I have been immersed in The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn. It is the story of his multi-year search for the details of the murder of six of his relatives during the Holocaust.
In this rather long book (512 pages), he tells of his journeys around the globe to find people who might know the story. He goes to Australia, to Israel (twice), the Ukraine (twice), Sweden, and Denmark where he interviews people who knew the family–his great-uncle Shmiel, his great-aunt Ester, and their four daughters (Mendelsohn’s mother’s first cousins).
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Some of the information he gleans is vague; some contradictory. Over time, there emerges from the darkness into the shadows six people whose lives were brutally cut short. But do all that he would, Mendelsohn cannot bring his relatives out of the shadow into the full light of knowing. In the shadows, they will remain.
The interest for the memoir writer lies, I think, in Mendelsohn’s articulation of the process of finding the story of his relatives, of his own odyssey. The inquiry seems to change him in many ways, clearly making him the central character of this book.
Of particular interest to me was his attempts to see a really larger picture in which there is often no good guy or a bad guy–just people trying to survive in a world where one’s survival often meant that the other would not.
A case in point was in 1939, when the area his relatives lived in (Galicia in Poland) was ceded to Russia. The Jews were glad to be under Russian rather than German control. They welcomed the Russians, but their neighbors, the Ukrainians who lived in the area, were shocked at the change and angry that the Jews should welcome it. The Ukrainians had experienced their own genocide of between 5 to 7 million dead in a famine created by Stalin in 1932 and 1933–at a time when the Ukraine was exporting grain from an abundant harvest. The Ukrainians were terrified of the Russians. When the Germans gained control of the area in 1941, the Ukrainians welcomed them as liberators but the Jews, of course, were dismayed and terrified. The Ukrainians for their part were angry at the Jews for having welcomed the Russians.
There followed a terrible time in which Ukrainian atrocities against the Jews are well documented, by Mendelsohn and others, but all the Jewish survivors Mendelsohn interviewed except for one were hidden by Ukrainians who risked their lives to do so.
Are the Ukrainians then good guys or bad guys? They are both, says Mendelsohn, as we all are.
The Judenrat, the Jewish police organized by the Germans to police and roundup Jews, is another difficult group to judge. Mendelsohn asks, if he could save his own family by serving in the Judenrat, wouldn’t he had done it? Would you? Would I? Awful decisions to have to make.
Mendelsohn is a classics professor at Princeton. He disposed of both an income and free time that many of us do not. Nonetheless he has followed a path that all of us must follow in our own manner if we are to succeed at writing memoir.
Good luck memoir writing!