A Personal Journey
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Daniel Mendelsohn’s new memoir, “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million” (HarperCollins, 512 pages, $27.95) chronicles the author’s journey to the small Ukrainian town of Bolechow to discover how his six relatives were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Of the town’s 6,000 Jews, only 40 survived between 1941 and 1943. Mr. Mendelsohn’s lost relatives include his grandfather’s oldest brother Shmiel, his wife Ester, and their four daughters. Mr. Mendelsohn talks about his book and his travels tonight at the New School.
A professor of humanities at Bard College, Mr. Mendelsohn is a classicist whose first book, “The Elusive Embrace,” a memoir published in 1999, relied on Greek myth to explore his experience growing up as a homosexual in a Jewish immigrant family. He wrote “The Lost” with the structure of the Torah as inspiration to illuminate his own story. “I’m using traditions of myth and the Bible as templates to explore my family,” Mr. Mendelsohn said in an interview. “My family is no grander than any other family, quite the opposite.” As a child, he was passionate about Greek myth. “Researching ‘The Lost’ made me appreciate the Jewish tradition, a tradition I had ignored,” he said.
Out of the six million people who perished during the war, Mr. Mendelsohn’s depiction of his six family members dramatizes what it was like for all of the victims. “Reading Genesis tells you the family of Abraham in the Old Testament is both a specific family and a symbol for all of humankind,” he said. “My ordinary six relatives who perished are a way to understand the larger event.”
He initially began thinking about his lost family at his Bar Mitzvah, after seeing all his surviving relatives gathered together. The years of murmurs and snippets of Yiddish about his great-uncle made him want to learn the truth. Although his family was not traditionally religious, it was was close-knit, and Mr. Mendelsohn was especially fond of Abraham, his maternal grandfather’s brother. “There was a black hole in the family narrative of what had happened to my grandfather’s brother and his family,” he said.
He began researching the book during the summer of 2001, traveling with his sister and two of his brothers to Bolechow. His odyssey around the world took him to a dozen countries. One of his brothers took photographs as well as gathering photographs and letters from various sources. “I started writing the book on Labor Day 2004 and finished writing it at 6:03 p.m. Labor Day 2005,” he said. Mr. Mendelsohn’s scholarly investigative techniques helped him craft a compelling tale.
Mr. Mendelsohn was a lecturer of classics at both Princeton and Columbia Universities for a number of years. In addition to writing books and teaching, he is a renowned literary critic, and frequently writes essays and reviews for the New York Review of Books. Beginning this week, Mr. Mendelsohn is again embarking on a voyage, traveling on a national book tour through mid-December.
Tonight, 6:30 p.m., New School Special Programs, 66 W. 12th St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, rm. 508, 212-229-5488, $5.