Sunday, September 17, 2006

David Walton

Daniel Mendelsohn’s medi tative family memoir “The Lost” is, as its subtitle indicates, “a search for six of the six million” eastern European Jews who died in the Holocaust: the brother, sister-in-law and four nieces of the author’s maternal grandfather, who stayed behind in the ancestral Polish-Ukraine town of Bolechow while the rest of the family immigrated to America.

“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” the author begins, his starting point being his resemblance to Shmiel Jaeger, his grandfather’s brother, whose story Mendelsohn picks up through “scraps of whispers, fragments of conversations that I knew I wasn’t supposed to hear.”

As an American teenager, Mendelsohn develops an interest in family history and the family ties to eastern Europe. He inherits his grandfather’s billfold, and there he finds a cache of letters, pleading and increasingly desperate, from the brother in Poland.

Had his grandfather failed to answer these pleas? Had he left Shmiel and his family to their fate – and forever after lived with guilt for their deaths?

Mendelsohn, a classicist and an award-winning book critic and essayist, has devoted a lifetime to this research, and five years to the writing of this book, and one of its appeals for first- and second-generation Holocaust survivors will be his reverence for the perished European culture and tradition. “The Lost” carries the tradition into a third generation, which has no direct ties to that earlier place and time.

Non-Jewish readers drawn to their own genealogy and cultural roots will find in Mendelsohn’s quest a familiar parallel, with its unexpected turns and revelations and chance breakthroughs – the old woman accidentally met on the street of a Polish village, who unlocks the door to a mystery already two generations old.

That mystery, and the story it unfolds, is the core of this book, and it is tragic and heartbreaking but, in the retelling, achieves its own eventual justice. In the course of researching this story, Mendelsohn, along with his siblings, traveled to Ukraine, Australia, Israel, Stockholm and Copenhagen.

His book is long, more than 500 pages, and in its action alone could have been much briefer. But the scale and resonance, the very character of the story Mendelsohn tells, lies in these “elaborations” – the mulling over a single detail, a single word, the “ringlike technique of storytelling” that harks back to the Greeks and Hebrews. In doing so, he evokes the richness of that lost culture – its resiliency and its sad foreknowledge. “The Lost” is an extraordinary book, and in its breadth and uniqueness of vision, is one of the exceptional books of this year.

Walton is a novelist and critic in Pittsburgh.

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