Climbing the Family Tree

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million
By Daniel Mendelsohn
HarperCollins, 528 pages, $27.95.

Although he had begun teaching himself ancient Greek when he was 10, Daniel Mendelsohn was not interested in the Hebrew he had to memorize for his bar mitzvah in 1973, nor in the Jewish faith that the Hebrew conveyed. It was the reception after the bar mitzvah ceremony that changed his life: “For as I was passed from relative to relative to be kissed and slapped on the back and congratulated, the confused mass of unknown and similar-looking faces bothered me, and I began to wonder how it was I came to be related to all those people, to the Idas and Trudys and Juliuses and Sylvias and Hildas, to the names Sobel and Rechtschaffen and Feit and Stark and Birnbaum and Hench.” Young Daniel became the gardener of the family tree, learning and tending to its roots and branches, interviewing relatives and keeping notes on index cards, and later with genealogy software. He always had an especially keen interest in his maternal grandfather’s brother Shmiel and in Shmiel’s family, the ones that, Mendelsohn knew, had been killed by the Nazis. In 1980, after his grandfather’s death, Mendelsohn and his mother found letters from Shmiel to his brother, the grandfather. The letters’ heartbreaking quality, with their desperate, futile pleas for help to get to America, enhanced Mendelsohn’s curiosity about the fate of Shmiel’s family.

Two decades later, aided by the Internet, Mendelsohn progressed even further in his genealogical research; he had also located several natives of Shmiel’s hometown, who might remember Shmiel and his family. “The Lost” is the story of this gay, blue-eyed classicist, journalist, critic and amateur genealogist, the second of five children, a man now in his 40s and attempting to learn what he can about his grandfather’s brother Shmiel Jäger and Shmiel’s wife and four daughters, who all perished in the small Ukrainian shtetl of Bolechow during World War II. It is a grand book, an ambitious undertaking fully realized. I don’t mean that it’s perfect — no truly good book is — but only that its flaws add to its grandeur, make it a more fascinating read and ensure that it will live in my mind for a long time. This is no simple Holocaust book.

Sometimes traveling with one or more siblings, sometimes with a friend, Mendelsohn met elderly Bolechowers in Ukraine, Australia, Sweden, Denmark and Israel. Some were Jewish, some gentile. Many of them remembered Shmiel, and while some remembered him vaguely, others had clearer memories. Several had heard tales of how Shmiel and his daughter, Frydka, had been hidden from the Nazis by a gentile schoolteacher. Some said that Frydka’s lover, a Polish boy, had brought them food in their hideaway — until Shmiel and Frydka were discovered and killed by the Nazis, who then killed the schoolteacher and the Polish boyfriend, too.

The clues accumulate slowly, from one continent to the next, as Mendelsohn interviews one Bolechower and then another. Miraculous coincidences lead him to more clues; old men he stops on the street, on the off chance they might know something, turn out to know something. This is an extraordinary detective tale, and I’ll say only that there is a remarkably good payoff at the end. God’s hand seems to be at work.

Mendelsohn would not credit God — he remains an irreligious man, like the bar mitzvah boy of yore. But his scholarly interest in Judaism has progressed, and one of the pleasures of “The Lost” is Mendelsohn’s interposition of short sections of biblical exegesis between episodes of the travel narrative. These discussions of Genesis, and of Rashi’s commentary on Genesis, are scattered throughout, none of them more than two or three pages long; they flavor the book, insinuating into its pages the religious worldview held by so many of the murdered Jews and restoring, a little bit, the shtetl mind. Mendelsohn’s interpretations can be intriguing, as when he reads the story of Abram’s abandonment of Sarai to the Pharaoh as an example of what oppressed people will do to survive: “The exploitation of a lie for (there is no other word for it) self-enrichment, the use of the wife to provide a kind of cover story for an escape that became, however improbably, a vehicle for self-enrichment, for the propagation of a successful new progeny in the new land. I think of these, and I think that whoever wrote parashat Lech Lecha knew something about the way people can behave in times of crisis.”

Mendelsohn is alluding specifically to Jews conscripted into the Judenrat, the Jewish council in each town that helped the Nazis carry out their policies. Such ghastliness is present throughout “The Lost” — this is, after all, a Holocaust book. From all the scenes of terror and fright and sadness, I’ll offer here the one that most moved me. It’s not as terrible as the starving boy picking lice from his clothes and eating them for food, nor as amazing as the Bolechower who walked as far east as the Iranian border to elude the Nazis, but it’s the one I’ll remember best. Mendelsohn is talking with Frances Hauser Begley, an old New York widow who had grown up near Bolechow. (He doesn’t use quotation marks.)

She lowered herself into the chair, and then she told me the story: how, after the war was over, after she’d been reunited with her husband, the big doctor from Stryj who, like so many doctors, was taken east when the Soviets retreated in 1941, she was contacted by someone who’d come to live in her former house, the house I had tried and failed to locate, the summer before.

