“The Lesson Will Live”: Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey

One of the strange things about teaching is that you can never know what your effect will be on others; can never know, if you have something to teach, who your real students will be, the ones who will take what you have to give and make it their own . . . can never really  know which of the young people clustered around the seminar table is someone whom the teacher or the text has touched so deeply, for whatever reason, that the lesson will live beyond the classroom, beyond you.

The subtitle of Daniel Mendelsohn’s new book is “A Father, a Son, and an Epic.” The book is, or does, many things at once: it is an accessible introduction to the Odyssey, recounting its main stories as well as explicating its structure and major themes; it is an inquiry into the relationship between Mendelsohn and his father, Jay, as well as into parts of Jay’s individual history previously unknown or misunderstood by his son; it is also a reflection on teaching and learning, prompted by Jay’s attendance at Mendelsohn’s Bard College seminar on the Odyssey but extending far beyond that occasion to broader questions about the purpose, value, and methods of education; it is a travel narrative about the Mediterranean cruise Jay and Daniel take after the seminar called “Retracing the Odyssey“; it is an exposé, too, though a quiet one, of the conflicting feelings a grown man can have towards the man who raised him–mingled love and anger, resentment and gratitude–and the story of his effort to move beyond those fraught and immediate emotions to a different kind of recognition.

I loved An Odyssey. I have had my doubts about the genre to which it belongs–the “bibliomemoir”–because I worry that we are too prone these days to subordinate literature to our own personalities. Although I ended up appreciating Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch a lot more than the earlier essay that began the project, still, I ended it feeling I had not learned anything about Middlemarch, or seen any great insight about the novel on display, and also that Mead had been disappointingly reticent about her own life, reserving her privacy, smoothing the rough edges, making both life and reading sound easier than Middlemarch itself ever does. An Odyssey struck me as a riskier book, in its treatment of both the Odyssey and the father-son relationship that motivates it. Perhaps because Mendelsohn projects such assurance as a critic and an intellectual, I was surprised and impressed at the vulnerability that comes across here–at his ready admissions of fault, of uncertainty, of occasional lapses of generosity, and of neediness, especially for his father’s approval. “Let me finish,” Jay says one day in seminar, cutting Daniel off

in a tone I recognized from many years earlier . . . the dismissive rhythm of his argument, the jackhammer emphasis on certain words, familiar from other, much-older arguments, arguments whose climactic, clinching phrases I could remember years later, Oh, what do you know, that’s just a college-boy argument or Trust me, I know what I’m talking about, numbers aren’t your strong point. And now: It’s really just the gods.

You can tell how much young Daniel hated being overruled in this way, and how that old grievance infects the present moment as Jay puts his authority ahead of his son the teacher’s. But interlaced with that lingering anger is something more wistful that comes out when Mendelsohn, looking at his father lying very ill in the hospital, thinks about “him saying to me, after the lecture about [Cavafy’s] ‘Ithaca,’ something I’d yearned so often to hear from him when I was a boy, and didn’t: You did good, Dan.”

Theirs is not an easy relationship, and the more I learned about it the more the idea of bringing it into the classroom struck me as brave, on both sides but especially–perhaps because I too am a teacher–on Mendelsohn’s. He tells the students in advance that his father will be sitting in, “so his presence on the first day of class wouldn’t be a distraction.” Jay has promised, however, that he’s just going to observe, not participate: “I’m just gonna sit there and listen.” Mendelsohn never explicitly says as much, but it’s easy to imagine that, to him, this seemed a bit like payback: this would be his class, his room, his rules, his authority. On the very first day, however, his father puts his hand up and makes both his presence and his rather contrarian opinions felt: “‘Hero’? I don’t think he’s a hero at all,” he says about Odysseus, and from then on he is a regular contributor who not only engages vigorously with the Odyssey but changes the whole classroom dynamic, because Jay’s parental claims can sideline Mendelsohn’s professional role.

It’s not that Mendelsohn expects total control over his students, though often reading his accounts of the seminar meetings–his leading questions, his attempts to steer the students, delicately or directly, to see what he sees in the text, his occasional frustration when they don’t get it, or go in a different direction–I was struck by how subtly coercive the process of teaching literature inevitably is, for all of us, in spite of our best intentions. It’s not as simply dictatorial as insisting on one finite interpretation, or it shouldn’t be; it’s more like coaching, using your experience and expertise to model and guide and illustrate, so that your students can join you in a common understanding, a shared and hopefully a mutual experience of insight. Still, we’ve all been reading the texts we teach (and reading about them) for a long time, and our interpretations do and should carry some weight: there’s a reason we’ve settled on them, even if we don’t imagine they are absolutely definitive. I admired Mendelsohn’s honesty about the difficult balance required in teaching between open-mindedness and certitude, and about how hard it can be to deal fairly with a new idea from a student that you aren’t prepared for or initially convinced by. In that situation, it is easy to come across as either dogmatic or defensive or both, as one of his students clearly finds Mendelsohn at one point:

Then Jack blurted, I’m sorry, Professor, I don’t mean to offend you. I don’t. But sometimes–right now I have the impression that you have some interpretation in your head that you think is the right one, and you want to lead us to see things your way, and you just sort of squash anything that doesn’t fit that interpretation. I think this idea is pretty cool actually.

