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Arts and Entertainment

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn

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The LA Times has nominated five books in each of nine different categories for the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. In the weeks leading up to the Festival of Books where the winners will be announced, LAist will take a quick look at each category and will wax poetic on a few favorites (or least favorites) along the way. The Lost is a nominee in Biography.

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In any family, the stories that are only hinted at are the most intriguing, especially to the intelligent child who stays quiet so he or she can hear the grownups talk. In The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, the exacting critic Daniel Mendelsohn – that thoughtful child grown up – unburies the dead: disinterring the barely-known history of his grandfather’s oldest brother, Shmiel Jäger, his wife, and their four daughters, all of whom perished in Poland after 1939.

The Lost presents the reader with a challenge, because it is painful to be so captivated by a tragedy. No matter how much Mendelsohn is able to discover about the Jägers, the fact remains that they suffered terribly, and the inevitability of their deaths is a dark shadow that hangs over this book.

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As Mendelsohn grew up, he knew which questions to avoid when asking his grandfather about the family’s history; he never asked about Shmiel.

…even later, it was hard to imagine just how they had been killed, to grasp the details, the specifics. When? Where? How? With guns? In the gas chamber? But my grandfather wouldn’t say. Only later did I understand that he wouldn’t say because he didn’t know, or at least didn’t know enough, and that the not knowing, in part, was what tormented him.

In The Lost, Mendelsohn describes the search that, after years of speculation, he began in earnest in 2000. He circumnavigates the globe, often accompanied by one of his siblings, as he peels back layers of truth, half truth, and supposition. He discovers former citizens of Bolechòw, his grandfather’s town, in Israel, Sweden, and Australia. He collects often-contradictory clues about how Shmiel Jäger and his family perished, and he learns how to parse these remnants.

Through diligence, persistence, and patience - especially in contemporary Bolechòw, where few are willing to talk - Mendelsohn roots out as much as he can, with the help of what might be called luck but is perhaps more a synchronicity created by his determined stirring up of the past. And in doing so he becomes the ur-storyteller, the only one who can assemble what remains of the whole story.

Among Mendelsohn's achievements in this book is the nuanced appreciation he develops for life in prewar Bolechòw - then in Poland, now in Ukraine - where Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians lived together in the distrustful and multidimensional interdependence that characterized life in the provinces, a precarious existence that was pushed over the edge by the threat, and then the presence, of the Nazis. During his search he learns to live with uncertainty; regardless of what he is able to learn, he understands that he will never know everything that happened to the Jägers.

The Lost succeeds both as a personal memoir of the author's search for his family, and as a narrative about the Holocaust. Mendelsohn personalizes this tragedy by sharing details of the lives of Shmiel and Ester and their daughters Lorka, Frydka, Ruchele, and Bronia. By depicting them so successfully in life, he leads the reader to feel their losses keenly.

But Mendelsohn has more to say. He is suspicious of the pathos of a traditional tragedy, and reserves ownership of the story for those who lived it.

...precisely because I had never known or seen them I was reminded the more forcefully that they had been specific people with specific deaths, and those lives and deaths belonged to them, not me, no matter how gripping the story that may be told about them.

To call The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million moving is to understate the case. Mendelsohn has particularized the Holocaust by reminding us that each one of the 6 million Jews who perished was an individual who walked around this earth, had likes and dislikes, and was valued by others. Only when we appreciate the impossibility of wrapping our heads around that fact can we begin to grasp its immensity.