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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.”

  1. *

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

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