There's a photograph of a man named Shmiel, looking prosperous in his suit and tie, gold watch and chain, proud butcher in the town of Bolechow in what was once Poland.
And then there are the letters of Shmiel Jäger to his several siblings, including his brother Abraham in America, in 1939 — letters begging for help to escape from Bolechow. In one letter, he writes: "For a few months I lived in the hope of being able to see you in person ... but my dream vanished." In another: "What you know about what the Jews are going through here is just one one-hundredth of it." Another: "Little Bronia is still in school, gripped by constant terror." And another: "God willing, Hitler should be torn to bits!" Until: "I bid you all farewell and kiss you all from the bottom of my heart, your Sam."
Shmiel Jäger, his wife Ester, along with their daughters Lorka, Frydka, Ruchele, and Bronia were soon to be six among the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Thanks to Abraham Jaeger's grandson, however, they haven't disappeared. They survive in the pages of The Lost (now in paperback from Harper Perennial), winner in 2006 of the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography, which makes it the second National Book Critics Circle Award (for excellence in reviewing) for Daniel Mendelsohn: frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, former book critic for New York magazine, and teacher at Bard College.
The Lost is more than a testament to the detective work that sent Mendelsohn from Ukraine, to Australia, to Scandinavia, to Israel, and to the Upper East Side in search of clues to his lost relatives. It's a meditation on the Old Testament — from Noah and the Flood, to Cain and Able, to Creation itself. It's a fond tribute to Abraham too. But it's also a record of the author's split-level, middle-class upbringing on Long Island in the 1960s and beyond, years spent questioning a family's long history, a horrifying history by 1939.
On Wednesday, February 13th, you'll have a chance to question Daniel Mendelsohn yourself when he signs The Lost at Davis-Kidd. The time is 6 p.m., but for the time being, here's what Mendelsohn told the Flyer by phone from New York City.
Flyer: I don't need to ask about the reception to The Lost by impressed reviewers, but I am interested in reader response, especially now that the book's been out for a year and a half.
Daniel Mendelsohn: Naturally, there's been a strong response from American Jews. But the book has also cut across religious lines, because in a sense it's about discovering your own family. I'm getting e-mails from people, not just Jewish people, who say they've been inspired. Or they say they never really understood the Holocaust until they read the book. It's made the Holocaust personal, identifiable.
Here's another thing: When the book first came out, I was on a small-town Christian radio station. My relatives in Poland were small-town people. For the first time readers said they felt like they had a handle on what the Holocaust meant — what it meant to live in a town with, you know, a bank, a post office, a general store and then to have your life destroyed. That is the response that's floored me.
There's biblical commentary from scholars scattered throughout The Lost. When did you decide to include it, and why?
I was already into the writing, and I was thinking of Shmiel's letters. It's very difficult to read those letters, and I'm sure my grandfather in America did what he could to help his brother in Poland. But we'll never know.
And because it was so emotional for me, I thought I'm going to get away from this story and find another story — one about the relationship between siblings. I turned to the Bible as a kind of life preserver. If it helped me, then it will maybe help my readers. Cain and Able compared to the Jews and their neighbors the Ukrainians. The Flood compared to the Holocaust. There are parallels.
My story's a detective story, yes. You want to know what happens. But I wanted readers to stop and think every now and then. I wanted to put the breaks on, remind people that this is not only an "adventure" story. It's about great themes.
Did writing the book put you closer to Judaism?
It put me much more in touch with Jewish civilization. As a person who grew up an American Jew, it can be a revelation to go back to Europe and see what we take for granted. For the most part, you know you're not going to be killed for being Jewish. Even my grandfather, growing up, couldn't take that for granted — the dark traditions of anti-Semitism.
Is there one question, above all, you wish you could have answered in The Lost and can't?
Will you give me two questions? Because there are two things that keep me up in the middle of the night. The first, of course, are those letters of my great-uncle Shmiel. I'd just like to know what my relatives wrote to him in response. For me, it's a peace-of-mind thing. But those letters are lost.
The other question is, Who in Bolechow betrayed my relatives? I was so close. I was there. I was there on a street in Bolechow. There are only six houses on that street. Someone who lived in one of those houses reported my relatives to the Gestapo. Not that I'm looking for justice ...
I'm looking to congratulate you in person for an unforgettable book. Will your signing in Memphis be your first time in town?
Are you kidding? I'm an old Memphis hand! I've been visiting since '78, because my roommates at the University of Virginia, Skip Jones and Phil Eikner, were both from Memphis. So it's going to be a fun trip, not work. I'll get to see my peeps, eat. Memphis is the only place I go for barbecue.