The Lost: A search for Six of Six Million
By Daniel Mendelsohn
HarperCollins, 512 pp., illustrated, $27.95
``The Lost" begins with ``Some time ago, when I was six or seven years old, it would occasionally happen that I'd walk into a room and certain people would begin to cry."
The boy who so affected certain people was the New York literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn, and the people were elderly Jews, relatives of his grandfather's generation. His entrance into a room brought tears because he so closely resembled his grandfather's brother, Shmiel Jäger, who, with his wife, Ester, and their four daughters, Lorka, Frydka, Ruchele, and Bronia, had been killed by the Nazis between 1941 and 1943 in the small Polish town of Boleshow. Exactly under what circumstances, it was uncertain.
The effect upon Mendelsohn was such that he became determined to learn those circumstances.
Perhaps the result was an obsession, but that is the nature of quests, which this is -- literally and figuratively. One which took him, often accompanied by his own siblings, in search of witnesses to the Jägers' deaths, and to their lives -- to Bolechow itself (now the Ukrainian Bolekhiv), and to places in the Holocaust's diaspora, Australia, Sweden, and Israel. The resulting accounts are interspersed with commentaries on an 11th century work on the Torah, to which the reader, caught up in the narrative, may choose to return.
It is when Mendelsohn meets one witness, Olga, an elderly Polish woman in Bolechow/Bolekhiv who had actually known the Jäger family, that he, like the elderly relatives of his childhood, cried.
``It was the sudden and vertiginous sense of proximity to them, at that moment, that made my sister and me start crying," he writes. ``This is how close you can come to the dead . . . . In that moment, the sixty years and the millions of dead didn't seem bigger than the three feet separating me from the fat arm of the old woman."
From Olga and other witnesses, Mendelsohn learned of the events of Oct. 28 and 29, 1941, the first ``Aktion," or mass liquidation of the Jews of Bolechow by Nazi troops and their Ukrainian allies, when a Jäger daughter, 16-year-old Ruchele, had been swept up and, after 36 hours of horror, killed.
``A certain detail" that Olga gave, Mendelsohn writes, ``has stayed in my mind ever since, perhaps because of the way it marries the utterly mundane and accessible with the absolutely horrible and unimaginable and because of that improbable link permits me, in some way, to imagine the scene."
The sound of the machine-gun fire as the Jewish victims, naked and terrified, walked across a plank over a large pit, was so terrible, she had told him, that her mother had taken down ``a decrepit old sewing machine and had run the treadle, so that the creaky noise would cover the gunfire." Ester and Bronia, then about 13, were killed in a later Aktion. Their deaths were followed by those of Shmiel and Frydka, 21, who had been hidden by her Polish boyfriend, until betrayed, probably by a neighbor. Lorka, 23, who had escaped the town and joined the partisans, was killed after her group was captured.
Of some 6,000 Jews in Bolechow, there were only 48 survivors in 1944.
To Mendelsohn, the general -- and even many of the particular -- horrors of the Holocaust would have been well known , as they are to most of his readers. And that raises the question of how to place ``The Lost" in the vast catalog of Holocaust literature.
It is the aspect of the quest that gives ``The Lost" its particular character -- a peeling away of the obscurities of time, a penetrating into the depths of knowledge. And that pool of knowledge is every year diminishing as, Mendelsohn writes, ``I and everyone who ever knew everyone who ever knew them dies; since, as we know, everything in the end, gets lost."