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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.