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The Lost. A Search for Six of Six Million by…
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The Lost. A Search for Six of Six Million (2006)

by Daniel Mendelsohn

Other authors: Matt Mendelsohn (Photographer)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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English (31)  French (3)  Dutch (3)  Danish (1)  Greek (1)  All languages (39)
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There may just be a vertical hierarchy in our popular understanding of the Holocaust. At the top, however uneasy, are the Survivors: it is through their testimony that we know to never forget. Their is also a measure of merit in having outwitted or simply survived the minatory machinations of the Nazis. below them are the victims, particularly present when the doltish ask "why they went like sheep, why they didn’t fight back, why they didn’t heed the signs in the 1930s?" Below that mound of evidence is nefarious mass of perpetrators, willing executioners, ordinary men, the devil incarnate and the betrayers.

If only life was that fucking simple.


Mr. Mendelson constructs a marvelous investigation sixty years after the fact. His training as a classicist lends a unique angle to his research. The idea of using Dido as an apt metaphor is astonishing: victim and exile, she prospers from her wits only to kill herself. If ever an example antiicpated the Survivor, this is it.
( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
I've been meaning to read this book for a decade now, ever since it came out and my European history professor from college emailed me. "I highly recommend this book," he said, "if you think you can get through it. Don't push yourself; the book can wait. But it is THAT GOOD." He wasn't insinuating that I didn't have the ability to read the book, that the vocabulary would be too much for me to grasp or that I wouldn't be able to make it through six hundred pages. Instead, he was concerned about my emotional ability to handle the content.

At that time, I was in the middle of conducting my own search - a search for twelve, all who perished in the Shoah (Holocaust), my grandmother's entire family. Only my grandmother "survived," although she hates being called a "survivor" because, as she says, she wasn't there. She had been sent away by her twice-widowed mother to England, a part of the Kindertransport, where she would stay until the end of the war, mostly (and, perhaps, blissfully) unaware of what was happening to her family, until the end, when it became brutally clear that she was the only one left. (She did manage to find a few cousins who survived and later moved to Israel, and another cousin who survived and decided to stay in Germany, and one of her uncles, her father's much older brother, whom she met once, emigrated to America before the war happened. But, essentially, the rest of her family was completely wiped from the face of the earth.)

So, yes, my former college professor was right to caution me, in his ever-exuberant way. He was the one, after all, who helped me with my search in college and afterward. So for years the book sat upon my shelf, and I always said "this year, I'm going to read it." But I never did. There was too much going on; I was too depressed to find out about another Jewish family, unrelated to mine and yet had suffered a similar fate; I was done with Shoah memoirs for a while, maybe forever (that'll never happen, no matter how many times I tell myself that "this one is the last one"); I wanted to read something that wasn't a tragedy.

And then, suddenly, it was the right time. It's been several years since I found any new information about my family; the trail has long gone cold, and although I do a half-hearted search every so often to see if anything new has popped up, I don't put my whole self into it anymore. They're all dead. I will never know them. And the nightmares that inevitably come when I think about them a great deal are...unpleasant, shall we say.

And this book did produce nightmares; don't get me wrong. But it was rather cathartic, in a way, to read this book, to cry and rage and feel all of the feelings.

Mendelsohn's grandfather left Bolechow, Poland before the war (and subsequent near-annihilation of Polish Jewry). He had one brother, Schmiel, who had also emigrated to America but had, unlike Mendelsohn's grandfather, returned to Bolechow. There he married and had four daughters, while he brought the family's butcher shop back to prominence. None of Schmiel's family survived the war.

Growing up, Mendelsohn heard varied stories of "the lost," of Schmiel and his family. But the stories were different and almost impossible to track down, at that time. As the author grew older, the need to know what happened to Schmiel and his family grew, until he found himself crossing the globe in search of answers, from America to Australia to Poland to Denmark to Sweden. Along the way, he finds much more than he ever expected to find, as well as coming to the realization that finding all of the details about what happened is impossible, especially with so few survivors who are still living.

Mehndelsohn's writing style is different. He tends to be rather "poetic," I suppose I would say, and he is damned fond of run-on sentences. He also expresses, early in the book, a love for how the Greeks (and how his grandfather) told stories - long and winding, with lots of asides in between that, eventually, make sense, but it might be a long way down the road. There were times that I had to read paragraphs several times (often the "paragraph" was just one long run-on sentence) in order for them to make sense. But the story is worth it, and I urge you to persevere.

