Six from Six Million:

Daniel Mendelson


Queen's Quarterly 115/1 (Spring 2008)

Daniel Mendelsohn, photographed by Matt Mendelsohn.

Critic, joumalist, and classics professor Daniel Mendelsohn is the award-winning author of three books: The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity (1999), a memoir; Gender and the City in Euripides' Political Plays (2002), a scholarly work on Greek tragedy; and The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (2006), a remarkable disquisition on time, memory and the meaning of what it is to be human.

In little more than a year, The Lost has become a runaway success and an international bestseller. It has received widespread critical acclaim and won many prizes, including the US National Book Critics' Circle Award and the National Jewish Book Award. Last fall it was published in France, where its reception was rapturous. Les disparus sold 100,000 copies in three months, was nominated for the famed Prix Femina, and won the Prix Médicis Étranger, one of the most prestigious of French literary awards. Previous laureates include Doris Lessing, Orhan Pamuk, Philip Roth, Umberto Eco, and Milan Kundera.

I interviewed Mendelsohn in Montreal on 6 December 2007 in a nook at the back of the dining room of the Hotel Gault, an elegant new boutique hotel in Old Montreal where he was staying. Mendelsohn is erudite, articulate, and charming. By turns funny and wise, he drives a point home with an expressive hand gesture, has arresting pale blue eyes, and is far more handsome than his austere, brooding portraits suggest.

Above: Jewish cemetery, Bolekhiv, Ukraine (before the Second World War the town was part of Poland and was known as Bolechow).
Matt Mendelsohn records: "While no one seems to know for sure, it has long been thought that a mass grave exists beneath the
barren patch to the right." Photo by Matt Mendelsohn.

The Lost dips and flows in time between the present and the biblical tale of Creation. It loops across the globe as Mendelsohn and his brother Matt (whose striking uncaptioned photographs illustrate the text) track down the twelve remaining Jews from the ancestral Galician town that Mendelsohn's grandfather, Abraham, left in the early years of the twentieth century. Abraham's brother Shmiel accompanied him to America, but returned to Bolechow soon after.

From the outset, we know that Shmiel, his wife Ester, and their four daughters died in the Holocaust. Mendelsohn's aim is to nail down the specificity of their fates and in the process humanize a vast, faceless tragedy. He does this both through the power and complexity of his writing, and through the keenness of his observations and characterizations.

ELAINE KALMAN NAVES: I can't tell you how swept away by The Lost I am. I read it with immense enjoyment and immense pain. There are so many things to talk about, but first up I am going to ask you: what made the French react so positively to this book?

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: I'd certainly have to be a lot smarter than I am to be able to answer that question. I would want to underscore that I'm speculating. This is the wonderful thing about publishing in general: you never know what's going to be a hit, or where or why, because - as my publishing friends always say - if they knew, every book would be a bestseller.

"Absent maliciousness, the children, who have more than likely never met a Jew in their lifetimes, see the area mainly as a make-believe fort." Photo by Matt Mendelsohn.

Well, first of all, although I am a classicist by training (and that's something that pokes out every now and then in the book), all of my formation - as they say in French (and there's no proper English term for it) -is French. I've been reading French literature since I was twelve years old, and that's the backbone of my reading in non-classical letters. From an early age I was very attracted to the French language and to French literature. I had great teachers who kept after me. My reading culminated with Proust, but I read not just Proust - not by a long shot! I read far more Balzac. And also the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries interested me greatly. I think all that makes itself felt very strongly in the book. Obviously there are many explicit Proustian references and recollections and verbal echoes, because I want you to be thinking about Proust when you're thinking about a book about family and memory and history. Obviously. There are two authors I do not refer to by name, but I want the reader of this book to think about - Proust and Sebold. One is verbal and one is visual. Which seems to me appropriate in a book about a photographer and a writer looking for a family story.