Much later in the book, Mendelsohn connects this moment to something one of his own professors said to him: “You’re so fixated on your own ideas that you don’t see what’s right in front of your face.” He connects this to his seminar experience:

Suddenly I thought, I’ve done it again–I’ve been doing it all semester. Again and again, I’d been so intent on having the kids see things my way, so fixated on making sure that the interpretations I had absorbed as a student would be the ones that they took away, too, that I’d seen their resistances, their failures to notice what I wanted them to notice, as a problem, rather than as a solution–as a way to see something I’d never noticed myself.

At that point, he’s also thinking about the different ways he has interpreted his father over the years, about the difficulty he still has integrating the varied and conflicting versions of this man he has known for so long but realizes he may never really know. This, he concludes (though we can also infer this is where the book began, as an idea) is also one of the lessons of the Odyssey:

A father makes his son out of his flesh and out of his mind and then shapes him with his ambitions and dreams, with his cruelties and failures, too. But a son, although he is of his father, cannot know his father totally, because the father precedes him; his father has always already lived so much more than the son has, so that the son can never catch up, can never know everything. No wonder the Greeks thought that few sons are the equals of their fathers; that most fall short, all too few surpass them. It’s not about value; it’s about knowledge. The father knows the son whole, but the son can never know the father.

I thought, No wonder Odysseus can’t lie to Laertes at the end of the poem.

But the quest for knowledge itself is a learning experience; that’s one of the lessons of An Odyssey, and the book shows that one of the rewards will be self-knowledge.

I wondered as I read if I enjoyed An Odyssey partly because I have never read the Odyssey, so in contrast to my reading of My Life in Middlemarch, in my reading of Mendelsohn’s book I was in a student-like position myself. I have always enjoyed hearing passionate experts, and Mendelsohn’s love for his subject makes the discussions of the Odyssey positively hum with energy. I worried that my own ignorance would be an impediment to my pleasure, but while I might have enjoyed the book even more if I had read Homer, it’s possible that the opposite is true: the book is clearly written with people like me in mind, and I don’t know if someone familiar with the Odyssey would find much of interest in the analysis, or perhaps would take issue with some of the interpretations. I thought at first the book might inspire me to read Homer for myself at long last–but in the end both the quotations and Mendelsohn’s commentary made me think I might not like it very much, or be very good at it. The idea of its “ring composition,” for instance, is compelling in theory, but must be quite baffling, even frustrating, in practice, at first. (The irony is not lost on me that I am saying this and yet in just a couple of weeks I will be waxing eloquent to my own students about the web-like narrative structure of Middlemarch!) Perhaps, like Jay, I need to sit in on a seminar, both for motivation and for elucidation.

I might never get around to that, but at least I take away from An Odyssey a much richer sense than I had before of the Odyssey, an appreciation for it in itself as well as for what it is like to immerse oneself in its questions, stories, and ideas–about heroism, about fathers and sons, about life and death and traveling and loving and grieving. An Odyssey is a probing and often touching memoir, but the pedagogical impulse runs through all of it. “You never do know, really,” Mendelsohn rightly observes, “where education will lead; who will be listening and, in certain cases, who will be doing the teaching.” That’s the fundamental uncertainty that teaches us, as teachers, humility. If one of his hopes, in writing this book, is that “the lesson will live beyond the classroom,” it seems to me that he has surely succeeded.

“He had survived”: Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken

unbrokenI finished Unbroken last night in a good long stretch of reading — it’s a testament to the inherent drama of the story and the pace, if not necessarily the style, of its telling that I wasn’t tempted away from it by the myriad distractions that are always lurking. And this is in spite of knowing more or less how it turns out, since it’s no secret that Louis Zamperini survived his many ordeals. The title itself is kind of a spoiler too, isn’t it? But it’s also a key to Hillenbrand’s theme, and probably to the book’s commercial success: Unbroken seems somehow such an archetypal American success story, with its athlete-turned-soldier hero facing both physical and spiritual hardships, refusing to bow down to tyranny, and ultimately triumphing while learning to give thanks to God. It would be a string of clichés if it weren’t all true!

