Tuesday, May 22, 2007

These Six of the Six Million

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn (HarperCollins, 2006)

For years, the only thing that Daniel Mendelsohn knew of his great uncle Schmiel Jager was an inscription written on the back of a photograph: killed by the Nazis. Mendelsohn literally navigates the world (Australia, Israel, Poland, Sweden) searching for clues as to the fate of his great uncle, Schmiel's wife Ester and their four daughters who all lost their lives during the Holocaust. He is particularly drawn to this man because, somewhat disconcertingly, he is said to resemble him closely. The family lived in the town of Bolechow, claimed by the Poles, then the Russians and then the Ukrainians at various historical times (now known as Bolekhiv, in the Ukraine).

Each anecdote, rumor and family tale communicated to him through family members, friends, Jewish genealogical and Holocaust websites, e-mails and letters from relations and near relations, add another piece to the puzzle. He affirms many things that we know about the annihilation of a great number of Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe - the degradations and slaughter are now disturbingly well known - but he also learns unpleasant things about the level of aid that family members may or may not have given to this one branch of the family that did not emigrate to America or Israel in time to escape the Holocaust.

Uncle Schmiel, pictured here in the book with his delicate, refined face in his jaunty fedora and fur lined coat, begs his younger siblings for loans, for assistance and guidance in letters written to America. The letters that responded to these pleas are lost or perhaps as yet undiscovered, lost in the Holocaust, the ruin of what followed. Daniel can see through Schmiel's pleading tone that assistance, whatever was offered, if any, was perhaps too little, too late, or did not arrive at all.

As a writer Mendelsohn must wrestle with the possibility that the grandfather that he adored, the younger brother of the doomed Schmiel, did not do enough from the safe haven of America to save his eldest brother. Are the tears expressed by family members tinged with regret and guilt he begins to wonder as he begins his journey?

Cousin Ruchele vanished in 1941 during the first Bolechow Aktion. Uncle Schmiel, Aunt Ester and the youngest daughter Bronia disappeared in the second Aktion in 1942. Cousins Frydka and Lorca were said to have become partisans and were eventually killed too for their involvement.

Perhaps this is a situation I will never fully understand because I am not a Jew nor have I lost family members in such a horrific, unspeakable manner. I find Mendelsohn’s conjectures about the fate of his mother’s cousins particularly difficult to read. For instance, he conjectures about the death of Ruchele, presumably killed in an Aktion in October 1941 in Bolechow when she disappeared.

He pieces together a likely scenario based on the memoirs of fellow Bolechowers who did not actually witness the Aktion but heard from other survivors. He also notes other recorded memoirs of that day. He tries to imagine what Ruchele suffered, emotionally, physically. I find this unnerving and fruitless, almost tasteless. Does it aid the memoir and our appreciation of the significance of this historical event to imagine that it was perhaps Ruchele who was the unfortunate young girl forced to dance naked with the humiliated rabbi by the Nazis before her death? This was only one account of what happened during the Aktion. He dwells a beat too long on this and other similarly unsavoury details. It strikes an unnecessary prurient tone in this context.

The book is graced with photographs taken by the author's brother Matt Mendelsohn and some well preserved family photographs. Interspersed between passages about his search, Mendelsohn includes rather long expositions about passages from the Torah and how those passages relate to his search: stories about the Creation, the Flood, the killing of Abel by Cain. I find these quite dense and sometimes overly elaborated.

The book opens with an inscription by Proust and clearly Mendelsohn takes him as his model as the writing replicates the meandering, sometimes beautiful, sometimes pedantic and annoying, style of Proust in his descriptions.

But there is an emotional pay off to his labours as Mendelsohn, on his last trip to his grandfather's homeland, comes to stand in the very spot in Bolechow that saw the demise of some of his relations. It comes at time when he, as the writer of this history, and we, as the readers, think that the entire story has been revealed.

It is melancholy and full of surprises. And true to my melancholic Sicilian nature, yet again, I find myself beginning a book about the Holocaust during the onset of gorgeous weather. 'Cause that's just what I do.

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