If you need absolute closure, where you know everything about the major players introduced in the book, once again, this probably isn't for you. It always amazes me when I talk to people about the Shoah, how most think that we have a date and a time and a method of execution for every family member. Some even believe that we had bodies to bury! No, there are still numerous unexcavated mass graves in Poland, the Ukraine, etc, etc. And many bodies were burned, so they are only ashes now. As you can see from my own list of family members who died in the Shoah (below), I only have years. Only for one (my great-grandfather, who was the only NOT killed because of his ethnicity, although he was also Jewish) do I know, in so many words, exactly what happened to him. And the same holds true for Mendelsohn - he knows some details, and he can make some educated guesses, but in the end, what happened is so hazy. As numerous survivors told him, if we KNEW what exactly had happened, we wouldn't be here to talk to you, because we would be dead too.

Another thing that Mendelsohn talks about is the near absolute destruction of Polish (and European) Jewry. I remember talking to someone while I was in college and she was like, "well Hitler didn't win, the Jews are still around!" And yes, we are still around. But we are, for the most part, not "around" in places where, a hundred years ago, there were thriving, close-knit communities in Europe. We are in Israel, America, Australia, etc. Mendelsohn spoke to a few "last Jew of [insert town]," where one lone man or woman is the last living Jew in that area. The Nazis (and their local collaborators, who were numerous) managed to wipe out 90% of Polish Jews. Just imagine that. 90%. And the 10% of survivors? Well, most of them didn't want to return to the area where they had once lived, with their families murdered and their murderers often being the very neighbors that they had once smiled at in the streets and, perhaps, even been friends with, once upon a time. One of the most moving "scenes" for me, I think, was when Mendelsohn visits Prague and the "New Jewish Cemetery," which was a vast tract of land purchased before the Shoah, next to the "Old Jewish Cemetery." The Old Jewish Cemetery is packed with graves, so much so that it motivated the city's Jewish population to buy land to expand it (hence being the "New" Cemetery). That New Jewish Cemetery is virtually barren. There are very few graves there. Why? Because most of the Jews who had expected to be buried there were buried in unmarked mass graves or shipped off to concentration and extermination camps. And their descendants, if they survived, are mostly not in Prague any longer, and will have no need of a cemetery in a foreign land.

As Mendelsohn wrote, "It makes you realize that the Holocaust wasn't something that simply happened, but is an event that's still happening." The repercussions from the Shoah are like so many rings in a pond after you've thrown in a stone. Six million were killed, yes. But many more millions were never born because their would-be parents were murdered. Imagine the art, the books, the literature, the scientific breakthroughs that are missing now from the world. The recipes, the family stories, the picture albums of long dead relatives - all gone, or nearly so. My grandmother, for example, for decades, has been having me try to find a recipe for a dish her mother used to make. I've found a few online, but they don't taste exactly like what she remembers. That recipe is gone. And the family stories, the lullabyes that would have been passed along to my grandmother's children (and perhaps to me), the inside jokes...those are gone, too. I feel that missing piece in the world whenever I think about it, about them.

So yes, for those of us who are descendants of survivors, the wound can still burn. For the survivors themselves? The wound is still raw and bleeding for many of them. I look at my grandmother, who was sent away so young that she barely remembers her half-brothers and half-sister. She has one memory of her father, who was killed when she was barely four. There are "personality traits" that she has - her diagnosed OCD, her absolute need for order and lists, the emotional distance that she has with nearly everyone in her life - that I wonder would be there if she had grown up, happy and carefree, with her siblings and both living parents (or even her mother), instead of at the mercy of strangers (who, she will freely admit, were nothing but kind to her, and whom she kept in regular contact until their deaths; and she kept in touch with their children, as well, until their deaths) where the world that she knew, as she felt, could be taken away from her in an instant. And there is her almost hatred for the French and the Poles (never trust a Pole, I remember her saying to me when I was a small child, they'll stab you in the back AND front), which feels strange, I must admit, considering that she doesn't share the same hatred for Germans (I'm German, she'll proclaim when I question her idiosyncrasy, I can't hate myself. [Her father was German and her mother was Polish, although my grandmother was born and raised in Germany. She did, however, make a few trips to visit her much-older half-siblings, all of whom still lived in Poland except for the youngest, David, who was still a teenager when his mother married my great-grandfather, and moved to Germany.]) Mendelsohn addresses this in the book, too; it seems that it's not just one of my grandmother's "quirks," but something that is not uncommon with survivors.