Even knowing the story was true didn’t keep me from sometimes feeling its details were just a bit too pat, and I ended up feeling that there was something overdetermined, not about Zamperini’s experience (which wouldn’t make any sense) but about his story being the one Hillenbrand tells. I was glad when, late in the book, she alludes to a feature of the book that is at once inevitable and problematic: talking about Allen Phillips, who also survived the crash of their B-24, who drifted across the ocean and into captivity along with Louie, and who then lived through an equally hellish captivity, Hillenbrand says,

He never returned to Japan, and he seemed, outwardly, free of resentment. The closest thing to it was the flicker of irritation that people thought they saw in him when he was, almost invariably, treated as a trivial footnote in what was celebrated as Louie’s story.

There’s nothing wrong in principle, of course, with focusing on one man among many, and the celebrity sparkle of Louie’s Olympic history makes him a natural choice, but even in Unbroken we meet a lot of other soldiers whose stories sound like they deserve their own books, and many of their stories are in fact literally condensed into footnotes, and after a while the spotlight on Louie started to seem pretty arbitrary to me. I don’t mean in any way to diminish his courage, but I wasn’t convinced that his story really was as extraordinary as all that, given the company he clearly kept.

I realize this isn’t really a fair criticism: Hillenbrand’s book simply is about Louie — he’s her protagonist, and why not? Focusing on him also lets her do things that a historical, rather than biographical, approach could not: although she does tell us quite a bit about the larger numbers and broader contexts, zooming in on the harrowing experience of one individual keeps things personal. It’s precisely the strategy often heralded in historical novels — it’s exactly what, to pick a non-random example, The Narrow Road to the Deep North does. Or Waverley, which Carlyle praised for teaching us that “the by-gone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state-papers, and abstractions of men.” Or, for that matter, All Quiet on the Western Front. Instead of soldiers, we get one particular soldier, and that helps us grasp just what the war was like. (To be fair to Hillenbrand, too, she does try to do justice, if only in passing, to the other men whose stories are incidental to her main narrative, especially Phillips.)

thelostEven granting that it’s perfectly legitimate to single out one person, one story, though, I think Hillenbrand could have made something more — something greater — out of her materials if she’d made that selectivity a more self-conscious part of her book. Unbroken is a really competent account of Zamperini’s war-time experiences, but that’s all it is. Given the research and other labor involved in putting it together, that’s still an accomplishment. But once I started thinking about the stories not told, I couldn’t help comparing Hillenbrand’s fairly pedestrian result (philosophically, intellectually) with Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, which also focuses on one story at the expense of many, many others, but which is always aware, even haunted, by its own exclusions. Here’s what I said in my post on The Lost,

Early in the book Mendelsohn points out that “it is naturally more appealing to readers to absorb the meaning of a vast historical event through the story of a single family.” Such, clearly, is the strategy of this book. And yet we are often reminded, because Mendelsohn too is often reminded (sometimes, deservedly, harshly), that in focusing so exclusively on six of six million, others whose lives were equally “specific” are being sidelined, turned into secondary characters. He interviews Jack Greene, “born Grunschlag,” who once dated Ruchele:

I can tell you, he began, that Ruchele perished on the twenty-ninth of October 1941.

I was startled, and immediately afterward moved, by the specificity of this memory.

I said, Now let me just ask you, why–because you remember the date so specifically–why do you remember the date?

As I wrote down Ruchele–>Oct 29 1941, I thought to myself, He must have really loved her.

Jack said, Because my mother and older brother perished on the same day.

I said nothing. We are each of us, I realized, myopic; always at the center of our own stories.

There is no way, of course, to include every story, but Mendelsohn’s strategy of frequently spiralling away from the “main” narrative, following memories and anecdotes as they come into his mind or come from those he is interviewing, is a constant reminder that each story we do hear is one branch on a vast spreading tree. The sheer scope of the horror and loss would be overwhelming even if it were possible to represent it all, so instead we get glimpses, again and again, so that like Mendelsohn himself, though we are focusing on the Jagers, we can never forget that there were many, many others.

The Lost is a very different book from Unbroken — in many ways, but especially in its attempt to do more than simply reconstruct a series of events. Instead, it uses those events, and Mendelsohn’s own attempts to find out about them, as opportunities for deeper explorations into questions of memory, loss, and meaning. I think The Lost is a truly great book; Unbroken just tells a good (gripping, sometimes shocking, neatly uplifting) story. I don’t think Hillenbrand tried and failed to do more — rather than faulting her for her straightforward journalistic approach, I’m really expressing my renewed appreciation for what else nonfiction can do.

This Week in My Classes: Term Limits and New Ideas

Arcimbolo LibrarianThis was the last week of fall term classes for us, which means concluding remarks and exam review and conferences about term papers — and then, beginning Monday, an influx of papers and exams to be marked, final grades to be calculated, and everything to be filed away and tidied up. I have an exam from 7-10 p.m. on the very last day of the exam period, which means I won’t be all done for quite a while yet.

