They’d weep when they saw him—Daniel Mendelsohn, the seraphic, blue-eyed boy.
His aunts, great-aunts, grandparents, the ancients of Miami Beach, abuzz with Yiddish and smelling of kosher luncheon, would hover around him lovingly. Red Skelton or Milton Berle in the background, games of canasta or mah-jongg awaiting, they’d while away a 1960s vacation afternoon.
Yet they couldn’t help but cry. Because wasn’t the 6-year-old darling the dead ringer for his great-uncle Shmiel Jager, princely butcher of Bolechow, the family’s tiny long-lost Polish hometown? Cosmopolitan, almost wealthy, speaker of four languages, Shmiel, along with his wife and four beautiful daughters, had been killed by the Nazis in 1942.
His face, then, stamped with the memory of martyrdom, Daniel would grow up Holocaust-haunted in his very cells, until, in his 40s, he’d spend a full five years writing the story of his savaged uncle. It’s now The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. Oprah and People praise it, so do Joyce Carol Oates, J.M. Coetzee and the marquee press. Mendelsohn has starred on NPR, which included his new book in its list of the best of 2006.
But not without cost. A 500-page manuscript takes discipline. As the book’s “analyst, thinker, structurer, creator,” Mendelsohn mustered detachment from his coruscating narrative. Yet after surrendering his labors to his publisher in September 2005 (“I remember I finished at exactly 6:03 p.m. on Labor Day”), came four months of catharsis. “It was like posttraumatic stress disorder,” he says. “I would burst into tears randomly, walking across my living room in New York, as if it all cumulatively hit me. Something would trigger a memory, and I would just bawl. It was strange.”
Not so very strange, though, considering what history compelled him to transcribe. Of slaughtering missions, or Aktions, part of Operation Reinhard, aimed to make the conquered lands Judenrein, Jew-free, to toast Hitler’s ascension to leadership a decade before. Of a woman after childbirth, whose “child was immediately torn from her arms along with its umbilical cord and thrown,” Mendelsohn writes. “It was trampled by the crowd and she was stood on her feet as blood poured out of her” until she was crammed in a train to the camps. Of other children whom Germans and Ukrainians “took by their legs and bashed their heads on the edge of the sidewalks, whilst they laughed and tried to kill them with one blow.” Of a rabbi “with a cross cut into his chest” forced to dance naked with a terrified girl. Of Shmiel’s 16-year-old daughter, Ruchele, shivering naked in cold October, forced to walk a plank over a freshly dug pit filled with her crumpled, gasping neighbors until the machine guns called her name, too.
“The great subject of the Holocaust,” Mendelsohn says, “is how hard it is to describe it. That’s the confounding problem.”
But a problem to which he discovered an extraordinary solution. The Lost alternates chapters stuffed with eyewitness detail, Internet searches of obscure Third Reich databases, histories of anti-Semitism, and verbatim interviews with Jager relatives in Poland, Israel, Australia, Prague, Vienna, Stockholm and Long Island, with pages of numinous material—Torah commentary, classical allusions, Proustian memoirs. The gritty, factual, ultra-realist stuff is essentially Aristotelian, as this lifelong student of the Greeks well knows, grounded in the messy, the biological, the mundane. Yet there’s pure Plato in Mendelsohn’s lyrical, spiritual musings. Likewise, his fretted analysis of human behavior—how, for example, can someone kill a child? Or survivors sustain their guilt?—is out of Freud, whereas Mendelsohn’s reading of tragedy is archetypal, Jungian, transcendent.
Among other things, the book is startlingly beautiful, managing audaciously to conflate meditations on Raphael’s School of Athens with reflections on the Auschwitz gates. At times its sentences achieve a kind of Byzantine Jamesian complexity: they spiral on and on, a jagged torrent. Why? Because, he says, those “performance pieces,” those spellbinding sentences—seven of which comprise the book’s dark center—are attempts to broadcast the effort of just how hard it is to render horror. An articulation of the inchoate, then, the book is prose poem and primal scream, postmodern in structure if not in irony, and mythic but never cloyingly so. It’s also testimony to the power of the twin pillars of Western thought, Hebrew and Hellenic. It’s a lament for them as well, for actual Athens, after all, died two and a half millennia ago and Eastern European Jewish culture is now, as Mendelsohn mourns, just as surely and sadly dead.
It was to a small crowd, many of them elderly, their lives scarred by the war, that Mendelsohn defended Western civilization at a recent reading at the UVA Bookstore. “It’s our only hope,” he said, despite its ultimate perversion in 1930s Germany, cradle long ago of the Holy Roman Empire and birthplace, later, of Goethe, “because it’s our only culture after all.”
Before The Lost, he said, he viewed civilization as an arc from glory to glory, from “the Parthenon to the Coliseum to the High Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the 19th century, and the New Deal.” Now, however, so bleak has been his odyssey through the hells of history, he has come to see too often that civilization as a “cesspool of horror and violence, from which we occasionally emerge.” And yet those oases of emergence make up our saving grace.
Mendelsohn draws parallels between the Aeneid, an epic “of the survivors of a ruined civilization” and the ambitions of his book. He talks about how “spending your life reading Greek tragedy” is good preparation for confronting the Holocaust, and how one duty of youth is to “become custodians of the memories of those who know they’re dying.” Of the book’s elaborate syntax, he ruminates: “I sometimes think that everything I write should be one long sentence, because, after all, isn’t everything connected?”
Mendelsohn says he refuses to believe in collective guilt—“I’m a lover of German literature, music and culture”—and about the pressures of collective memory: “You can’t carry the entirety of the past into the present because then there would be no room to live.”
A recipient of a 2005 Guggenheim fellowship, Mendelsohn is now at work on a brief biography of Archimedes; a translation of the complete works of the modern Greek poet C.P. Cavafy; and a volume that will spin off some of his New York Review of Books essays. “It looks at American pop and political culture,” he says, “with each subject seen through the eyes of a classical text.” He’ll comment on reality TV, for instance, as the Roman games of the American empire. The book will be short, provocative and, no doubt, erudite. It will not break hearts.
The Lost tears them asunder. Kaddish and political chronicle, it is also prose so rhapsodic as to be music—here Mendelsohn’s unabashed affinity for the profound, for opera, Beethoven, Schubert and Mahler, shows up. And as those melodies are indelible, so, too, are this writer’s words. “Once you’ve heard these stories,” he says of his seasons in the underworld, “you never get them out of your mind.”
He breathes deeply, the cobalt, witnessing eyes intense. “I was pursuing this story about how people died. And, in doing so, anyone with imagination is going to ask himself: How would I act? What would it be like to walk into a gas chamber? To stand at the edge of a mass grave, waiting to be shot?”
He continues, his clear voice low, “I think about children a lot. I think about killing a lot. I think about what it takes for a ‘normal’ person to kill a small child horribly. You have to. You can’t confront all this without being forced to think.”