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The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million

1 rating: 1.0
A book by Daniel Mendelsohn

Noted critic and classicist Daniel Mendelsohn never knew his uncle Shmiel, who died in the Holocaust, but family members who did never forgot him, and they spoke about him to Daniel, who was moved enough to begin a search to learn of the fate of his … see full wiki

Author: Daniel Mendelsohn
Genre: History, Biography & Autobiography, Religion, Reference
Publisher: Perennial
Date Published: September 01, 2007
1 review about The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million

Weak in parts strong in others, a few steps higher than mediocre

  • Nov 9, 2006
Pros: Biblical analysis

Cons: Unnecessary imaginary romps through the horrors of the Holocaust

The Bottom Line: Decent book, not necessarily worth hardback cost, wait for paperback. Recommended with reservations.

First, since it is the first thing you see if you look at the book in a bookstore, it is a beautifully presented work. The dust jacket contains the title, author, publisher as nearly all dust jackets do, but this one is mostly see-through but milky, like a cataract. The binding is glossy and has a collage of pictures on the front binding with a void of white in the center. The back is mostly white with train tracks in a muddy field taking up the bottom few inches. The presentation of the book before you open it is the leitmotif for this work.

The work itself is more problematic than the presentation; it isn’t bad, but it does have some significant problems.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million is a family journey. By all counts, Dr. Mendelsohn’s family was not as affected by the Holocaust as most who write books—this is refreshing at first, but then becomes something else as you keep reading. His closest family (basically moving back 2 full generations) either moved to America or to Palestine (as it was called then) leaving only one great uncle, his wife, and four daughters in the disputed territory that was sometimes in the Ukraine or in Poland depending on who was winning what war. The 500 pages cover the search from its inklings in Dr. Mendelsohn’s adulthood to find out what happened to his six relatives to the end (about which I will remain silent).

From first to last it is part The Historian, though much better written. By this I mean that a Classics professor who lives in an Upper East Side apartment and whose family is fully rooted on Long Island takes trips to exotic places learning all he can about the history of someone he never knew. He logs time going to the Ukraine twice, Lithuania, Denmark, Australia, Israel twice, and Sweden. In each place he learns both a little more and a little less of what he seeks—as with all complex stories whose beginnings were more than half a century ago, memories are going to differ. The Lost is also like Everything Is Illuminated. Each character, Daniel in this book or Jonathan in Everything Is Illuminated is so deeply fascinated by their own families that what it creates isn’t a journey so much as an obsession with wings. Where Jonathan picked up tangible detritus that belonged to or represented the people whose history he was collecting, Daniel is picking up intangible detritus in the way of spoken information.

Here is where the problem exists for me. Vonnegut created the phrase “so it goes” in Slaughterhouse Five to mark the end or death of things. This phrase is mostly darkly comic and, once or twice, a way to be sarcastic about something truly horrible. Dr. Mendelsohn’s analog to this is “impossible to know.” The Lost is a book of half a thousand pages of explanations of things that the author insists, often, are impossible to know. I had two reactions to this, both negative. The first is, well DUH, all of history is like that, we do our best to piece together a narrative based on as much objectivity as possible, but we will never truly know. The second is a bit harder to describe. Despite saying that what he seeks is impossible to know, he writes multiple conjectures about how his relatives died based on what we know in general of the Holocaust. Because he does this, he commits a type of misdemeanor for writers about the Holocaust: he spends too much time on the horror of details just for the sake of doing it—a type of prurience whose focus isn’t sexual but violent; however you look at it, it is gratuitous given our knowledge of the Holocaust in general. (I’ve written two previous reviews about a documentary and a book covering the so-called Final Solution and both of them were very careful not to delve into the morass of violence whose telling isn’t necessary given our knowledge of the multitude of incidents and facts.)

Here is an example: “So:the rattling bursts of gunfire, the cold, the shivering. At some point it was her turn, she walked with the others onto the plank. Likely this plank had some give, perhaps it bounded a little as they lined up: an incongruously playful motion. Then another burst of fire. Did she hear it? Was the fervent activity of her mind at this moment such that she didn’t really hear; or by contrast, were her ears exquisitely attuned, waiting? We cannot know. We only know that her soft, sixteen-year-old body—which with any luck was lifeless at this point, although we know that some were still alive when they fell with a wet thud onto the warm and bleeding, excrement-smeared bodies of their fellow townsfolk—fell into the grave, and that is the last we see of her; although we have, of course, not really seen her at all.”

First, he says “we cannot know” yet he goes into a disgustingly detailed description of something that only might have happened. Further, he says, after going through all that, that we really haven’t seen her at all. This is the misdemeanor that approaches felony. Not only is the reader grossed out in a way that isn’t all necessary, but we have no idea if any of this really happened to his cousin. If that isn’t the definition of gratuitous, then there isn’t a definition for it.

Fortunately he moves away from this as the book goes on and it settles down into a better narrative.

The parts I liked most were the analyses that Dr. Mendelsohn gives to the Torah. The book itself is divided into the parashat (divisions of the book of Genesis) like the first book of the Hebrew Bible itself. Dr. Mendelsohn contrasts a contemporary commentator with one from the 14th century and adds his own opinions. These were, by far, the most interesting parts of the book and the stuff in between is something I tolerated in anticipation of the next parashat analysis.

Dr. Mendelsohn uses language well and, towards the end, very poetically. So by the time I got deep in the 400’s the language flowed very well. The rest of the book isn’t weak, but it doesn’t stand up to the quality of the final couple of score of pages.

One final note. Dr. Mendelsohn’s brother, Matt, took photographs for the book. These photos have no captions at all and the picture may be dozens of pages removed from its description. I have no idea what the motive is for this, but it is maddening to have a photo with no real reference.

I recommend it with reservations as mentioned above.


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