It’s always bittersweet when the term ends. I put a lot of time and thought into preparing for each class hour, and a lot of energy goes into each actual meeting, which means I spend most of the term in a strange blend of panic and euphoria. When we’re done, I genuinely miss the buzz of meeting my students face to face and seeing what we can do with our material: even when a session doesn’t go particularly well, the challenge of it is definitely stimulating, and this year my mystery class especially was just a whole lot of fun. When a lot of smart students are really engaged and keeping me on my toes, it’s amazing how fast 50 minutes can go by! But I don’t miss the relentless pace of it all. What a relief it is to be home on a Friday night and be relaxing without the haunting awareness that by Sunday at the latest I have to be turning towards work again: the work I have to do for the next couple of weeks really can be managed in something more like regular office-job hours — unless I want to do a little puttering here and there evenings and weekends. I’m hoping that means I’ll be able to get some momentum on some reading and writing projects I’ve been deferring over the term. Ideally, I’ll get enough done that I can keep going on them when the winter term begins. This may mean not writing for the January issue Open Letters: much as I like to contribute, my recent pieces have not been entirely in line with my other writing priorities (especially the book on George Eliot I’m trying to conceptualize).

But as a wise woman once said, every limit is a beginning as well as an ending, and even as this term is winding down, things are heating up for the winter term, which starts exactly one month from today. Inquiries have been coming in about the waiting list for my intro section and about the readings for my 4th-year seminar; I’ve started roughing out my syllabi and I’ve got blank course spaces set up on Blackboard, with the goal of having materials ready for students well before the end of the month (in the spirit of ‘hit the ground running’).

And as if that isn’t enough, we’ve already had to organize our slate of classes for next year, and it won’t be long before we are asked to send in preliminary course descriptions and book lists, for promotional purposes. It usually makes me kind of cranky to be asked about next academic year when this one is still very much a work in progress, but on the other hand, the future is such a hopeful place to be! Drafting and redrafting possible book lists for the next incarnation of the Dickens-t0-Hardy course is pretty fun, and frustrations with this year’s assignments sequences are easier to handle when I think about them as learning experiences for next year’s New and Improved versions. (You can look forward to more posts about how I’m going to do everything different and better, especially the reading journals for the 19thC novels class.)

Looking even further ahead, I’ve been thinking more about the question of whether or what our students read outside of class and the perfectly reasonable point that we assign so dang much reading (ahem) that at least during the term it’s pretty challenging for them to be engaged in the book world more widely, even if that’s something they want. Of course, one reason I started this blog was because I was trying to figure out how to build some kind of relationship between my own academic reading and writing and that wider culture — and it has occurred to me that an obvious way to translate this impulse into pedagogy is to dream up a course that does something of the same thing, perhaps by combining assigned readings with readings students choose ‘from the field’ (books and reviews), and then requiring both standard essay assignments and different kinds of reports and reviews. It could be called “Books in the World” or something. Would this be a good first-year class? Or are the actual demands of any good book writing such that it would be better as a more advanced class, so that students will already have practised their writing skills and acquired some useful literary terminology and history?  In a recent interview, Daniel Mendelsohn proposes that students would be better off “reading Pauline Kael reviews in the New Yorker than Derrida” because when they begin “they literally have no idea, at first, what the point of being critical is.” I would be motivated by a somewhat similar impulse, I think: that they should have a sense of what (and where) the critical conversations are, because (as I do already say frequently in class) literature is not in fact written for the classroom but for the world.

This is still a very new idea for me, but maybe it’s actually a common approach and I’ve just been stuck (as we all so often are) in my own ‘how things are usually done’ rut. I’d be happy to know about any classes that are run along these lines, and also to know what anyone’s first impression is about this possibility.

Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost

From the Novel Readings Archive

3 Quarks Daily has just announced the winners in their 2010 Prize for science blogging, judged by Richard Dawkins. Congratulations to all the nominees, and especially to the finalists and winners. I think 3QD is doing a great thing by drawing attention to the high quality of writing that can be found on blogs: it’s still too common to hear people being dismissive of the form, rather than attentive to the content. The challenge, of course, is filtering through the overwhelming number and variety of sites, something that events such as these 3QD competitions can really help with. It’s a remarkable thing that so many people write so well and so passionately about so many subjects and share their work so freely.  I submitted my post on Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost to the 3QD Arts and Literature competition earlier this year because, as I said at the time, “the book absolutely topped my list of notable reads last year, because writing about it as well as I could was important to me, and because I was reasonably satisfied that I had said what I wanted to about it. Also, one of my most trusted readers wrote me to say that she thought it was the best thing I’d ever written on my blog.” I’m proud that my post was selected as a finalist.


