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Finding a Path Through the Odyssey

Matt Mendelsohn
Great Synagogue of Bolechów, Bolekhiv, in present day Ukraine, 2001

For a period of several years early in the new century I was working on a book the research for which required me to travel extensively throughout the United States, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Israel, and Australia. I went to those places in order to interview a number of survivors of, and witnesses to, certain events that took place during World War II in a small eastern Polish town where some relatives of mine had lived. These relatives were ordinary people, of little interest to history but nonetheless the focus—the center, so to speak—of the story I wanted to tell, about who they had been and how they had died; just as the town itself, a place of little historical importance, had yet been the focus of my relatives’ lives, the fixed point from which they had never wanted to stray. And so, they died there, some hidden quite close to the house where they had lived, only to be betrayed; some rounded up and shot in the town square or in the old cemetery nearby; others transported to remote locales and then gassed. From this small place, the few survivors would later radiate outward, after the war was over, to distant parts of the world—places that, only fifteen years earlier, would have struck these townspeople as improbable, absurd even, as destinations, let alone as places to live: Copenhagen, Tashkent, Stockholm, Brooklyn, Minsk, Beer Shevah, Bondi Beach. Those were the places I had to go, sixty years later, in order to talk to the survivors and hear the tales they had to tell about my relatives. The only way to get to the center of my story was by means of elaborate detours to distant peripheries.

When I was finished writing the story, I found myself unable to move. At the time, I told myself that I was merely tired; but now the distance of a decade and a half permits me to see that I had experienced a crisis of some kind, even a kind of breakdown. For some months, I found it hard to leave my apartment, let alone to do any traveling. I had been to Australia and Denmark and Ukraine, Israel and Poland and Sweden, been to the mass graves and to the museums, including one in Tel Aviv, where, to my surprise, the thing that moved me most was a room full of meticulous models of synagogues that had, over the millennia, been built throughout the territory of the Jewish Diaspora: in Kaifeng, China, and in Cochin, India; the sixth-century Beth Alpha Synagogue in Lower Galilee and the twelfth-century Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue in Toledo (which owes its strange name to the fact that, shortly after it was built by a special dispensation from King Alphonso X to create “the largest and most beautiful synagogue in Spain,” it was attacked by mobs, partly destroyed, and subsequently reconstituted as a church dedicated to the Virgin); the nineteenth-century Tempio Israelitico in Florence and its contemporary the Oranienburger Straße Synagogue in Berlin, the one desecrated, the other largely destroyed during World War II, and both now painstakingly re-created in miniature in Israel, a country that did not exist when those buildings were gutted.

I was so moved, I think, because, at one point from late childhood to early adolescence, I myself had been an obsessive model-builder, carefully constructing precise scale replicas of ancient buildings. This is why, as I stood there in the model room of the museum in Tel Aviv, halfway through the worldwide journey I undertook in the early 2000s, I had such a strong emotional reaction. I was familiar with the impulse to make such replicas, which is haunted by a poignant paradox: the belief in our ability to recreate and the acknowledgment that the original has been lost… “Lost,” I should say, can be a misleading word, implying, as it does, destruction beyond the point where reconstruction is possible. But there are other kinds of loss: alterations or repurposings of structures so extensive or dramatic that, although the original still stands, is still present, we might nonetheless feel the need for reconstruction of the sort to be found in the Model Room at Beth Hatefusoth in Tel Aviv.

There is, for example, a decaying but still handsome structure that dominates the market square of a small sub-Carpathian town called Bolekhiv, currently located within the borders of Ukraine, although it was part of Poland when my relatives, who called it Bolechów, lived there, as their relatives before them had done for many centuries, until 1943, when the last of them perished. This large rectangular building, its pale pink stucco walls pierced at regular intervals by a series of elegant tall windows with rounded tops, was once known as the “Great” Synagogue of the town—a slight pretension that can be forgiven when you consider, first, that there were, at one time, more than a dozen synagogues of various sizes in this small market town, and, second, that most of the other buildings in Bolechów were, in fact, quite small in comparison. The epithet “Great” can, if anything, strike one as poignant now, given that there is not a single synagogue left in that place and that every single person who ever attended those houses of worship, every person who ever familiarly referred to this structure as the Great Synagogue, is long since dead; and that almost none of the people who live there now are aware that it was once a place of worship.

