Chinese boxes that open to reveal a horror story

Review Holocaust

September 17, 2006|By Louise Steinman | Louise Steinman,Los Angeles Times

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million

Daniel Mendelsohn

HarperCollins / 514 pages / $27.95

Shmiel Ja(double period above the a)ger was a prosperous businessman, a macher, in "a small town of a few thousand people, located halfway around the world in a landscape that belonged first to Austria and then to Poland and then to many others." The town was called Bolechow. It's now in Ukraine. You've probably never heard of it. After reading Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, you'll never forget it.

For centuries, the family of Mendelsohn's maternal grandfather, Abraham Jaeger, owned and ran a butcher shop in Bolechow. Abraham and his siblings emigrated from Poland in the early 1900s. They enthusiastically embraced their new lives in Palestine and America but retained fond memories of what his grandfather called "a place where a person could live, a beautiful spot near the mountains."

Shmiel, the oldest of the seven J?ger (later Jaeger) siblings, tried America for a year from 1912 to 1913, found it not to his taste and returned to Bolechow, convinced it was the key to his success. He parlayed the butcher store into a thriving meat-shipping business. He owned two trucks and employed several drivers. He and his wife, Ester, had "four beautiful daughters." By the late 1930s, as the right-wing Polish government was enacting restrictions on Jewish businesses, Shmiel was desperate to get his family out of the country.

"Shmiel. Killed by the Nazis ... was, we all understood, the unwritten caption on the few photographs" Mendelsohn's grandfather possessed of Shmiel and his family. Those photos and others more recent - most taken by Mendelsohn's brother Matthew - provide rhythmic intervals of contemplative rest throughout the mass of text.

Mendelsohn adored his dapper, funny grandfather; more important, he listened to him. He soaked up "hundreds of stories and thousands of facts" about Bolechow and its inhabitants. As a child, he writes, "I already had an oddly scholarly bent: the desire both to know and to order what I knew." By 15, he was the official family historian.

It was not just the content of his grandfather's stories that so profoundly shaped Mendelsohn's destiny, it was also the way they were told: "In vast circling loops, so that each incident, each character he mentioned as he sat there, his organ-grinder baritone seesawing along, had its own mini-history, a story within a story, a narrative inside a narrative, so that the story he told was not (as he once explained it to me) like dominoes, one thing happening just after the other, but instead like a set of Chinese boxes or Russian dolls, so that each event turned out to contain another, which contained another, and so forth."

Mendelsohn, a classics scholar, credits his grandfather with creating his "lifelong taste for the pagans." Homer, he tells us, used the same storytelling techniques as Abraham Jaeger from Bolechow: "often interrupt[ing] the forward motion of The Iliad ... spiraling backward in time and sometime space in order to give psychological richness and emotional texture to the proceedings, or to suggest, as he sometimes does, that not knowing certain stories, being ignorant of the intricate histories that, unbeknownst to us, frame the present, can be a grave mistake."

The Lost tells of Mendelsohn's quest to discover what happened to his great-uncle Shmiel, Shmiel's wife, Ester, and their daughters: Lorka, Frydka, Ruchele and Bronia. He digresses into the story of Genesis, where the tale of Creation is illuminated by the story of one family - Adam and Eve. We learn about the Tree of Knowledge and the apple tree in the yard of the house in Bolechow where Shmiel and one of his daughters were hidden. He ruminates on the Flood - a story of annihilation again told through the story of an individual, Noah.

In its own vast circling loops, The Lost mediates between history and the present, the living and the dead, between the story being told and the emotional life of the storyteller. "One by one, the Chinese boxes opened," Mendelsohn writes of listening to his grandfather, "and I would sit and gaze into each one, hypnotized." He could be describing his mesmerizing hold on the reader through some 500 pages.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.