“So many people know these horrible stories by now,” Daniel Mendelsohn reflects near the end of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million; “what more was there to say? How to tell them?” The Lost itself is, of course, his answer.

This extraordinary book, at its simplest level, is a more or less chronological account of Mendelsohn’s quest to learn the fate of his great-uncle Schmiel (Sam) Jager, his wife Ester, and their four daughters, Lorka (b. 1920), Frydka (b. 1922), Ruchele (b. 1925), and Bronia (b. 1929?). From early in his childhood Mendelsohn knows where his relatives lived, in the Polish town of Bolechow, and he knows that they died during the Holocaust, but beyond this he has only fragments of information, from stories half-heard or half-understood (“Once, I overheard my grandfather saying to my mother, I know only they were hiding in a kessle. Since I knew by then how to make adjustments for his accent, when I heard him say this I simply wondered, What castle?”), from photographs (“killed by the Nazis,” his grandfather has written on the back of a photograph of Schmiel in his WWI uniform, brought by Daniel to school for a presentation to his Grade 10 history class: “I remembered what had been written because I so clearly remembered the reaction to those words of my high school history teacher, who when she read what my gradnfather had written clapped a hand to her handsome, humorous face, . . . and exclaimed, ‘Oh, no!'”), from letters (“The date of Onkel Schmil and his family when they died nobody can say me, 1942 the Germans kild the aunt Ester with 2 daughters,” writes his Great-Aunt Miriam from Israel in 1975).

Only once he makes it his mission to fill in the gaps in his knowledge does Daniel realize, over the course of many years and many interviews with surviving “Bolechowers,” in America and Australia, Israel and Denmark and Poland, that he “knew” almost nothing. Indeed, The Lost is in large part a meditation on what nobody knows, what nobody can know: not just the facts, what happened to Schmiel and Ester and their daughters (“such darling four children,” Schmiel writes in 1939, in one of his desperately dignified letters to his American relatives, asking for money and help to get his family “away from this Gehenim,” this Hell), the facts of their deaths, but also their lives. Who were they, these six people, now almost as lost (as Mendelsohn ruminates near the volume’s close) as the many millions who, before them, lived and were lost into what is now history? What can we really know of them, or say about them?

For everything, in time, gets lost: the lives of people now remote, the tantalizing yet ultimately vanished and largely unknowable lives of virtually all of the Greeks and Romans and Ottomans and Malays and Goths and Bengals and Sudanese who ever lived, the peoples of Ur and Kush, the lives of the Hittites and Philistines that will never be known, the lives of people more recent than that, the African slaves and the slave traders, the Boers and the Belgians, those who were slaughtered and those who died in bed, the Polish counts and Jewish shopkeepers, the blond hair and eyebrows and small white teeth that someone once loved or desired of this or that boy or girl or man or woman who was one of the five million (or six or seven) Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin, and indeed the intangible things beyond the hair and teeth and brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror and loves and hunger of every one of those millions of Ukrainians, just as the hair of a Jewish girl or boy or man or woman that someone once loved, and the teeth and the brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust are now lost, or will soon be lost, because no number of books, however great, could ever document them all, even if they were to be written, which they won’t and can’t be; all that will be lost, too . . . everything will be lost, eventually, as surely as most of what made up the lives of the Egyptians and Incas and Hittites has been lost. But for a little while some of that can be rescued, if only, faced with the vastness of all that there is and all that there ever was, somebody makes the decision to look back. . . .

And of course that is what Mendelsohn himself has done, to look back, to see “not only what was lost but what there is still to be found.” Though his initial interest is in just how his lost relatives died (“we did end up finding out what happened to Uncle Schmiel and his family–by accident,” he tells us early on), his preoccupation becomes something at once more expansive and more elusive: their lives, their experiences, their identities–what they lost, in becoming no longer “themselves, specific” (“I was reminded the more forcefully,” he says at a crucial moment of discovery, “that they had been specific people with specific deaths . . . they were once, themselves, specific, the subjects of their own lives and deaths”) but only six of six million, lost in the sheer magnitude of the loss of which their own deaths were specific only to them.

Mendelsohn’s refusal to take over their specificity, to presume to know them or speak for them, for me was one of the most impressive features of the book. Even when he reconstructs likely scenarios, he frames them with a respectful uncertainty. How presumptuous, after all, to think we can stand, vicariously, in the place of his sixteen-year-old cousin Ruchele, killed in Bolechow’s first official Aktion. “I have often tried to imagine what might have happened to her,” Mendelsohn remarks, “although every time I do, I realize how limited my resources are.” Not only is the evidence fragmentary and unreliable, not only can “memory itself . . . play tricks,” but “there is no way to reconstruct what she herself went through.” Still, he tries, drawing on his own interviews with survivors and witnesses but also from documents in Yad Vashem, but never presuming to know what was really only Ruchele’s knowledge (“It is indeed possible that,” “if she survived those thirty-six hours,” “with what thoughts it is impossible to know,” “Did she hear it? . . . We cannot know.”) “That is the last we see of her,” he says at the end of this section; “although we have, of course, not really seen her at all.” The sense of loss at this point is acute: the waste, the horror, the mystery, the finality of death.