He told me he had found a bunch of my photographs, she said, and if I wanted them, I could send money to such-and-such an address.

She grimaced, although her expression was not without some humor.

So I did it for a while, I would send money and he would send a photo, two photos.

I didn’t say anything. I was trying to imagine how much I would pay to ransom my past.

But finally my husband got angry, he was sick of it, and I stopped.

One persistent problem with “The Lost” is that the author is irritatingly coy about his own celebrity. For example, one could finish this book and still be surprised to learn that Mendelsohn’s last book, “The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity,” published by Knopf in 1999, was a much-lauded attempt to put a literary gloss on a particular version of gay male sexuality; it is strange that nowhere in so personal a book as “The Lost” does Mendelsohn linger over his gayness or his success as an author. But, more to the point, this lacuna — in a 500-page book that discusses so much else — betrays a strange lack of self-knowledge: it’s as if Mendelsohn doesn’t know how widely recognized he is, doesn’t realize that many readers of “The Lost” will know “The Elusive Embrace” and The New York Review of Books’ criticism, the old book reviews from New York magazine, the jaunty chronicles in Travel + Leisure. It’s a credit to Mendelsohn’s estimable career that I see this book as part of a corpus, but my knowledge of that corpus

meant that as I read along I was bothered by what I knew to be an ostentatious reticence.

That lack of self-knowledge is evident in other ways.

Mendelsohn is almost obsessive, for example, in discussing the blue eyes and blond hair of his relatives, but he never shows a sufficient awareness of his own obsession. He knows that Jews want to look like gentiles, but having made that point he revisits it too often; his own interest in the topic overshoots his awareness of that interest. Like an analysand who prematurely thinks he understands himself, Mendelsohn seems a little too confident that he has been cured, in this case of self-loathing goy envy.

Mendelsohn also errs, I think, in placing too much interpretive burden on his fraught relationship with his brother Matthew. It’s in reflecting on that relationship, he writes, that he begins to understand how his grandfather might have refused to help his great-uncle Shmiel escape the Nazis: “I think of my grandfather and Shmiel, and wondered yet again what might have passed between them, what upsurge of unacknowledged and unknowable emotion that, in me, had led me one day to break my brother’s arm might have led my grandfather to do something far more terrible… .” He also thinks of Matthew when he considers that Ukrainians, who had lived alongside the Jews, often turned on them when the Nazis arrived: “It was because I knew well what playing together can lead to — how beneath the closeness, the knowing each other, can be a knowing too well — that I asked what seemed to me to be the next logical question: Were there Ukrainians who were happy when the Jews were taken away? I asked.”

You might find it persuasive that Ukrainian antisemitism is somehow a species of fraternal loathing, born of proximity. But I don’t. Hating your brother is a form of the Unheimliche, the estranged familiar, a result of knowing too well. It’s seeing in his choices rejections of yourself, referenda on yourself, too-close encumbrances on yourself. You want your brother to go away because you’re not at liberty to ignore him. But you want your neighbors — another ethnic group, let’s say — to go away because you’re convinced that, beneath it all, they are not family, they will forever be inscrutable, and they are mysteriously at the root of your problems.

Mendelsohn makes it clear that during the research for this book he and his siblings grew closer. I found this delightful to read about, but I don’t believe that he has resolved his family struggles as neatly as he has wrapped up his historical quest. There are parallel searches here: one for dead European relatives who can never really be found, another for an immediate family here in America — siblings Daniel and Andrew and Matthew and Eric and Jennifer, and parents Marlene and Jay. By the end of the book, the dead relatives have quickened and the living relatives seem stuck in place. Those old Europeans, Shmiel and Ester and their four girls, are recovered in a startling real-life sleuthing tale; even if Mendelsohn learns only a little bit about them, it’s so much more than we had any right to expect. The living relatives, who are close enough to touch, seem instrumental, means but not ends.

The cumulative force of this book — in which letters, interviews, maps, birth and death records, and, finally, biblical passages are all interpretive aids — makes it a startling reminder of the affinity between criticism and history. Understanding the fictional is a lot like understanding the dead: The subjects can’t speak for themselves, and they do not give up their secrets easily. Mendelsohn is at his weakest when describing those closest to him — himself, his brother, the living. It’s when he performs his acts of resurrection, when he writes about dead relatives or about figures in art whose presence he feels as strongly as if they were alive, that his “sentimental imagination,” as his friend Mrs. Begley calls it, is provoked, so furiously that he could spend decades tracing a lineage that had seemed moribund, tracing it across four continents and coaxing it to life, from clay to golem.

Mark Oppenheimer is the editor of In Character and the author, most recently, of “Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

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Climbing the Family Tree

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