In 2003 philosopher Peter Singer wrote Pushing Time Away, a biography of his grandfather David Oppenheim, a Viennese Jew killed in the Holocaust. In a devastating critique published later that year in The New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn argued that Singer had managed to write a book about the Holocaust devoid of emotional content. Oppenheim’s story in and of itself was obviously tragic, but, according to Mendelsohn, Singer had done his best to insure that neither he nor his readers would feel very deeply about it. Keen on fending off the sentimentalism that attaches to so much Holocaust literature, Singer evinced “a tendency to miss emotional clues and rich details of lived life that, in another’s hands, would have made this biography searing rather than merely affecting.”
Shortly before that review appeared, Mendelsohn, a professor of the humanities at Bard and a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, had traveled to Sydney to interview a group of Holocaust survivors (whom he, after his grandfather’s Yiddish inflection, thinks of as “surwivors”) for his own rather similar book, The Lost. Now that it has appeared, it’s clear why Mendelsohn’s disappointment with Singer’s book seemed so personal. Mendelsohn and Singer share a set of premises. The Holocaust, both men believe, has become caked in cheap sentiment, pressed into the service of an easy sadness that makes the tragedy feel stripmined to Mendelsohn’s generation–those whose grandparents saw the insides of the camps–and even more so to the next. Holocaust writing can veer close, they think, to the tawdry and exploitative. The Swiss impostor Binjamin Wilkomirski, for one, played the trump card of Holocaust authenticity with his 1995 memoir Fragments, about life in a concentration camp he had never been in; the enormous success (and adaptation into film) of Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, owed not a little to its schmaltzy treatment of the Holocaust.
There was thus the whiff of a secret boast (“in another’s hands”) to Mendelsohn’s point about Singer. That boast has now been amply justified. Mendelsohn’s engagement with these concerns–his honest critical appraisal of his own motivations for and misgivings about writing a charming, elegant, suspenseful book about such grave matters–has made for a work that is not “merely affecting,” indeed not only “searing,” but extraordinary.
The Lost is both a book about the Holocaust and a book about how to go about telling the stories of the Holocaust–and by extension, a book about what it means to lay claim to a story that is not your own. A “fable about the eternal conflict between what happened and the story of what happened,” it details the moral crimes of the Nazis as it describes the ethical misdemeanors we may commit in writing about their victims. Mendelsohn interweaves his own narrative with extended discussions of the first three portions of Genesis; these sections not only add a biblical echo to his travels but show Mendelsohn working within an ancient Talmudic tradition characterized by competing interpretations. The biblical readings alternate texts by late-medieval French rabbi Rashi with those of a modern commentator, though Mendelsohn frequently disagrees with these authorities. All three write with great self-assuredness, even as they acknowledge that no one gets to have the final say. All interpretations inevitably will be revised by later generations. The Lost, too, is a story that is necessarily incomplete.
Mendelsohn’s object is to uncover the history of his great-uncle Shmiel Jäger, who perished in the camps along with his wife, Ester, and their four daughters. (“Murdered,” the verb of choice in Germany’s culture of public remembrance, might seem a more appropriate term, but Mendelsohn, a classicist by training, prefers the Latinate word “perish,” with its connotations of “passing through.”) For 300 years the Jägers had lived in the Galician village of Bolechow, which saw more than its share of geopolitical vertigo: First it was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Poland, Germany, Russia and now Ukraine. (The Ukrainians spell it “Bolekhiv,” but Mendelsohn prefers the Old Country spelling.) Shmiel’s younger brother was Mendelsohn’s beloved grandfather. Shmiel’s siblings made it out before the war, but Shmiel stayed behind: He’d already immigrated to New York once, before World War I, but had returned home. A wealthy and poised figure, he preferred the prestige he enjoyed in his village.