These and the many other, often quite extended, meditations on the limits of our historical knowledge risk bringing a degree of narrative self-consciousness to The Lost that could turn it too far towards Mendelsohn himself. If the book had become more about the storytelling than the stories, I would have liked it far less, but I never felt that the humanity of his family was put second to intellectual gamesmanship or philosophical speculation. Even the long sections of biblical exegesis are woven, always, into his thinking about what might have happened, what it all might have meant or be made to mean, what larger (cyclical, universal) stories these individual stories might in their own ways reiterate. There are high stakes involved in his project, and his insistence that it matters how much we know, where our information comes from, how we piece it together into something meaningful–the effort he puts into questioning or undermining or revising what he learned during his interviews and travels–keeps alive for us that history is made as well as lived by human beings whose complexity cannot be reduced and should not be underestimated. Not that he is a relativist about truth: it matters deeply to him to reach as close as possible to what really happened to Schmiel and Ester and their daughters. The moments at which he comes physically closest take on a special poignancy because as he stands there–for instance, in the kestle, box, not kessle, castle, where Schmiel and Frydka hid for months, and “the material reality” allows Mendelsohn “to understand the words at last”–he is most sharply aware he will never know, really: “those lives and deaths belonged to them, not me.”

Early in the book Mendelsohn points out that “it is naturally more appealing to readers to absorb the meaning of a vast historical event through the story of a single family.” Such, clearly, is the strategy of this book. And yet we are often reminded, because Mendelsohn too is often reminded (sometimes, deservedly, harshly), that in focusing so exclusively on six of six million, others whose lives were equally “specific” are being sidelined, turned into secondary characters. He interviews Jack Greene, “born Grunschlag,” who once dated Ruchele:

I can tell you, he began, that Ruchele perished on the twenty-ninth of October 1941.

I was startled, and immediately afterward moved, by the specificity of this memory.

I said, Now let me just ask you, why–because you remember the date so specifically–why do you remember the date?

As I wrote down Ruchele–>Oct 29 1941, I thought to myself, He must have really loved her.

Jack said, Because my mother and older brother perished on the same day.

I said nothing. We are each of us, I realized, myopic; always at the center of our own stories.

There is no way, of course, to include every story, but Mendelsohn’s strategy of frequently spiralling away from the “main” narrative, following memories and anecdotes as they come into his mind or come from those he is interviewing, is a constant reminder that each story we do hear is one branch on a vast spreading tree. The sheer scope of the horror and loss would be overwhelming even if it were possible to represent it all, so instead we get glimpses, again and again, so that like Mendelsohn himself, though we are focusing on the Jagers, we can never forget that there were many, many others–or if we do, we are soon chastened:

As I looked I suddenly felt foolish for asking Mrs Begley to look in her book [of the victims] for my relatives, whom I never knew and who meant something rather abstract for me at that point, when so many of hers, so much closer to her, were there too. . . .

Then she took a breath that was also a sigh, and started telling me her own stories of slyness and survival, and other stories, too. Of, for instance, how, successfully hidden herself, she had bribed someone to bring her parents and in-laws to a certain place from which she would take them to safety, . . . and how when she arrived at this rendezvous she saw a wagon filled with dead bodies passing by, and on top of the pile of bodies were those of the elderly people she had come to rescue. . . .

And then she added this: Because she herself was in danger, was “passing” at that point, she couldn’t allow herself to betray any emotion when she saw the bodies of her family passing by in the wagon. . . .

Mrs Begley’s story of “passing” (You see, I was fair, and I spoke German) points to another issue Mendelsohn confronts, as a researcher and storyteller: all those he interviews are, necessarily, survivors. So not only do they (like Mrs Begley) all have remarkable stories of their own to tell, of hiding and running and starving, of those who helped them, or didn’t, but they also could not have been witnesses (“Had he seen [Ruchele] being taken? I stupidly questioned. He laughed grimly. If I would have seen her, I would have been dead too!“). One of Mendelsohn’s aunts, asked by her inquisitive relation for details of her own birth, replies, “I’m not going to tell you when I was born because it would have been better if I’d never been born“, and we realize that though the survivors were not lost in the same way as Ruchele and Frydka and Schmiel and Ester and Lorka and little Bronia, still, they lost everything they had and are lost as well. “‘Well,'” says Jack Greene, “‘think of Bolechow. Of six thousand Jews, we were forty-eight who survived.'”

Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost

“So many people know these horrible stories by now,” Daniel Mendelsohn reflects near the end of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million; “what more was there to say? How to tell them?” The Lost itself is, of course, his answer.

This extraordinary book, at its simplest level, is a more or less chronological account of Mendelsohn’s quest to learn the fate of his great-uncle Schmiel (Sam) Jager, his wife Ester, and their four daughters, Lorka (b. 1920), Frydka (b. 1922), Ruchele (b. 1925), and Bronia (b. 1929?). From early in his childhood Mendelsohn knows where his relatives lived, in the Polish town of Bolechow, and he knows that they died during the Holocaust, but beyond this he has only fragments of information, from stories half-heard or half-understood (“Once, I overheard my grandfather saying to my mother, I know only they were hiding in a kessle. Since I knew by then how to make adjustments for his accent, when I heard him say this I simply wondered, What castle?”), from photographs (“killed by the Nazis,” his grandfather has written on the back of a photograph of Schmiel in his WWI uniform, brought by Daniel to school for a presentation to his Grade 10 history class: “I remembered what had been written because I so clearly remembered the reaction to those words of my high school history teacher, who when she read what my gradnfather had written clapped a hand to her handsome, humorous face, . . . and exclaimed, ‘Oh, no!'”), from letters (“The date of Onkel Schmil and his family when they died nobody can say me, 1942 the Germans kild the aunt Ester with 2 daughters,” writes his Great-Aunt Miriam from Israel in 1975).

Only once he makes it his mission to fill in the gaps in his knowledge does Daniel realize, over the course of many years and many interviews with surviving “Bolechowers,” in America and Australia, Israel and Denmark and Poland, that he “knew” almost nothing. Indeed, The Lost is in large part a meditation on what nobody knows, what nobody can know: not just the facts, what happened to Schmiel and Ester and their daughters (“such darling four children,” Schmiel writes in 1939, in one of his desperately dignified letters to his American relatives, asking for money and help to get his family “away from this Gehenim,” this Hell), the facts of their deaths, but also their lives. Who were they, these six people, now almost as lost (as Mendelsohn ruminates near the volume’s close) as the many millions who, before them, lived and were lost into what is now history? What can we really know of them, or say about them?

For everything, in time, gets lost: the lives of people now remote, the tantalizing yet ultimately vanished and largely unknowable lives of virtually all of the Greeks and Romans and Ottomans and Malays and Goths and Bengals and Sudanese who ever lived, the peoples of Ur and Kush, the lives of the Hittites and Philistines that will never be known, the lives of people more recent than that, the African slaves and the slave traders, the Boers and the Belgians, those who were slaughtered and those who died in bed, the Polish counts and Jewish shopkeepers, the blond hair and eyebrows and small white teeth that someone once loved or desired of this or that boy or girl or man or woman who was one of the five million (or six or seven) Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin, and indeed the intangible things beyond the hair and teeth and brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror and loves and hunger of every one of those millions of Ukrainians, just as the hair of a Jewish girl or boy or man or woman that someone once loved, and the teeth and the brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust are now lost, or will soon be lost, because no number of books, however great, could ever document them all, even if they were to be written, which they won’t and can’t be; all that will be lost, too . . . everything will be lost, eventually, as surely as most of what made up the lives of the Egyptians and Incas and Hittites has been lost. But for a little while some of that can be rescued, if only, faced with the vastness of all that there is and all that there ever was, somebody makes the decision to look back. . . .

And of course that is what Mendelsohn himself has done, to look back, to see “not only what was lost but what there is still to be found.” Though his initial interest is in just how his lost relatives died (“we did end up finding out what happened to Uncle Schmiel and his family–by accident,” he tells us early on), his preoccupation becomes something at once more expansive and more elusive: their lives, their experiences, their identities–what they lost, in becoming no longer “themselves, specific” (“I was reminded the more forcefully,” he says at a crucial moment of discovery, “that they had been specific people with specific deaths . . . they were once, themselves, specific, the subjects of their own lives and deaths”) but only six of six million, lost in the sheer magnitude of the loss of which their own deaths were specific only to them.

Mendelsohn’s refusal to take over their specificity, to presume to know them or speak for them, for me was one of the most impressive features of the book. Even when he reconstructs likely scenarios, he frames them with a respectful uncertainty. How presumptuous, after all, to think we can stand, vicariously, in the place of his sixteen-year-old cousin Ruchele, killed in Bolechow’s first official Aktion. “I have often tried to imagine what might have happened to her,” Mendelsohn remarks, “although every time I do, I realize how limited my resources are.” Not only is the evidence fragmentary and unreliable, not only can “memory itself . . . play tricks,” but “there is no way to reconstruct what she herself went through.” Still, he tries, drawing on his own interviews with survivors and witnesses but also from documents in Yad Vashem, but never presuming to know what was really only Ruchele’s knowledge (“It is indeed possible that,” “if she survived those thirty-six hours,” “with what thoughts it is impossible to know,” “Did she hear it? . . . We cannot know.”) “That is the last we see of her,” he says at the end of this section; “although we have, of course, not really seen her at all.” The sense of loss at this point is acute: the waste, the horror, the mystery, the finality of death.

