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The Lost: A Search For Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn


Every Bolechower we had talked to until that night had survived by not moving: by staying perfectly still for days and weeks and months in attics, in haylofts, in cellars, in secret compartments, in holes dug into the forest floor, and in the strangest, most confining prison of all, the fragile prison of a false identity. The last story we were to hear was, like a story you might hear in an epic poem, a Greek myth, a story of perpetual movement, of ceaseless wandering."
from page 416

The Lost: A Search For Six of Six Million
by Daniel Mendelsohn is non-fiction. Because I know well my difficult relationship with non-fiction, I know I usually start the book but never finish it. I can't help it. With non-fiction you always know the outcome and there isn't any suspense. So it's very rarely that I pick up a non-fiction book to read because I know that chances are I won't finish it and what's the point reading something you know you won't finish when you can be reading something that you know you will finish. This is what happened with The Lost several years ago when I started it the first time: I never made it past the first chapter largely due to the structure of the narrative and the author's writing style and the very long, very long, chapters. This time when I picked up the book I was determined to finish it, and I did many days later.

Mendelsohn's prose is beautiful and meticulous but very dense and labyrinthine in that many times by the time you reach the end of a sentence it's taken so many turns that you've forgotten how it started and are forced to re-read it from the beginning more than once before you've finally tweezed out its meaning. This is representative of the larger structure of the book: stories within stories and seemingly unrelated tangents that repeatedly diverge from the main narrative. However, these divergences are actually related thematically to the rest of the narrative.

This is an account of the author's analysis of his motivations and interest in his family's tragedy wracked history and his long journey in an effort to finally illuminate the mysterious and heartbreaking fates of the great-uncle and great-aunt, who, along with their four daughters, were "killed by the Nazis" in Europe during World War II. It is an effort to bring closure to his family's greatest tragedy by finally answering the questions of how, when, why, and by whose hand they died. But six decades have by now passed. Who is left and what documents survive that can help solve this mystery? It becomes clear to both reader and author that for some one will only ever be able to speculate as to the details of the deaths of these long dead ancestors.

Mendelsohn journeys far both emotionally and geographically in his search for his lost six of six million. This is a fascinating, heartbreaking, poignant, thought provoking narrative that I recommend for anyone who is also a family historian or who is a Holocaust historian. In the end Mendelsohn's story becomes as much about the story of the annihilation of one Ukrainian town's Jews--and the survival of the 48 out of 6,000 Jews in that town--as it is a story of the search for the fates of six dead out of six million killed in the Holocaust, for his family. It is a story that is at once beautiful, harrowing, and horrifying for the accounts of that which the Jews had to endure to survive, had to suffer in the hours before their deaths, and the indignities to which their corpses were subjected. It's nearly unimaginable that for many of the dead, nothing survives: neither photographs nor details of how or when or where they died. For too many victims the only witness was God.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

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