Sad, Beautiful, Absurd: Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française

suite

How sad the world is, so beautiful yet so absurd . . . But what is certain is that in five, ten or twenty years, this problem unique according to our time, according to him, will no longer exist, it will be replaced by others . . . yet this music, the sound of this rain on the windows, the great mournful creaking of the cedar tree in the garden outside, this moment, so tender, so strange in the middle of war, this will never change, not this. This is for ever . . .

There are two aspects to Suite Française: the (unfinished) novel itself–two parts of an imagined five–and the story of its author, whose arrest, transportation, and eventual death at Auschwitz haunt her fiction about occupied France. It is difficult for me to disentangle my reading of the former from my response to the latter. I was interested enough in Suite Française, which is almost uncomfortably cool and acerbic in its depiction of its characters’ various trials and traumas. There’s no room for sentiment or heroism in Némirovsky’s portraits of people under extraordinary pressure–almost everybody is to some degree petty and self-absorbed, but her upper-class characters in particular are more afraid of losing their luxuries and privileges than they are of the larger and more dire implications of the German occupation.

I found Part I (“Storm in June”), about the flight from Paris as the Germans approached, more gripping than Part II (“Dolce”), about the uneasy relationship between the French characters and the occupying forces: the drama was more overt. Part II is more subtle, both morally and emotionally, as it deals with the difference between “the enemy” in the abstract and the all-too-real human beings sharing homes and gardens and public spaces with the vanquished. One thing that particularly struck me about Part I was that Némirovsky mostly avoided clichéd wartime melodrama: although the evacuees are bombed, for instance, the carnage seems almost incidental, and the two most shocking deaths in that part are only indirectly caused by the war. Part II is primarily about character and atmosphere until near the end, when it turns out Némirovsky has been laying the groundwork for a plot twist that, as her notes show, was going to drive a lot of the action in the subsequent parts.

suite-2I was interested, as I said, yet I wasn’t really captivated. The novel has a rather flat affect–perhaps the result of translation, but also reminiscent of Olivia Manning, who writes about war and violence and what survives with similar restraint. Némirovsky’s novel follows a cast of loosely or incidentally connected characters; the overall effect is somewhat like a sampler, or (as the title suggests) a “suite.” If Némirovsky had been able to finish the novel, the cumulative effect might well have been more than the sum of its parts; it seems shoddy to judge what seem like imperfections knowing that what we’ve got is only a fragment.

Having said that, I did appreciate the novel’s long descriptive passages, which–in contrast to its typically more stilted and utilitarian prose–are often very beautiful, even poetic. Here’s an example that also captures some of the paradoxes of the war-time world Némirovsky depicts. The French villagers have gathered to watch the Germans celebrate the anniversary of their occupation of Paris:

Little by little, darkness spread across the lawns; they could still make out the gold decorations on the uniforms, the Germans’ blond hair, the musicians’ brass instruments on the terrace, but they had lost their glow. All the light of the day, fleeing the earth, seemed for one brief moment to take refuge in the sky; pink clouds spiralled round the full moon that was as green as pistachio sorbet and as clear as glass; it was reflected in the lake. Exquisite perfumes filled the air: grass, fresh hay, wild strawberries. The music kept playing. Suddenly, the torches were lit; as the soldiers carried them along, they cast their light over the messy tables, the empty glasses, for the officers were now gathered around the lake, singing and laughing. There was the lively, happy sound of champagne corks popping.

“Oh, those bastards! And to think it’s our wine they’re drinking,” the Frenchmen said, but without real bitterness, because all happiness is contagious and disarms the spirit of hatred.

It is a memorable vignette, one of many such striking moments in the novel. If it sounds as if Némirovsky is holding out beauty or happiness as in any way the antidote to war and cruelty, though, that would be misleading: the aesthetic pleasure the French take in this spectacle does nothing to undo their resentment and fear at the German presence in their lives, or to compensate for their grief for the loss of their sons and husbands at German hands.

nemirovskyThe individual stories Némirovsky tells all have their interesting details, but one thing I thought was missing as I read along was any acknowledgment of the specific risk to Jews. This made me wonder exactly what Némirovsky would have known while she was writing in 1941-2. The Appendices include her notebooks and then correspondence from her and her husband Michael including his letters, increasingly desperate, to friends and connections after her arrest in July 1942. It is clear that he, at any rate, did not realize what it means–that it is almost certainly a death sentence. Not only does he try every means he can think of to find her and bring her home, but he even offers to take her place: “Can you please find out,” he writes a couple of months after her arrest,

if it would be possible for me to be exchanged for my wife–I would perhaps be more useful in her place and she would be better off here. If this is impossible, maybe I could be taken to her–we would be better off together.

