Back to the Beginning

The Lost is the most gripping, the most amazing true story I have read in years. It tells about the search for six of the author’s relatives and the solution to the mystery of their disappearance in the Holocaust. Daniel Mendelsohn grew up in a family troubled by their unknown fate, close to a grandfather for whom the loss of his brother, sister-in-law, and four nieces was the greatest tragedy of his life. Neither he nor anyone else had any clear idea of what happened to them. After the war, there had been vague and conflicting rumors, but nothing since. When he was a little boy, Mendelsohn writes, elder relatives at family gatherings used to burst into tears because of his resemblance to the missing Uncle Shmiel. That would start them whispering, but since they talked in Yiddish, a language the boy could not understand, when he did learn something, it was long afterward.

Once he heard someone mention four beautiful daughters. They were all raped, his mother blurted out on another occasion. He understood his grandfather to say that they were hiding in a castle. This didn’t make much sense, for judging from other family stories, Bolechów, a village of a few thousand people in eastern Poland, from which they all came, was not a kind of place one would expect to find castles. There were still other versions of the events, how they were betrayed by their Polish maid or how one, or possibly two, of the daughters had escaped into the woods and joined the Ukrainian partisans. As Mendelsohn grew older, these scraps of information about the lost relatives, too fragmentary to make the barest outline of a story, began to interest him more and more. He started asking his grandfather and other members of the family questions about their background. They in turn were pleased to have someone so young be interested in something so old and were ready to tell him everything they knew, except when it came to Uncle Shmiel and his family, they didn’t even know the years of their deaths.

It wasn’t just the dates he needed. He wanted stories about the people in the few photographs the family still had of them, some little anecdote that would rescue them from their anonymity, their generic status as victims, and restore to them their reality as particular human beings. What Mendelsohn sets out to uncover about the past would not be a simple undertaking even in emigrant families with no connection to the Holocaust, but with their own epic journeys from country to country. I, for instance, know next to nothing about my great-grandparents in Serbia and the people I could have asked about them were scattered all over the world and are now dead. It is sobering to realize that one little story can keep someone living on in a descendant’s memory. Once even that is forgotten, the person vanishes as if he never existed. There are many books written about the search for relatives lost in the Holocaust; what makes this one unique, among other things, is the amount of time that has elapsed. Can one solve a crime that is more than sixty years old? I didn’t think so until I read The Lost.

Mendelsohn’s uncle’s family name was Jäger. They had been living in Bolechów for at least three hundred years and had been kosher butchers by profession all that time. Everyone but Shmiel, and a brother who moved to Palestine, had emigrated to America in the 1920s. He himself had come over in 1913, but didn’t like it here and returned home to become a prosperous citizen. For centuries, the town was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but then changed hands after World War I when the region once known as Galicia became Poland until its eastern part was occupied by the Soviets in 1939, and then in 1941 by the Germans until 1945, when it was taken over by the Soviet Union until its dissolution, when it became part of Ukraine. Surely in the years between 1939 and 1944 this was one of the worst places in Europe to be a Jew. However, that’s not how the small number of survivors remembered Bolechów. It was a happy town, they insisted. There were 12,000 people, with three different cultures. Three thousand Jews, six thousand Poles, three thousand Ukrainians, living side by side. There was no anti-Semitism. Everyone needed everyone else. Ukrainians tended cattle grazing on the rolling pastureland adjoining the town. A Pole needed to use Jewish shops; a Jew needed a Pole to get some government document. As Philip Roth writes in American Pastoral, “The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy—that is every man’s tragedy.”

One gets a much better picture of the period from the few surviving letters of Uncle Shmiel that were discovered in a secret cache after Mendelsohn’s grandfather’s death. They started coming in 1939. Between January and August of that year, when the last letter got through, Shmiel goes from asking for money to save his business to begging desperately for money to save his life. He needed affidavits and emigration papers for his wife, Ester, and his four daughters, Lorka, Frydka, Ruchele, and Bronia. He also tells his sister in America:

From reading the papers you know a little about what the Jews are going through here; but what you know is just one one-hundredth of it: when you go out into the street or drive on the road you’re barely 10% sure that you’ll come back with a whole head, or your legs in one piece.