So I just wonder if the French have not embraced this book so passionately because that formation is seeping through in ways I don't even know. Also, look - I'm a reader of big nineteenth-century novels that have a certain kind of sweep and are interested in history and cities and people living in cities - Balzac is a biography of Paris apart from anything else! And Stendhal as well. I like big, 500-page sweeping narratives! I really do [laughing], and I wanted to write one. So I think that has made itself felt.

I would also say that there was Les Bienveillantes [Jonathan Littell's 900-page novel about a Nazi perpetrator, which won France's Prix Goncourt in 2006]. And I think it had a big impact in France. I think in some way that prepared the soil for my book. It's a subject everyone is thinking about. And of course, the French journalists want my book to be the anti-Bienveillantes ....Everyone wants to set it up as a concours between me and Jonathan Littell. I don't have any desire for that.

Shmiel Jager in Bolechow, Poland, 1930s.

But I do think that my book in a way inverts the values of Les Bienveillantes. It's like looking through the other end of the telescope. Littell is interested in perpetrators; I'm interested in victims. His is a novel; mine is meticulously only looking for details that I can specify. On the other hand, his attempts to imagine the mind of a killer - I never like to say executioner, un bourreau, the word they keep using, because bourreau implies a legal system, and I think that's misleading - and mine wants to imagine or reconstitute the lives of people who were killed by the people Jonathan Littell writes about.

So I think people were waiting for a book - anyone who felt that Les Bienveillantes wasn't giving them something necessary would automatically be interested in my book.

Those are my guesses. But I would also say that the book had a very modest success in England. It got nice reviews, and then it went away. I think this has to do with national experience. The English didn't have the Holocaust. They had their own war story, which is very different. The Holocaust is more abstract to them. The Holocaust happened on French soil. And the French have struggled with questions that the book raises: about collaboration, betrayal, confronting the past. I think that it's a readership that's trying to think about these things.

And a propos of all this, there was - a couple of years ago - Irene Némirovsky's haunting novel, Suite française, about France in wartime - a book not at all about the Holocaust, but completely framed by it. Impossible not to think about it on every page.

It has come up a lot in France, and all this just fertilized the ground - that and the fact that my book owes so much to French writers. I would think that this makes it appealing. Because I go about telling my Jewish-Polish-shtetl story through the lens of Proust.

I wondered if you would comment on two of the epigraphs: from Virgil, Sunt lacrimae rerum. "There are tears in things." And the quote from Proust: "When we have passed a certain age, the soul of the child we were and the souls of the dead from whom we have sprung come to lavish on us their riches and their spells."

Well, let's start with the Proust because it's easier. I have said many times - and I wonder if anyone is actually listening - I never conceived of this as a book about the Holocaust, and I don't think of it as being about the Holocaust. (Except obviously that it has to be.) It's a book about a family. It's about thinking about your family and what that means: family ties, brothers, uncles, cousins. And closeness. What it means to be close: Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, siblings. There are people who want to read it as a Holocaust book. So they say, "There's this long part at the beginning, but then it gets good in Part Two." But I would say they're reading the book wrongly.

This book is written by someone who is both a writer and a critic by profession and is also a scholar of literature. I'm interested in literary questions that have nothing to do with history or the Holocaust .... And a big question is: how do you begin a book? And why do you begin a book?

Shmiel's daughters: Ruchele, Lorka, and Frydka. Along with Bronia, the youngest (who was not yet born when this photo was taken), all would be put to death.

And how do you tell a story?

And how do you tell a story! Which obviously an obsession of the book. And that's why I was moved by the Proust. People always say, "You were always interested in family history from childhood. You loved your grandfather. Why did you only now decide?" [laughing] That's a good question! I think the Proust epigraph somehow is about that. You reach a moment in your life - which is not the same for everybody - when you feel, I would say, at once more connected to and more distant from your childhood and the past that you knew as a child. Which, of course, is how Proust begins.