By the time he sent this letter Irène had been dead for over a month. Michael himself was arrested in October 1942 and sent on to Auschwitz, where he died in the gas chambers. Their daughters survived only thanks to the courageous efforts of friends who sheltered them.

Maybe if I hadn’t read these documents immediately after finishing Suite Française the novel itself would have made a stronger impression on me. I found the appendices so compelling and immediate, though, so painfully real, that they overshadowed Némirovsky’s more muted and analytical fiction. The juxtaposition did raise questions for me about the kind of novel she wrote: about whether it deliberately lacks melodrama and avoids the horror and urgency her own story evokes or whether–though the included Preface to the French edition notes that she and her family “all openly wore the Jewish star” as restrictions on French Jews increased–she was spared the full painful understanding of what was really at stake until it was too late for her to write about it. (I’m sure there are answers about who know what when, though who believed what when is probably a somewhat different question. Then as now, it would have been hard to grasp the worst realities.) In any case, it is her personal story more than Suite Française that will stay with me, I think, which seems somehow both all wrong and entirely right.

‘You were made men’: Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

In a recent post about choosing The Road as one of the texts for my Introduction to Literature class next year, I mentioned that I’m also assigning Eli Wiesel’s Night. In the comments, Dorian said that he considered Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz ” the more compelling text, both formally and conceptually.” As I said to him then, I’ve known for a while that I should read Levi, and his remark  was just the instigation I needed to make it a priority.

I finished reading Survival in Auschwitz this afternoon, so it’s too soon for me to say whether I think it is better or greater than Night. It is certainly a very different book, and as I work up my notes on Night again in the fall I know I’ll be thinking a lot about the contrasts. My first impression is that it is a much less overtly literary book than NightNight is heavily symbolic, organized around motifs and vignettes and characterized (at least in the translation I’m familiar with) by striking images and words freighted with significance. Levi’s approach is more indirect, his vignettes or episodes more elusive or ambiguous. In some ways, I think Night is more artful, but also, as a result, it feels more artificial. There’s a raw quality to Levi’s book: it’s not sleek, he’s honest about things he forgets, there are awkward but heartfelt gestures towards people he remembers. The book is unified in a different way than Night  is–not emotionally or symbolically but associatively, conceptually, a section at a time. It does not conclude but ends, again awkwardly, without flourish. Though both books immerse us in the horror of Auschwitz, Levi’s account seems somehow less visceral, more appalled than angry, more inquisitive than despairing. It is not any less devastating. It is, perhaps, more morally challenging: where Wiesel deals in searing absolutes, Levi puzzles us, as he was puzzled: “We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘just’ and ‘unjust’; let everybody judge, on the basis of the picture we have outlined and of the examples given above, how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire.”

The differences between the books are not superficial, but at the same time I don’t think they are fundamental: both books are ultimately preoccupied with the loss or preservation of humanity under conditions that deliberately seek to exterminate it, conditions so psychically brutalizing that physical death seems little more than a bureaucratic afterthought. The original English title of Survival in Auschwitz was If This Is a Man, which is a direct translation of the Italian title. The current title seems apt to the book’s attention to literal survival: a lot of Levi’s attention is given to the complex economy of the camp, driven by desperation but also fueled by people’s endless ingenuity: spoons, shoes, bowls, bread–the things that mean, for just a little longer, endurance. The title has another dimension, though, more consonant with the Italian title, which is the survival of the person: memories, dreams, knowledge. For Levi, his knowledge of chemistry, which helps define him, to himself, as a man (“Yet I am he, the B. Sc. of Turin, in fact, at this particular moment it is impossible to doubt my identity with him”) also contributes to his physical survival, as his job in the laboratory protects him from a second winter of hard labor. But one of the most profound and moving sections of the book for me was section 11, “The Canto of Ulysses,” in which Levi tries to teach a fellow prisoner Italian by reciting and translating some of the Divine Comedy:

Here, listen Pikolo, open your ears and your mind, you have to understand, for my sake:

Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.’

As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.

Pikolo begs me to repeat it. How good Pikolo is, he is aware that it is doing me good. Or perhaps it is something more: perhaps, despite the wan translation and the pedestrian, rushed commentary, he has received the message, he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular; and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders.

Levi’s urgency increases as their time runs out and he can’t remember the lines, can’t bridge the gaps in his memory, can’t explain, can’t hold on. The poetry is unbearable because it awakens what the camp refuses–what you too must refuse to survive the camp (“oh, Pikolo, Pikolo, say something, speak, do not let me think of my mountains which used to show up against the dusk of evening as I returned by train from Milan to Turin”). But the loss of the poetry is also unbearable, because it is the negation of the camp. It is the antidote, not to the regimented brutality, the beatings and murders, the starvation, but to what Levi calls early in the book “the demolition of a man.”

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.'”