Between 1935 and 1937, after the government of Poland promoted a campaign against Jewish businesses, which the citizens were encouraged to boycott, nearly 1,300 Jews were injured and hundreds were killed by their neighbors with whom they lived, some later claimed, like one big happy family. Christians were discouraged from renting property to Jews; anti-Semitic agitators appeared on market days warning Gentiles not to do business with Jews, whose stalls were frequently destroyed. The Polish government also banned the ritual slaughter of animals, which specifically affected Shmiel Jäger and his business. As the Israeli historian Shimon Redlich points out in his detailed and very informative study of his native Brzezany,* another, larger town in eastern Galicia, Polish policies, which grew more restrictive and oppressive in the early Thirties, intensified everyone’s nationalism and fragmented the community.

Various ethnic organizations, Ukrainian, Polish, and Jewish, were formed to foster their separate national identities and ended up breeding paranoia and resentment of others. That led to incidents. Polish soldiers’ and policemen’s tombs were desecrated by Ukrainians. Serious violence followed. There were arrests and trials of Ukrainian nationalists. Communist leaflets urged comrades, whether Poles, Ukrainians, or Jews, not to let fascism incite them against one another, but mutual suspicion and overt hatred were already on the rise. If our own ethnic groups ever get the idea that they can’t live with each other, we can expect the same.

In life now there are so many opportunities for people to be so evil to each other,” Shmiel Jäger writes to his brother. His letters become more and more desperate as the war approaches. Mendelsohn doesn’t know what answer he and his wife got from their numerous relatives in America—if any. The letters stop as the Germans attack Poland and the Red Army, in accordance with the secret additional protocol in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement of 1939, occupies the region. The Russians stayed for twenty-one months, between September 1939 and June 1941. Many of the Jews in Galicia, particularly the young and the educated, who resented Polish discrimination, welcomed them. The presence of Jewish officers and soldiers in the ranks of the Red Army, we are told, evoked feelings of relief and solidarity. Even many of the Ukrainians, who never forgave the five to seven million peasants starved to death by Stalin’s collectivization in 1930s, didn’t seem to mind the change.

The Poles, on the other hand, loathed both Germans and Russians, their historical enemies, who had invaded their country before. Soviet policies, of course, were anything but tolerant. They called on the population to “unmask” and turn in any hostile elements, an invitation, in other words, for people to denounce one another. Catastrophic economic policies ensued. The new Soviet regime nationalized the stores and replaced small businesses by state-owned shops and cooperatives. Even before the Germans attacked Russia in June 1941, Shmiel Jäger and his family must have been in strained circumstances. With so much bad blood around, the Nazis were not going to be short of helpers when they marched into town.

Mendelsohn’s search for his lost family members begins with a decision to visit Bolechów in August 2001 with two of his brothers and a sister. The purpose of the six-day trip to Poland and Ukraine was to locate the house where the family had lived and to find someone who knew them and could shed some light on what happened to them. What they find on their arrival is a quiet, somewhat impoverished town nestled among the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains with a little open square and a tangle of small streets surrounding it. With their Ukrainian guide from Lvov as translator, they engage a few locals in conversation, are invited to their houses and received hospitably. Eventually they meet Olga, a woman who knew their relatives. Mendelsohn writes:

It was the sudden and vertiginous sense of proximity to them, at that moment, that made my sister and me start crying. This is how close you can come to the dead: you can be sitting in a living room on a fine summer afternoon, sixty years after these dead have died, and talk to a plump old woman who is gesturing vigorously, who, you realize, is exactly as old now as Shmiel’s eldest daughter would have been, and this old woman can be this far away from you, a yard away; that’s how close she can be. In that moment, the sixty years and the millions of dead didn’t seem bigger than the three feet that separated me from the fat arm of the old woman.

