I don’t want to encroach onto an upcoming post, but I finished The Lost on the same day as the Berlin diary of an anonymous German woman at the end of the WW2 and my feelings of both books kind of encroached on each other (if you get my meaning). Just to think what the war meant on a daily basis for people that circumstances pulled in opposite directions, yet not so far away from one another… after all Berlin is less than 1000km away from the small town of Bolechow (then Poland, now Ukraine) where Daniel Mendelsohn’s Jewish relatives died. What a weird experience.
Anyway, I must first say that I started the Lost with big, big reservations. I looked at the 600+ pages and sighed. There are so many non-fiction accounts of WW2 Jewish persecutions out there. From middle school on when Anne Frank’s diary was a compulsory reading (disclosure: my middle school was named Anne Frank), I felt that I already knew too much about it (having travelled in Eastern Europe and numerous Jewish memorials—although never Auschwitz), and I didn’t want to once more dwell on cruelty and misery.
I must also confess that I was prejudiced against The Lost because the book was written by an American. I was afraid of something like Schindler’s List, something emotional, but distanced. I know that this confession might make some of you readers react strongly, but as a European I felt (wrongly) that an American could not teach me the Holocaust. I felt that Mendelsohn was too far removed from his Jewish relatives to not transform them into some sort of idealized icons representing Victims of the Holocaust with capital V and H.
I was wrong on all counts.
His ambition is not to make them victims but to get to know them intimately, as cousins know each other, real people who had normal lives: his cousins had normal childhoods, going to school, to movies, having boyfriends, and their mother had nice legs and cooked well. Nothing to tell home about, nothing to make a big book about I dare say.
Instead of that these normal people saw their normal lives stripped from them bit by bit: denied access to shops, denied ways to earn decent money in their jobs, denied food, denied freedom to flee the country, and even to move around in their own town… up to the last crime against their dignity and existence, when they were killed in terrifying (if not, sadly, extraordinary for that times) circumstances.
Mendelsohn builds around his personal quest an infinitely layered masterpiece, and it’s nothing related to chance that his title (and epigraph) reminds of Proust’ “In search of lost time”. It’s a personal memoir (of his own childhood), a huge family story, a detailed research of what the Holocaust meant for a single extended family, both during the war and on the later generations. His quest leads him to Bolechow, but also to Israel, Denmark, Australia, and Sweden as a large metaphor of the dissemination of Jews both in Biblical times and in modern times – for those who wouldn’t remain in Europe after the war.
Then there is the extra layer of Biblical analysis, when Mendelsohn mixes biographical events with Rashi’s interpretation of the Bible (echoes of brotherly hatred, of total annihiliation like Noah and the flood and Lot fleeing Sodom and Gomorrha…), and even alludes to Virgil’s Aeneid. After reading the Aeneid myself, and following several lessons on the Hebrew Bible through the Yale University online courses, his view of history full of references resonated with me.
This is a book that I won’t easily forget, because outside of the Holocaust, it really makes you wonder about families and memories, and what is left of people after they’re gone. It’s a book full of sadness but also of hope, because it makes you want to enjoy your own life, interrogate your elders where you come from, and make sure you transmit values and memories to your children.