Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Lost - Daniel Mendelsohn

Now, this book has been subject to a variation of my usual language rule: normally, if a book is written in English, I read it in English. I first came across Daniel Mendelsohn's name, however, as a result of him appearing on Francesca Isidori's programme on France Culture, and I forgot, when I saw a paperback copy in a French supermarket, that he was an anglophone author. To cut a long story short, I read the book in French, but am taking a little space to recommend the original English edition because it is a very remarkable book indeed.

The book concerns Mendelsohn's long search for the truth about the disappearance of his uncle, Schmiel, his aunt, and their four daughters during the Holocaust. Mendelsohn, a Classicist, in love with pagan civilization, gay and not a practising Jew, is forced to reappropriate his own identity and the history of his family as he travels the world trying to find witnesses to what happened in the little Ukrainian town of Bolechow between 1939 and 1944. This becomes a journey of self-discovery bringing him into closer contact with those around him and with some whom he might never otherwise have met. Despite the horrors that he uncovers, he retains a remarkable sense of balance and proportion as he uncovers the 'Greek tragedy' of the Ukrainian, Polish and Jewish communities who were caught between Stalin and Hitler between the 1920s and the 1940s. To the Jews, the Russians were a guarantee against Nazi oppression, and their arrival in 1939, after the Hitler-Stalin pact, was greeted with great rejoicing. To the Ukrainians, who had lost 5 to 7 million under the Stalinist oppression in the 1920s and 1930s, the Nazis were seen as liberators when they marched in in 1941. Conflict was inevitable, and some Ukrainians became the enthusastic agents of the German policy of extermination of the Jews. Other Ukrainians died helping their Jewish neighbours in one way or another.

This is a great book. It could, with profit, have been a little shorter, but the reader feels that he experiences everything that this remarkable writer has gone through to reach the point of agreeing with the survivor who told him in Yiddish, "Genug ist genug" - "Enough is enough". He never finds the name of the neighbour who denounces two ladies who attempted to hide his uncle and one of his daughters, and he never finds out if his family in America did all that they could to answer Uncle Schmiel's desperate cry for help as expressed in his surviving letters; but he does get near to the tree of knowledge, a tree which turns out to be in a small garden in the Ukraine.

Not for the faint-hearted, perhaps, but this is an essential read.

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