Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost
is the deeply personal account of a search for one family among his larger family, the one barely spoken of, only to say they were "killed by the Nazis." Mendelsohn, even as a boy, was always the one interested in his family's history, but when he came upon a set of letters from his great uncle Schmiel, pleading for help from his American relatives as the Nazi grip on the lives of Jews in their Polish town became tighter and tighter, he set out to find what had happened to that lost family. The result is both memoir and history, an ambitious and gorgeously meditative detective story that takes him across the globe in search of the lost threads of these few almost forgotten lives.
A whole culture lies behind the story Mendelsohn tells, and a lifetime of reading as well. For our Grownup School feature, he has given us a tour of some of the books behind his own, in a list he calls 10 Great Novels of Family History, the Holocaust, New York Jewish Life (And Other Things That Helped Me Write My Book). And you can watch his own moving introduction to the book in this short video:
From Publishers Weekly
As a boy in the 1960s, Mendelsohn could make elderly relatives cry just by entering the room, so much did he resemble his great-uncle Shmiel Jäger, who had been "killed by the Nazis." This short phrase was all Mendelsohn knew of his maternal grandfather Abraham's brother, who had remained with his wife and four daughters in the Ukrainian shtetl of Bolechow after Abraham left for America. Long obsessed with family history, Mendelsohn (The Elusive Embrace
) embarked in 2001 on a series of journeys to learn exactly what had happened to Shmiel and his family. The result is a rich, ruminative "mythic narrative... about closeness and distance, intimacy and violence, love and death." Mendelsohn uses these words to describe the biblical story of Cain and Abel, for one of the book's most striking elements is the author's recounting of the book of Genesis in parallel with his own story, highlighting eternal themes of origins and family, temptation and exile, brotherly betrayal, creation and annihilation. In Ukraine, Australia, Israel and Scandinavia, Mendelsohn locates a handful of extraordinary, aged Bolechow survivors. Especially poignant is his relationship with novelist Louis Begley's 90-year-old mother, from a town near the shtetl, an irascible, scene-stealing woman who eagerly follows Mendelsohn's remarkable effort to retrieve her lost world. B&w photos, maps. (Sept.)
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