But she had no idea what happened to the Jäger family. All she could remember is that one day the sound of machine-gun fire coming from the cemetery “was so terrible that her mother…took down a decrepit old sewing machine and ran the treadle, so that the creaky noise would cover the gunfire.”

She also told them that the Jews had been herded into the Catholic community center at the northern edge of the town, and that the Germans had forced the captive Jews to stand on each other’s shoulders, placing the old rabbi on top. This human pyramid of naked prisoners makes Mendelsohn think of Abu Ghraib. To torture, kill, and have a good time doing it—a familiar idea of happiness since the world began. Olga’s husband remembered on another occasion Jews being marched past their house, nearly naked, calling out in Polish to their neighbors—“Stay well,” “So long, we will not see each other anymore,” “We’ll not meet anymore.”

Upon their return from Ukraine, Mendelsohn and his brother make tapes of the videos they’d taken during the trip and send copies to their cousins in Israel, who invite a few friends from Bolechów to watch them. The news spreads in the small Israeli community of survivors that someone is looking for people who knew the Jäger family. A few months later, in February 2002, Mendelsohn receives a phone call from a man in Sydney, Australia, who used to date Ruchele, one of Shmiel Jäger’s daughters. He knows that she was murdered on October 29, 1941, in the first German roundup of Jews. As for the fate of other members of the family, he could only guess that most of them were taken in the next German Aktion in September 1942 with the exception of the second girl, Frydka, who was still alive after that roundup. Here, then, was the first concrete evidence of what had happened and the beginning of what was to become a series of trips over three continents that would take Mendelsohn first to Australia to meet the five Bolechower Jews living there, who tell him about others living in Israel, who in turn tell him about a relative in Stockholm, and that relative tells him about someone he missed in Israel and who in turn knows someone in Denmark that he must see. The reports of these meetings with twelve Bolechów survivors become increasingly suspenseful, as the tantalizing bits of information their flashes of memory provide further clarify and complicate the story.

The people he encounters in Australia tell him a great deal about the family, but not how they died, since being survivors they were either in hiding or elsewhere when the roundups and the killings occurred. There are pre-war stories about the Jägers that contradict what he heard from his family, like the one about an uncle, Itzhak, who had the good sense to emigrate to Palestine in the early 1930s before all hell broke loose. It appears, however, that he had no choice but to leave. Itzhak, who was a kosher butcher, like his brother Shmiel, was caught selling veal, which is not kosher, on the sly and was ostracized by the community. More significantly, Mendelsohn learns that Shmiel’s daughter Frydka may have dated a Polish boy and joined the partisans and possibly survived till 1944. What is clear from these interviews is that the survivors are not telling him everything; they have their own dark secrets about how they survived.

Still, they provide him with graphic descriptions of what the first roundup of Jews in October 1941 was like. Ukrainian policemen carried a list with names of Jewish doctors, lawyers, and businessmen and pointed out their houses to the Germans. Eliminating the leading citizens was meant to demoralize the town. It’s a method the Soviets used during their occupation when they either murdered much of the upper strata of the Polish society or deported its members with their families to Siberia or Kazakhstan. The more Mendelsohn talks to the survivors, the more he realizes how much can never be known. He will never know the color of a girl’s dress as she was forced into a mass grave where she saw other women being tortured, raped, and killed—and there is no way we can reconstruct her state of mind. Still, for him, it is our moral duty to try to imagine what it was like to be in her shoes. Judging by the renewed enthusiasm for slaughtering the innocent today, many people never bother to do that.

What is the smell of a thousand terrified people being herded to their deaths? What is the smell of a room in which a thousand terrified people have been kept for a day and a half, deprived of toilets, a room in which the stove has been lighted, a room in which perhaps a few dozen people have been shot to death, a woman has gone into labor?