This is not surprising. In the 1950s, long before the vast majority of the current residents lived there, the building had been converted into a meeting house for leather-workers, its walls painted with murals celebrating the landscapes of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and, a decade before that, the ark of the Torah, once the focal point of its architecture, had been ripped out, its scrolls defiled and lost, its decorations stripped off. Hence, although one could say that the Great Synagogue of Bolechów still stands, it seems nonetheless to have been “lost,” seems to be in need of a model that could show what it looked like when it was first constructed, the product of a living civilization.

The historical reality that a model of an old building is meant to suggest is, therefore, more than merely material; such a model is surely meant to capture the soul, as it were, as well as the appearance of a building… But all this is a dream. There is no model of the Bolechów synagogue in the Beth Hatefusoth Museum, partly because no one who could help reconstruct its lost reality is alive today, and partly because if the museum were to recreate in miniature every synagogue in every town in Eastern Europe that suffered the same fate as the synagogue in Bolechów, it would take up acres, rather than a single room, in Tel Aviv.

The trip to the Model Room was the only occasion when I cried during my travels. Later, during the period of immobility that followed my return home, I would sometimes find myself in the middle of a room, looking around, unable to remember why I had entered it; standing perplexed in this way, motionless, I would burst into tears. A psychiatrist friend of mine suggested at the time that I was experiencing a kind of post-traumatic event. Having listened to tales of violence and destruction for five years without being able to assimilate them emotionally (because at the time I was listening to them, my only thought was to “get the story down”), I was now, my friend surmised, having a delayed reaction. It was here, back in the familiar space of my home, that, she said, I was “doing my grieving.” Whatever the reason, I felt emptied, emotionally and creatively. Every time I tried to begin a new project, it was as if I had become one of the elderly witnesses or survivors I’d written about: a vacant wanderer arrived at last at a blank new place, unable to go on.

This strange state persisted for some time after I returned from my final research trip, which I took in July of 2005. In 2008, on the advice of a friend who suggested that I return to what she called my “intellectual roots,” I began to entertain the idea of writing something about the Greek classics. Although, at first, I was still incapable of beginning a new book, the idea of writing on a purely literary subject, on something whose charm and inventiveness, whose fantastical characters and settings and intricate construction would beguile and distract my still-bruised mind, appealed to me more and more as the months and then years passed. Wherever else it might lead, I thought, this Greek, this literary, subject would at least allow me to leave behind the anguishing stories that had haunted me for so long and, in time, immobilized me: the tales of political collapse and religious intolerance, of escapes both successful and failed, of displacement and refugees, Germans and Jews. Soon after my friend shared her thought with me, the long period of morbid inaction I had been experiencing began to yield to one of reading and animated contemplation until, toward the end of that first decade of the century, for reasons I ended up describing in the book that I eventually wrote, it became clear what my subject would be. I decided to write a book about the Odyssey.


As it turned out, the book was difficult to write: so difficult that there were many occasions when I thought of abandoning it. I was baffled, balked: like some enchanted character in an old tale, the story I wanted to tell kept changing shape, shifting away from me, slipping from my grasp. The problems I was having with the Greek book were not at all like those I had experienced while writing the Holocaust book. The emotional despair that had characterized my relation to that book had yielded, in the new project, to what I can only call narrative despair.

Although there was a period when I studied Classics at the highest level, the book I was trying to write was not a scholarly work. It is, rather, about the last year of my father’s life, which turned out, strangely enough, to be refracted through the Odyssey. In January of 2011, at the age of eighty-one, my father had decided to sit in on a first-year seminar on the epic that I was teaching, an experience that, despite the comic potential of the situation, had a profound impact on him, the students, and myself. In June of that year, just after the course ended, we heard about a Mediterranean cruise that purported to recreate Odysseus’s voyages. We decided to take it, and the voyage turned out to be an experience during which a transformation of sorts took place in my father, a metamorphosis into a version of himself I had never glimpsed during our lives together. Then, in the autumn of the same year, he fell in a parking lot and suffered an injury that, in time, led to a serious stroke and, in still more time, to his death.

These experiences were profound, both intellectually and emotionally. But it was neither their depth and complexity, nor the awkwardness of some of the feelings that would rise to the surface in the classroom or the stateroom or the intensive-care unit, that baffled me, made the writing so difficult. The problem, as would become clearer as a year of writing became two and then three, was that I had no idea how to organize the story.

