jew can see the holocaust as part of a bigger picture and anti Semitism not as a freak occurance, but also part of the plan . Every Seder night we declare it, as an object of faith that that in , “every generation, our enemies stand upon us to destroy us but the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hands”.
Of course Mendelssohn never gets this. Ironically it is he and his intermarried siblings who join him on his journeys who are far more lost than the “lost” Jaegers who are now holy martyrs in Gan Eden.
Originally Published on 8/14/2008