Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Book review: The Lost, by Daniel Mendelsohn

I stumbled across The Lost when I was at a loose end in Schiphol airport; it was just before Christmas, I was waiting for my flight home from a visit to the Dutch office and I'd run out of books to read. The bookshop had a table full of English-language books and the cover caught my eye:

Something made me pick it up. I don't normally read Holocaust literature. I've read a The Diary of Anne Frank and a couple of autobiographies but, on the whole, my World War 2 reading is driven by an interest in the Home Front - that is where the experience of my family lies (and in the POW camps of the Japanese, but I digress). I may be Jewish but I'm also sixth generation Australian and if we had family murdered by the Nazis, the connection was so distant that nobody knew who they were. On my father's side, we don't even know which shtetl they left behind.

How do I summarise The Lost to give you a flavour of the story? It is simplistic to say that The Lost is the story of Daniel Mendelsohn's search for information on what happened to his maternal great-uncle Schmiel Jaeger, his aunt Ester and their four daughters who were murdered by the Nazis. There is so much more to this book than that. Perhaps the best thing I can do is direct you to Andrew Mendelsohn's website where he details the photos they took on their first trip to Bolechow, the town from where their mother's family had emigrated to America. Schmiel had made the journey to New York and then changed his mind, returning to Bolechow to build his life there.

In deciding to find out what happened to this branch of his family, Daniel Mendelsohn had set himself a difficult task: within his family, there had always been a wall of silence about pre-war Schmiel, as if the memories were too painful and the survivors felt guilt at not being able to do more to get Schmiel's family out of Poland. Then, of course, the Holocaust had eliminated so many of the people who had known the Jaegers and time was taking it's toll on the rest. Daniel set out to interview as many survivors as possible, giving the reader their stories as well as their recollections of the Jaegers. He also fleshes out the actions of the Nazis, turning historian to provide the reader with information on how they decimated the Jewish population of Eastern Poland, in the "Aktions" and the casual daily brutalities they inflicted.

One by one, Daniel identifies how the Jaegers died. But that isn't the only thing he wants to know, part of his quest is to get the answer to the more difficult question: "What were they like?", to learn about their personalities and to give voices to the faces in the family pictures. When it comes to Ester, he never gets a satisfactory answer.

This is a writer's book, beautifully written and a pleasure to read. One minute, you are in the room with Daniel and his interviewees; the next, you have stepped with them into the past as their histories are told. It was compelling and very hard to put down. It is also a multi-layered, multi-faceted book since Daniel uses Talmudic commentaries to illustrate family interactions and the nature of memory, although I found myself skipping those in order to get back to the main narrative.

I'd give this book a rating of 10 out of 10. Read it. It will change your life.

- Pam


amy said...

It will sound cowardly to say so, but I don't think I can right now. It's on my radar now though, thanks to you, and I'm sure I'll read it in the future. When I was a child, my aunt and uncle had a Time/Life history series, and I remember them finding me with the book on the Holocaust and taking it away from me. I've read Jewish-American literature, books on Judaism, visited Dachau and the Anne Frank house. I think writing a book such as this, researching one's own family history in this way, takes enormous courage.

I have a terrible headache; I'm probably meandering. Thank you for the recommendation.

Brenda said...

Thanks for writing this. I've actually had this book for months, but have put off reading it, thinking it would be too "heavy". Anyway thanks to your review I am taking it with me on my next trip (this weekend).