In my case I couldn't even tell you why I decided this was the project. You have to remember this didn't start as a book. I thought I was only writing a magazine article at the beginning. For whatever reason, and it's not accidental, it started after the quarantaine. I was interested. I felt haunted. Because as you get older, you get farther away from you own childhood and the past that was the past when you were a child. And that's why I was moved by the Proust. Suddenly, there they are: all your ghosts, stretching out their hands, and offering you these things if you're smart enough to hear that they're offering them to you. And there's a moment after which that offer is going to be withdrawn, when you're no longer going to be able to remember the past. So it's a moment you have to strike. And a lot of this book is very self-conscious about time as an element in the search.

This isn't a library search where the books will still be there in thirty years. This is about communicating with living--

- Old -

- people. So there was a moment when, as it were, I woke up one morning and said, "This is the moment to do this." I had been primed in different ways. So that's the Proust. When you have reached a certain age, you want to do justice to your ghosts. Because you don't think about them earlier. Also because when you reach a certain age you realize you're going to be someone's ghost some day. And that affects you.

Frances Begley, New York City: she grew up near Bolechow, and after the war she began receiving letters from someone who had moved into her former house and had found a stash of family photographs. Forced to ransom her own family history, she would send money, and the man would send photos - one or two at a time. Photo by Matt Mendelsohn.

And I would say the Virgil- as you know that quote plays an important thematic note in the book. For all the reasons I explain. But I'm also advertising that this is a tragic book. It's not called The Found. And that was important to me, because we now have a cultural narrative which is about cheap closure. Whatever traumas you've suffered, you'll go on Oprah, and you'll get hugged and it will be fine. And this is not one of those stories. It's not one of those stories in the way it happened to the people it happened to, who didn't have closure, and whose story will never be over. It will never be over because most of these people's stories will never be known. But also my story of my search is not one of happy closure. I didn't want people to read this and say, "Oh, at the end he gets redemption and it's all great, and he has a feel-good moment."

And I think at the end I say, "Even at the moment when I finally find them, I have to give them up again, because they don't belong to me." And the unknowability of their subjective experience is something that I am humbled before.

So I think that it's a deeply tragic book, although it has stories and humour -

- tons of it -

-but you know it's tragic in the sense that it acknowledges the irreparability of pain in the world. Somebody that I was just talking to today [exasperated chuckle] said, "Oh I read your book, and I thought you were going to find that one of the girls is still alive."

I said, "But that's a Hollywood story." And this keeps saying to you that as much as we found, so much more was lost. I think there's a point in the book where I list everything we found out in five years: it's like a page in a 500-page book -

Yes, because so little could be known about these people.

Because that's the significance of what was done to them! They were erased consciously, purposefully from memory and history. The people who killed them wanted to erase them. That was the agenda. Not just to kill them. But that nothing would be left. No memories. No stories .... That's the tragedy of these people. There's a long Proustian passage in the book where I think about everything that no one will ever know. The slaves in the slave ships going from Africa to the New World. You know they suffered, but how many of those stories will you really know?... That's the essential tragedy of life and history that most everything gets lost. So I want to acknowledge that at the beginning. Also, tears are an important motif in this book. It begins with tears, it begins with people crying -

- when they see you as a child [because Mendelsohn bore an uncanny physical resemblance to his great uncle Shmiel, family members regularly wept when Daniel walked into a room] -

And it ends with me falling to the ground and crying, and there are a lot of tears in between. It's a significant leitmotif. So that's why I wanted Virgil. And I also wanted Virgil because I'm a classicist. Although I don't invoke it a lot, the Aeneid is a survivor's tale. It's the story of a man whose civilization is destroyed in one fell swoop and how he wanders the world to find a new home, which is the story of the people I talked to...

You make a very interesting distinction, that its very different to tell the story of a survivor from the story of the people who are lost.

I think I say that to be alive is to have a story. The dead can't tell their stories. They can only be ancillary characters in someone else's story. Because you cannot speak as a subject, as a main character, if you're dead.

But if you're able to find out enough, you can tell the story of someone -

You can tell the story of a person, but one thing that we always know is that the story that we tell about a person is never the story that they will tell about themselves. You know that as a journalist!

What I find really remarkable is the way you use the Bible and use the story of nations and ethnic groups, as well as the stories of your nuclear and extended family, to show that familial relations are not always benign.