I had begun writing in the fall of 2012, six months after my father died, and by the end of August 2016, I had six hundred manuscript pages. Each of the three sections had been written, the classroom and the ship and the hospital, and yet the narrative as a whole wasn’t working; reading through it was strangely tiring. As the summer came to an end and I despaired increasingly of finding a way to make the narrative work, I decided to seek out a friend of mine, an editor who has been a mentor to me since I began writing, nearly thirty years ago. I gave him the manuscript, and within a day he called me. The problem, this mentor of mine said, was that I had all the pieces but they hadn’t yet come together. There was something wrong about the way I was telling the story, he went on; it was one thing after another, the seminar, the cruise, the illness and death. There was a lot of incident but it wasn’t yet a story.

The first part, the account of the seminar, was interesting, he observed—after a small silence during which I absorbed his criticism—but, in his opinion, the problem was that once you reach the end of that part, once you come to the end of the Odyssey course, you didn’t want to keep reading. You don’t want to get through the whole semester and then have to go on a cruise, he said, at which I weakly protested, But that’s how it happened. I don’t care how it happened, he returned; this isn’t about fact, this is about a story. You need to find a way to plant the cruise and the hospital within the narrative of the seminar. Use flashbacks, use flash-forwards, don’t worry about chronology. Make it up, if you have to! You just have to find a way.

When he said the word way, I couldn’t repress an embarrassed start of recognition. The phrase “find a way” allowed me, first of all, to understand retroactively the nature of the creative and spiritual crisis I had undergone after finishing my previous book. I was suffering from what the Greeks called aporia: a helpless, immobilized confusion, a lack of resources to find one’s way out of a problem. The literal meaning of aporia is “a lack of a path,” or “no-way.” I hadn’t been able to leave my apartment; I couldn’t think of a new project. I was, in the Greek way of thinking, pathless—the adjective, as it happens, that in the Odyssey is used to describe the sea, the terrifying blank nothingness from which Odysseus must extricate himself, literally and figuratively, in order to reclaim his identity and find his way home.

The second thing that occurred to me after my conversation with my mentor was that the technique he was recommending—the insertion within one story of other stories, the flash backward or forward in time in order to give depth and complexity to the primary narrative—is one I have known about since at least my junior year in college, when I attended a seminar on the Odyssey, since this device is most famously used to great effect by Homer himself. The technique is known as ring composition. In ring composition, the narrative appears to meander away into a digression (the point of departure from the main narrative being marked by a formulaic line or stock scene), although the digression, the ostensible straying, turns out in the end to be a circle, since the narration will return to the precise point in the action from which it had strayed, that return marked by the repetition of the very formulaic line or scene that had indicated the point of departure. The material encompassed by such rings could be a single self-contained digression or a more elaborate series of interlocked narratives, each nested within another in the manner of Chinese boxes or Russian dolls.

I had known about ring composition during my university years, when a professor suggested I consult a book called Mimesis, by the German–Jewish scholar Erich Auerbach, who wrote this great study of Western literature in Istanbul, whither he had fled from Hitler: the first chapter of Mimesis, as it happens, is dedicated to a famous example of ring composition that occurs in Book 19 of the Odyssey. And yet, thirty years after my first acquaintance with Auerbach’s study of this narrative technique, I had somehow managed to produce a book about teaching Homer’s epic, its themes and structuresa book in which I actually talk about this convoluted manner of composing—without internalizing its lessons.

Now, after talking to my mentor, I knew at once what to do. I began rejiggering my manuscript in just the way he had recommended, folding episodes into one another, involuting certain narratives into larger story lines. The story of our marvelous cruise ended up curled inside an account of our seminar’s reading of Books 9 through 12, the books of the Odyssey in which Odysseus relates his voyages and adventures; the story of my father’s illness and death now spiraled outward from our class discussion about the climactic section of the epic, in which the hero is reunited with his family, his son and then his wife and finally his father.

Those final books of the Odyssey are particularly saturated with the all-important theme of identity, as the characters struggle to recognize one another after years of separation, years during which their personalities as well as their bodies, alchemized by struggled and trauma and time, evolved and changed: the father’s and the son’s, the husband’s and the wife’s, the child’s and the parent’s. Those physical transformations and the long-delayed reunions were often on my mind in the late winter of 2012 as I sat by my father’s bed in the ICU, wondering, as people do who attend this kind of sickbed, whether the person by whose side I sat was still “himself”: the person I had always known or a mere shell—a building that was, now, uninhabited.

The description of the fates of the Tempio Israelitico in Florence and the Oranienburger Straße Synagogue in Berlin have been modified. An earlier version said they were both largely destroyed by fire in 1938.

Adapted from Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate, published by University of Virginia Press.