How can one write a story of six people who left so little trace of their existence? The answer depends on what Mendelsohn can learn about the world in which they lived from historical documents and from what the witnesses can tell him. At the Yad Vashem Center in Israel, he finds a transcript of the testimony a woman gave in 1946, which gives the fullest account so far of what occurred during the first Aktion in Bolechów in 1941 in which at least one of his relatives perished. Another deposition made in July 1946 by a certain Matylda Gelernter, thirty-eight years of age, describes the next roundup in which Ester, Lorka, and Bronia died:

On the 3rd, 4th and 5th of September 1942, the second action in Bolechów took place without a list: Men, women and children were caught in their houses, attics, hiding places. About 660 children were taken. People were killed in the town square in Bolechów and in the streets. The action lasted from before evening on Wednesday until Saturday. On Friday it was said that the action was already over. People decided to come out of hiding but the action started up again on Saturday and on that one day more people were killed than in the preceding days. The Germans and Ukrainians preyed especially on the children. They took the children by their legs and bashed their heads on the edge of the sidewalks, whilst they laughed and tried to kill them with one blow. Others threw children from the height of the first floor, so a child fell on the brick pavement until it was just pulp. The Gestapo men bragged that they killed 600 children and the Ukrainian Matowiecki (from Rozdol/y near near Zydaczowy) proudly guessed that he had killed 96 Jews himself, mostly children.

The rabble loves cruelty. One of the witnesses in Shimon Redlich’s book describes Poles murdering Ukrainians, grabbing children by their feet and throwing them against a wall or cutting the throat of an Orthodox priest with a saw. As Mendelsohn writes, the notion that it is harder to kill those whom you know than it is to kill a total stranger may be too optimistic. We’ve recently seen that to be the case in former Yugoslavia, where neighbors murdered neighbors with whom they had lived in harmony for decades. Where does the idea of collective guilt, which excuses any crime, derive from? Is it religion that is the culprit, nationalism, ethnocentrism, all of which have constant need for enemies, or just simple malice? I suspect it is all of these. Human indifference to suffering and the pleasure of inflicting it are common; the only surprise is that we have no convincing explanation for it. Mendelsohn agrees. Why some people choose to do evil, while others follow their conscience, is something for which no one has a good answer. Of course, there’s also a third category of people, the silent majority, who close their eyes and listen to the birds sing while the children of their neighbors are having their heads bashed in.

If the second roundup was even more horrific than the first, there was a reason for it. In the meantime, a group of men had gathered in an elegant villa on a lake near Berlin and decided, over drinks, that the time had come to wipe out an entire people. The only way to survive was to hide—or more precisely to be hidden by someone who was not a Jew and who could circulate freely. The hiding places were usually cellars, attics, haylofts, holes dug in a forest, or some other dark, coffin-like space. The concealed ones had to remain perfectly still for weeks and months. There are stories of favorite dogs being killed so they wouldn’t bark and reveal the hiding place, of small children suffocated by their mothers at the sound of someone knocking.

As for the motives and types of people who hid the Jews, it is difficult to generalize. They could be farmers, schoolteachers, priests, or housewives. In many cases they received money and valuables; less often, perhaps, it was their conscience that made them take the risk. Snitching by neighbors was common. The penalty for hiding a Jew was death. A Ukrainian by the name of Medvid hid a family and they were found out. The Nazis came and not only killed Medvid but hanged his entire family, including the small children; then they killed everyone in the entire district whose last name was Medvid. Both Hitler and Stalin hoped to make individual conscience extinct. Still, some people kept theirs. In Bolechów, forty-eight Jews emerged from their hiding places on the day of the liberation.

The four Sydney survivors were absolutely convinced that Shmiel Jäger had been taken with his wife and youngest daughter in the second roundup, but as Mendelsohn continues questioning the other survivors, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The truth is that not one of them knows how he and his daughter Frydka died. According to one version, she was pregnant and in love with a Polish boy who hid her in his own house, endangering his own family until he was denounced by a neighbor. That’s not exactly how it happened, of course. What makes Mendelsohn’s search so enthralling is that we as readers find ourselves trying to figure out which one of these many stories, based on hearsay, sounds the most plausible. The conflicting accounts are to be expected. The old men and women Mendelsohn interviews are recalling things that happened more than fifty years ago and that often had only marginal connection to their lives. Memory is a tale of what we remember and not necessarily what once actually took place. Mendelsohn writes:

Sometimes the stories we tell are narratives of what happened; sometimes, they are the image of what we wish had happened, the unconscious justifications of the lives we’ve ended up living…. Only in stories, after all, do things turn out neatly, and only in stories does every small detail fit neatly into place. If they fit too neatly, after all, we are likely not to trust them.