Mendelsohn does, in the end, manage to track down where Schmiel and one of his daughters dies, and where they were hidden before their deaths. Finding that particular site for him was incredibly emotional. I cannot imagine what it would be like to stand, in my case, at the gates of Auschwitz or Treblinka and know, THIS is the place where they died. Just reading about his emotional breakdown, where he kneels and starts sobbing, made me cry like a baby. I've always been somewhat indifferent about visiting Auschwitz and/or Treblinka. I must admit that my grandmother's warnings about the Poles still ring in the back of my mind, although I know it is completely unfair to judge an entire people by the actions of some (you would think that my grandmother, being Jewish, wouldn't be so quick to judge an entire race...). The whole place feels frightening to me, I have to say. But after reading this book...maybe, someday, I'll want to go there.

I'd highly recommend this book, but do be prepared for an emotional rollercoaster.

May their memories be a blessing:
My great-grandfather, political prisoner (Communist), murdered in 1933
My great-grandmother, deported from France in 1942 (where she fled, probably feeling that she would be safer there than in Germany), presumably gassed immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz due to age/health
My great-uncle David, deported from France in 1942 (who fled from Germany to France with his mother), presumably gassed or otherwise killed in Auschwitz, exact year unknown (perhaps 1942, perhaps later)
My great-uncle Josef, as well as his son and daughter, deported to Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, presumably all deported to Treblinka (if they survived the Ghetto and deportation), where they would have been gassed upon arrival, in 1942
My great-uncle Wolf (or Rolf), last known location in 1939 of Lodz (Poland), fate unknown
My great-aunt Malke, husband Yitzhak, and their four children, deported to Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, presumably all deported to Treblinka (if they survived the Ghetto and deportation), where they would have been gassed upon arrival, in 1942 ( )
1 vote schatzi | Jan 21, 2018 |
Daniel is very close to his mother's father, old-worldly, meticulous and the family story-teller. Daniel learns much from him but, of course, doesn't fully appreciate or understand this treasure until he is older. After his grandfather dies, Daniel researches basic family genealogy. Daniel wonders why such a good story-teller didn’t tell stories about his older brother, Shmiel, his wife and their 4 daughters.

Daniel decides to find and write Shmiel’s story. Over many years he performed multi-faceted research, studied family photos and letters, visited, and spoke with and interviewed family members as well as strangers from Bolechow who knew a little something about Shmiel, Esther or their daughters, or who had ‘witnessed’ or ‘heard about’ an occurrence to Shmiel, Esther or their daughters. Daniel pieced together not just their pre-mature, abrupt, horrific murders by the Nazis and Ukrainians but the beauty of their friendships and daily lives. Mendelsohn’s thoughts and feelings coalesced into a greater understanding of his grandfather’s hidden anguish and guilt, and the unwillingness to speak of Shmiel, the brother he couldn’t save.

Using analysis of the weekly Parshiot read in synagogue on Shabbat to counterbalance his family’s painful story is brilliant. Especially meaningful to Daniel are the Torah segments about divisiveness between brothers; perhaps because Daniel had broken his brother, Matthew’s arm when young. And perhaps because he realized the guilt his grandfather suffered.

I both enjoyed and was saddened by everything Daniel shared but did feel the book ran on too long. ( )
  Bookish59 | Feb 27, 2017 |
I read The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn a few years after it was first published in 2006. It was a very powerful book. I learned quite a bit. It was the kind of book that stayed with you. When Audiobook Jukebox offered a copy of the audiobook narrated by Bronson Pinchot, i requested it. It had been years since I read the book so I would refamiliarize myself with the story while enjoying the narration of Bronson Pinchot. It did not quite work out as planned.

Daniel Mendelsohn grew up surrounded by older relatives who survived the Holocaust either because they got out of Europe in time or by luck or divine intervention they survived the Nazi’s. Daniel knew this. He knew about the events of World War II. What he did not know if why elderly relatives would begin to cry when they saw him and mention he looked like a person Daniel did not know. Shmiel Jäger was Daniel’s great uncle. Shmiel, his wife, and four daughters did not survive the Holocaust. When they died, how they died and why they died were not know. The only know was “they were killed by the Nazis.”

The Lost is the story of Daniel learning of his lost family and as adult his quest to find them. They were not “killed by the Nazis” of meticulous records. They were not all killed at the same time or the same place. In his quest to find their fates, Daniel and his family learned an incredible amount. They learned about Ukrainians who turned in neighbors. They learned about Poles who hid Jews. They learned about the non-Jews who lost their lives trying to save lives. They learned about the unending cruelty that accompanied the last moments of so many people. The hardback edition contains photographs from the author’s family. There is a certain level of heartbreak, which thank whatever Gods you believe in we do not experience often, on seeing two smiling teen girls and knowing their death will come before they experience love, marriage, and motherhood.