One thing I want to be very scrupulous about - it's always a danger in autobiographical writing to heroize yourself. I wanted everything in the book to be about Shmiel. Which it is, actually. As wide as the circles get. It's a book about using everything you're capable of knowing to think about one thing .... You could even say the absolute question it starts out with is, "Who am I, if I am him? If I'm a reincarnation of [my great uncle], who am I?" My whole book is an attempt to fill in his blanks so I can finally be myself, and not just a reminder of him. If you were doing a psychoanalytical reading of this book, that would be one way to go. And I'm mentioning that because it starts out with the question of knowledge and this weird doubling of identities.

I wanted to be very scrupulous in this book, so that everything in this book should be about Uncle Shmiel. And the brother stuff- to get back to what you were asking about - the ugly family things: I wanted to make sure that there was nothing in the book that felt, as stuff in memoirs can feel, like a working out of personal stuff.

When I talk about my relationship with my siblings, and difficult things that happened in my family, and my grandfather - that's all in there because I ultimately have to come back and think about what happened between my grandfather and Shmiel. And so all those rippling circles spread out from that one stone which is - What was his relationship with his brother?

So everything in the book: Greek narrative technique, oral poetry, and so on, is ultimately coming back to - What happened to Shmiel, and how do you tell that story? So it was as if I had to use everything I ever knew in my whole life, including my family history, the tensions, the dramas, the conflicts, the rivalries, to help tell that story ....

I tell the reader exactly what the shape of the book is going to be very early on. I say, "This is how my grandfather told the story: there were the long openings, and you didn't know why he was telling the whole history -"

And the Russian dolls, and one story inside another, and you were thinking, "Why is this?" And then as it got faster and sped to the end, you realized what all the connections were. And I've got news for you: that's exactly the structure of the book. I'm not idly telling the reader this.

Also, you're not idly bringing in the stories from the Bible -

The Bible stories are also about Shmiel. How did all these things happen? The story of Noah: what does it mean to wipe a population off the face of the world with only a handful of survivors? What is their life like? So it's a big book, and it goes lots of places - intellectually, geographically, and temporally, but it always comes back to one thing, which is, How does this stuff help us think about Shmiel ?...

I want to ask you - its very interesting, you're third generation here, I mean you're not even in a direct line-

I have no direct line.

You've taken on Shmiel though. You have a special bond, a special destiny, if you will, because it was cast that way for you by genetics -

It's important that I don't have a direct generational connection to the Holocaust. I have an oblique connection that allowed me to write this book in this way. If I were a child or even the grandchild of Holocaust survivors or victims -I don't have to tell you this - I would have had to write a different book.

Because the interest in and freedom with and exploration of narrativity and storytelling are things I can fool around with because I'm a little bit distant from this tragedy. They weren't my grandparents. It was a great uncle. How well do you ever know your great uncles? I might have been close to him, but I might not have been close to him! So I can come at this from a totally different angle, with more spaciousness in my positioning. And part of what the book has the luxury to explore, and even weep a little about, is distance. And so, honestly, when I experience these terrible moments, it's probably not as loaded as it would have been if it was my grandfather I had been trying to find out about. So I'm aware of the fact that I'm two steps down, but I'm one step horizontal from the epicentre of this trauma. It's part of the theme of displacement in the book, about not being close enough.

The book is as much about distance as it is about proximity. Another thing I want to avoid is falsely claiming a trauma that isn't mine .... And it almost makes me feel guilty. Because one thing I am the heir to is a good storyteller. Because I'm not an heir to the Holocaust, but I am heir to a great storyteller .... And a very smart classics professor colleague of mine at Princeton, when I was in the earliest stages of this story, said to me, "It's a great advantage that this is an oblique and not a direct relationship." I was very struck by that. Because it's not deeply traumatic to me, I'm able to write about it better. Not better than someone else, but better than I might have been able to write it myself.

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million

by Daniel Mendelson

Review published in

Spring 2008

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