“I’m pleased with what I know, but now I think much more about everything I could have known, which was so much more than anything I can learn now and which now is gone forever,” Daniel Mendelsohn writes in The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, a memoir of his journey to find ancestors who disappeared during the Holocaust.
Mendelsohn, a New York Times bestselling author of eight non-fiction books, begins thinking about the six lost relatives in his family after his bar mitzvah, a quest that takes years and thousands of miles around the globe to speak to survivors who knew his family. “…my bar mitzvah made me more aware of what it was to be Jewish than any comprehension of the words I was saying, that day in April 1973, could have done.”
His grandfather’s stories spark Mendelsohn’s fixation with genealogy and offer valuable information about life in the old country, Bolechow, Poland. Through these tales that digress and eventually wind around memories like coiled wire, his grandfather’s voice comes alive, and he’s an integral part of Mendelsohn’s relatable narrative.
These are the six people who have haunted Mendelsohn’s thoughts, to the point of obsession, for decades: Shmiel Jager (his grandfather’s brother), Ester (Shmiel’s wife), and their four daughters, Leah, Frydka, Ruchele, and Bronia. Curiously, Mendelsohn’s grandfather never mentions their names, or any of the dead lost in the Holocaust. Mendelsohn, therefore, like so many of us immersed in the pursuit of names, dates, and places, has little information to go on. His search, organized into five parts within the book, starting with Bereishit, or (Beginnings), and ending with Vayeira, or (The Tree in the Garden), could be seen as a how-to guide for Jewish genealogy.
But The Lost is much more than this; it’s a history of Polish Jews, an exploration of Parashah (weekly Torah portion) within the context of his family, and it’s Mendelsohn’s personal story, his way of absorbing the meaning of the Holocaust and his own Judaism through the people who came before him. This review will focus on Mendelsohn’s genealogical process, which may help readers formulate their own progressions.
Mendelsohn’s search begins with letters to living relatives in the United States and Europe, people who survived The War and knew Shmiel’s family. Next, he went to the New York City archives for copies of birth certificates, cemetery data and locations, and information about the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. He visited the Red Cross, which has been tracking the whereabouts of Jewish Holocaust survivors since the end of The War, and filled out missing person forms of relatives to be traced. Unfortunately, the Red Cross found nobody he’d been looking for.
When Mendelsohn had accumulated a number of facts, he logged on to www.jewishgen.org, and combed through the Social Security Death Index, the Ellis Island Databases, and Family Finder boards. At this point, having exhausted all sources available in the United States, he began preparing for a trip back to his ancestral home: Bolechow. He read a memoir by someone who’d lived there during World War II, and makes a point that resonates with me in my search for Jewish ancestors: “It is important to avoid the temptation to ventriloquize, to ‘imagine and then describe’ something for which there is no parallel in our experience of life.”
On his expeditions to Poland, Israel, Sweden, Latvia, and Australia, Mendelsohn writes honestly and openly about challenges we all face in the search for ancestors: the frustration of dead ends, not having enough details to make it real, and the problems of re-creating the past. He wants to know the people, their personalities, habits, flaws, but all he has are, “snatches of handwriting” and “posed, formal photos…I was rich in photos and keepsakes, but poor in memories and stories.”
The more I read, the more Mendelsohn’s thoughts and words reminded me of my own search. His “obsession” with finding every speck of information he could, and his determination to get to the truth. How he “greedily devoured” family stories, and wants to bear witness for those who have no descendants to speak for them: “I want to preserve what you remember,” he says to an elderly woman he’s interviewing. “That’s the whole point.”
The Lost has compelled me to keep digging, to cast my net further afield, with future searches in Siberia, Israel, and Belarus. It’s given me important tools to make my quest more successful. And Mendelsohn’s passion for finding the people who came before him, validates my fascination with the past and the people who shaped me.
Shelly Sanders resides in Ontario, Canada. She is the author of three novels and was a finalist for the prestigious Vine Award for Jewish Fiction in Canada. As a freelance journalist, she has published articles in both mainstream and Jewish periodicals and newspapers.