These and the many other, often quite extended, meditations on the limits of our historical knowledge risk bringing a degree of narrative self-consciousness to The Lost that could turn it too far towards Mendelsohn himself. If the book had become more about the storytelling than the stories, I would have liked it far less, but I never felt that the humanity of his family was put second to intellectual gamesmanship or philosophical speculation. Even the long sections of biblical exegesis are woven, always, into his thinking about what might have happened, what it all might have meant or be made to mean, what larger (cyclical, universal) stories these individual stories might in their own ways reiterate. There are high stakes involved in his project, and his insistence that it matters how much we know, where our information comes from, how we piece it together into something meaningful–the effort he puts into questioning or undermining or revising what he learned during his interviews and travels–keeps alive for us that history is made as well as lived by human beings whose complexity cannot be reduced and should not be underestimated. Not that he is a relativist about truth: it matters deeply to him to reach as close as possible to what really happened to Schmiel and Ester and their daughters. The moments at which he comes physically closest take on a special poignancy because as he stands there–for instance, in the kestle, box, not kessle, castle, where Schmiel and Frydka hid for months, and “the material reality” allows Mendelsohn “to understand the words at last”–he is most sharply aware he will never know, really: “those lives and deaths belonged to them, not me.”

Early in the book Mendelsohn points out that “it is naturally more appealing to readers to absorb the meaning of a vast historical event through the story of a single family.” Such, clearly, is the strategy of this book. And yet we are often reminded, because Mendelsohn too is often reminded (sometimes, deservedly, harshly), that in focusing so exclusively on six of six million, others whose lives were equally “specific” are being sidelined, turned into secondary characters. He interviews Jack Greene, “born Grunschlag,” who once dated Ruchele:

I can tell you, he began, that Ruchele perished on the twenty-ninth of October 1941.

I was startled, and immediately afterward moved, by the specificity of this memory.

I said, Now let me just ask you, why–because you remember the date so specifically–why do you remember the date?

As I wrote down Ruchele–>Oct 29 1941, I thought to myself, He must have really loved her.

Jack said, Because my mother and older brother perished on the same day.

I said nothing. We are each of us, I realized, myopic; always at the center of our own stories.

There is no way, of course, to include every story, but Mendelsohn’s strategy of frequently spiralling away from the “main” narrative, following memories and anecdotes as they come into his mind or come from those he is interviewing, is a constant reminder that each story we do hear is one branch on a vast spreading tree. The sheer scope of the horror and loss would be overwhelming even if it were possible to represent it all, so instead we get glimpses, again and again, so that like Mendelsohn himself, though we are focusing on the Jagers, we can never forget that there were many, many others–or if we do, we are soon chastened:

As I looked I suddenly felt foolish for asking Mrs Begley to look in her book [of the victims] for my relatives, whom I never knew and who meant something rather abstract for me at that point, when so many of hers, so much closer to her, were there too. . . .

Then she took a breath that was also a sigh, and started telling me her own stories of slyness and survival, and other stories, too. Of, for instance, how, successfully hidden herself, she had bribed someone to bring her parents and in-laws to a certain place from which she would take them to safety, . . . and how when she arrived at this rendezvous she saw a wagon filled with dead bodies passing by, and on top of the pile of bodies were those of the elderly people she had come to rescue. . . .

And then she added this: Because she herself was in danger, was “passing” at that point, she couldn’t allow herself to betray any emotion when she saw the bodies of her family passing by in the wagon. . . .

Mrs Begley’s story of “passing” (You see, I was fair, and I spoke German) points to another issue Mendelsohn confronts, as a researcher and storyteller: all those he interviews are, necessarily, survivors. So not only do they (like Mrs Begley) all have remarkable stories of their own to tell, of hiding and running and starving, of those who helped them, or didn’t, but they also could not have been witnesses (“Had he seen [Ruchele] being taken? I stupidly questioned. He laughed grimly. If I would have seen her, I would have been dead too!“). One of Mendelsohn’s aunts, asked by her inquisitive relation for details of her own birth, replies, “I’m not going to tell you when I was born because it would have been better if I’d never been born“, and we realize that though the survivors were not lost in the same way as Ruchele and Frydka and Schmiel and Ester and Lorka and little Bronia, still, they lost everything they had and are lost as well. “‘Well,'” says Jack Greene, “‘think of Bolechow. Of six thousand Jews, we were forty-eight who survived.'”