"The Lost" - Book Review  

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I finally finished reading "The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million" by Daniel Mendelsohn about a week ago. I've been kind of busy since then, so I haven't been able to post my thoughts about it yet. I have to say right away that it was a little hard getting started with the book. Mendelsohn has a very unique writing style and has taken the art of using commas to the extreme. Some of the sentences are so long that by the time you're done reading them, you may not remember where you started. But this is not a literary style review so I'll just leave it at that.

The other point I need to make is that the author goes through the first few stories in the bible and draws comparisons and contrasts from them to his stories about total annihilation, siblings rivalry and so on. He also analyzes the works of two famous biblical scholars and comes to his own conclusions. I found this part pretty annoying since, by his own admission, he has not studied the bible past these first few stories and I wasn't always sure I understand the repetitive nature of his analysis.

Speaking of repetition, there's a lot of that in the 500+ pages of this book. I could have done with less, but I guess it's one way of getting the reader to remember the characters and events.

All right, let's get to the actual story and why I found it so appealing. The book is focused on the authors quest to find information about his grand-uncle and his family who lived in Bolechow, Poland before the holocaust. He does this by detailing his early childhood memories and then his recent travels around the world to interview the few living Bolechowers who may or may not have known Uncle Shmiel Jager, his wife and 4 daughters.

Through this journey he goes into a lot of detail (some of it shockingly gory) of the fate of the Jewish community in Bolechow. I've heard similar stories before during history lessons in high-school and through reading holocaust survivor testimonies and interviews. Still, reading it again and getting the vivid descriptions made me think about a lot of things and try to draw similarities/contrasts to my own family's history:

  1. For instance, whereas almost all of the author's family had immigrated to the US prior to the war and only one brother stayed behind with his family, my maternal grandfather was the sole survivor from his family.
  2. Where Bolechow is a small village with several living survivors, my grandfather's family lived in Warsaw, the largest Jewish community in Poland and finding information about them is going to be next to impossible.
  3. Mendelsohn started his research about 20 years ago and I am just getting started now.
  4. The author's grandfather was a great story-teller and while he hid most of the family history from his grandson, at least he had a basis for his research as well as additional family members who remembered details. My grandfather never spoke about his family or the war. I was probably too young to ask and the holocaust seemed to be a taboo subject that was never really discussed.
Another recurring theme in the book is how lucky the author was in finding the right people at the right time. Several unlikely coincidences turned complete roadblocks into a wealth of information. This is very disheartening to someone like me who not only has no path to start with but nobody to really talk to. My only real link is my elderly grandmother who also claims that my grandfather didn't talk about his family.

The book's ending left me a little disappointed, but I won't spoil it for those who have not read it yet. It's not the research result, but more the methodology and reaction of the author. If you would like, we can discuss it in the comments.

So while reading a holocaust story about a now-not-so-anonymous family wasn't an uplifting endeavor to say the least, it did spark my interest in trying to research my grandfather's family again. I will have to figure out if there are any related Dombek family members who are somehow related. I will try to dig again in the archives for all the awkward spellings of this not-so-common Polish surname that is not necessarily Jewish. I will try to uncover whatever I can, but I won't keep my hopes up just yet.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to re-live what it's like methodically going through a research project that involves a lot of travel and face to face interviews. I have started reading another holocaust memoir called "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans" about the Bielski Brothers that was recently made into a movie with Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber. I'll have a review about that when I'm done.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 13, 2009 at 2:57 PM and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Mara Dekel  

אמיר בני היקר,
אתה מדהים אותי כל פעם מחדש, עם צורת הכתיבה וההתנסחות שלך, עם הרגישות והחכמה שלך, עם ההשקעה בחיפוש אחר המשפחה והשורשים שלך. אני מאד שמחה וגאה להיות אמא שלך!
אגב, התחלתי לקרוא את "האבודים" של מנדלסוןאני מקווה שאצליח לסיים אותו...

April 14, 2009 at 8:58 AM

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