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…

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