When I read the book, it was powerful. I expected the audiobook to be the same. It was not. Bronson Pinchot’s narration is masterful and devastating. Pinchot is fantastic at the accents. Whether it is Daniel’s mother’s New York accent or his grandfather’s Yiddish, they are clear and believable. The voices, whether male or female, old or young, are very well done. He creates Daniel’s voice but he also creates so much more. He infuses every word with emotion. But there is a power within Pinchot’s narration that the listener must be prepared for. I was driving and thankfully could pull over for a moment. When Pinchot describes what they believe happened to his one relative, a teenage girl, who was rounded up by the Ukrainians at the direction of the Nazi authorities, held with a thousand other people, naked, without food or water or access to facilities, made to watch their rabbi have his eyes cut out and a cross carved on his chest, then taken to the forest where group by group they walked onto a plank over a pit, to be shot and if God was merciful, they died immediately; if not they lay wounded under covered by other bodies and eventually earth. That was difficult to read. Pinchot’s narration contains so much rage, sadness, and horror that it is devastating to hear. Bronson Pinchot should have the 2016 Audie just for that passage alone. If you have to chose between reading The Lost or listening to Pinchot’s narration, take the narration. The power of his performance will stay with you. ( )
  nhalliwell | Nov 13, 2016 |
The Lost is a very long and rich book, well worth the investment of time to read it. I'm not sure everyone would like The Lost as much as my husband and I do, but we both think it is superb and one-of-a-kind. In it, the author, a relative of a family of six who were killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, in their little native town in Poland, represent the six million Jews who perished. Each had a specific personality and life story, and death story too, and Daniel Mendelsohn, a writer, out of curiosity, respect, and love for his grandfather, brother of the patriarch of the slaughtered family determines to find these things out and write them down. He succeeds to a large (and very moving) extent. So the book is the story of the six, and of the six million - it is a history, a multi-biography, a witness; it deals with the ups and downs of historical research, of the vagaries of language and the limitations of language, it tells of victims, survivors and unimaginable evil, it even goes back to the Bible to bring up the genesis faith stories. Really a wonderful book. ( )
  MarthaHuntley | Aug 31, 2016 |
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Mendelsohn verdient grote waardering voor zijn intensieve speurtocht en zijn pogen leven en lijden van 6 van de 6 miljoen concreet vorm te geven, maar jammer is het dat hij in zijn weergave van ontmoetingen en gesprekken de eigen persoon te veel op de voorgrond plaatst, te vaak tussen de lezer en het eigenlijke verhaal in gaat staan en zich hierbij verliest in talloze en overbodige details. Deze kritiek laat de waarde van dit boek als een aangrijpend menselijk document echter onverlet.
 

» Add other authors (5 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mendelsohn, Danielprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mendelsohn, MattPhotographersecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Costigliola, GiuseppeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schönfeld, EikeÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vlek, RonaldTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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sunt lacrimae rerum
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Some time ago, when I was six or seven or eight years old, it would occasionally happen that I'd walk into a room and certain people would begin to cry.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0060542993, Paperback)

Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost is the deeply personal account of a search for one family among his larger family, the one barely spoken of, only to say they were "killed by the Nazis." Mendelsohn, even as a boy, was always the one interested in his family's history, but when he came upon a set of letters from his great uncle Schmiel, pleading for help from his American relatives as the Nazi grip on the lives of Jews in their Polish town became tighter and tighter, he set out to find what had happened to that lost family. The result is both memoir and history, an ambitious and gorgeously meditative detective story that takes him across the globe in search of the lost threads of these few almost forgotten lives.

A whole culture lies behind the story Mendelsohn tells, and a lifetime of reading as well. For our Grownup School feature, he has given us a tour of some of the books behind his own, in a list he calls 10 Great Novels of Family History, the Holocaust, New York Jewish Life (And Other Things That Helped Me Write My Book). And you can watch his own moving introduction to the book in this short video:


Watch Daniel Mendelsohn introduce The Lost: high bandwidth or low bandwidth

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:14 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

The author describes how his family was haunted by the disappearance of six relatives during the Holocaust and how he embarked on a determined search to find the remaining eyewitnesses to his lost ancestors' fates.

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