The survivors, Mendelsohn realizes, know only so much. Besides, they have their own poignant stories to tell. Much of the power of this immensely moving and beautifully written book comes from their recollections. “For years,” one of them says, “I believed that this life was not real life—that I would look up and there would be my family.” Everything changed for that man when he went back to Bolechów and saw that there was nothing left. Not the house, not their factory, not the garden with a pool. Even in the face of such annihilation, Mendelsohn continues his quest, in hope that some additional bit of information may yet surface and explain everything. Nevertheless, after he has interviewed everyone, he seems to have reached a dead end. Yes, it seems very probable that his uncle Shmiel was hiding with his daughter Frydka in the house of a schoolteacher, but about what happened after that, there seems to be no one left to ask. By now, he’s exhausted by the search, which has already taken him several years. Still, he consoles himself that he knows so much more now than when he first started. Even the little he found out about them would have been forgotten. What could be more terrifying than a picture of an ancestor of whom nothing is known? Even hearing that Shmiel’s wife Ester had “two such pretty legs” or that someone once said “Hello Bronia” over a fence to the youngest of his daughters brings them momentarily back to life.

At that point, not expecting much, he returns to Bolechów for a final visit and the extraordinary happens. He finds what has always eluded him. More accurately, it happens by accident. There’s a chance encounter on the street, then another. It’s by chance that he solves the whole mystery. A sudden impulse to go and take a last look at a certain neighborhood, turn left on some corner, rather than right, approach one man and not another to ask a question, leads to another accidental encounter and then another. He has always wanted specifics and now he has them. They are just as heartbreaking as he might have expected. But the very act of going back to the beginning, back to the footsteps already taken, to see if there’s anything he missed the first time, makes it all happen. In one of Mendelsohn’s commentaries on the Book of Genesis scattered throughout the book he has this moving passage:

And it is time, in the end, that gives meaning to and makes sense of both the pleasure to be had from knowledge, and the pain. The pleasure lies, to some extent, in the pride in accumulation: before, there was void and chaos, and now there is plenty and order. The pain, on the other hand, is associated with time in a slightly different way. For instance (because time moves in one direction only) once you know a thing you cannot unknow it, and as we know certain things, certain facts, certain kinds of knowledge are painful. And also: while other kinds of knowledge bring pleasure precisely as I have described above, filling you with information that you wanted to have, allowing you to make sense of what once looked like a disordered jumble, it is possible to learn certain things, certain facts, too late for them to do you any good.

The book ends by being a story of self-discovery, an attempt to understand one’s relationship to one’s heritage and religion, as much as it is a search for the lost relatives. Mendelsohn is a classicist, author of a scholarly study of Greek tragedy, immensely learned, and alert to mythical, literary, and biblical precedents of the stories he is being told. He has no choice but to ask, what does God say about all this? He studies the commentaries on the tales of Adam and Eve, Abel and Cain, Noah and the Ark, the slaughter of the innocent along with the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, and he finds little solace and more ambiguities. The knowledge of that harsh truth is what he is left with at the end.

History mocks scriptures. Neither one nor the other is likely to ever ease our conscience. For us, who live in an age in which the appetite for killing of the innocent hasn’t abated, The Lost is a terrifying reminder of the struggle that keeps being waged by people throughout history to safeguard from extinction the memories of some life and some great injustice before they are plunged into darkness. Like some mythical hero who pays a visit to that realm of shadows the Greeks called the underworld, Mendelsohn has brought back stories of the dead that we are not likely to forget long after we close his book.


Corrections November 2, 2006

  1. *

    Together and Apart in Brzezany: Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians, 1919– 1945 (Indiana University Press, 2002).