11/10/09

The Lost

“They were killed by the Nazis,” is all Daniel Mendelsohn’s grandfather would say about his brother Shmiel and Shmiel’s wife and four daughters. The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million tells how Mendelsohn managed, sixty years after the fact, to piece together a handful of memories and rumors to create a narrative of the fate of his relatives.

It was an enormously difficult task, not least because of the passage of time. Shmiel and his family lived in a town called Bolechow, which was sometimes Polish and sometimes Russian and sometimes Ukrainian. Of the six thousand Jews in Bolechow in 1939, only forty-eight remained in 1945. Forty-eight. Of those forty-eight, only a handful were alive in 2001, when Mendelsohn began his search in earnest. It was through years of far-flung travels, and interviews with survivors, and strange coincidences and twists of fate, that the story of Mendelsohn’s family was uncovered.

Mendelsohn’s beloved grandfather carried a long brown wallet in his pocket every day of his life. Upon his death, Mendelsohn discovered the contents of the wallet – letters from Shmiel written in the earliest days of the war. The tone of the letters grew increasingly desperate with the passage of time. Send papers, send money, appeal to the President, get us all out, get my children out, get at least one of my daughters out – until the letters stopped for good. One of the things that was “impossible to know” (a phrase used often throughout the book) was how Mendelsohn’s grandfather, and Shmiel’s other siblings and cousins, out of harm’s way in America, responded to those letters. Of course they did everything they could to help, Mendelsohn was told by other family members, but the passage of time, the deaths of people who were actually there, leaves the question in doubt.

Because the family did not escape in time, they were “liquidated” (a chilling word, used often in this book) along with the rest of the Bolechow Jews. The mother and three daughters were killed early on; the father and another daughter survived almost to the end. With the help of a Polish Catholic boy who loved the daughter, they were hidden in a hole beneath the house of a schoolteacher until a suspicious neighbor denounced them. Then they were all – Shmiel and his daughter, the boy and the teacher – shot.

I’ve always avoided reading much about the Holocaust; it’s too horrible, too enormously awful. Even as I was reading this book I was distancing myself from the contents, from some of the descriptions of what happened to the people in Bolechow. There was one story that broke down my detachment, though – and honestly, if you are at all sensitive to very sad stories, you probably just want to stop reading right now. In a way I feel it’s not even my place to tell it – but what happened was this. There was a group of Jews hiding in a house during one of the “Aktions” – when the Germans rounded up the Jews of the town for mass executions. The group in hiding included a woman with her two children, aged two and four. The two-year-old was crying, and the others were afraid that the crying would reveal their position. The mother was forced to hold a pillow over the child’s face; the child suffocated, and the group was found anyway. They were put on cattle cars for transport to a camp with gas chambers. During the journey, the mother saw an opportunity to jump off the car – so she did, leaving her four-year-old behind.

When I read that, I thought, of course, of Phoebe, my four-year-old, and my immediate reaction was – never, never, never, would I have abandoned her like that. Even in this situation, when I knew that both of us would die; even when I knew that nothing I could do would save her; even when I knew that my presence would be no protection for her – I would not leave her side. But then I thought – and Mendelsohn in fact pointed out, several times during the relaying of stories like these – that I simply cannot know what I would have done, having never been in that situation; and because of that I cannot judge.

One thing I hadn’t known was that the gas chambers – the “final solution” – came about, in part, because German soldiers were “emotionally traumatized” from having to shoot so many women and children in the mass executions. The gas chambers were therefore not just efficient, but anonymous, easier for the soldiers to bear. When I read that, I thought – the soldiers were traumatized? Boo-freaking-hoo! They should have been traumatized! They should have been ashamed! They should have thrown down their guns and walked away and refused to take part in the atrocities. And I realized that this was part of the tragedy of the Holocaust. The main tragedy, of course, was the death of 6 million people – the loss of not just those lives, as Mendelsohn points out in a very moving passage, but of all those families, and of all those futures – children that would never be born, stories that would never be told, art never created, music never sung, problems never solved – but it was a tragedy, too, that so many other people were made to be complicit in those deaths. That Germans (and Ukrainians, and Poles, and others) killed Jews (and Ukrainians, and Poles, and others). That we (humans) killed them (humans).

It occurred to me to wonder, too, what part distant members of my family would have played during this awful time. My father’s family – my great-grandfather and great-grandmother – came from a little town that was probably very much like Bolechow, a town that was sometimes German and sometimes Russian. Most of them emigrated long before World War II , but it’s possible that someone related to me, however distantly, some Renner or Kruegel or Ehrlich, was still there. What did he do, this hypothetical cousin of mine? He wasn’t Jewish, that much I know. Did he help march Jews into a forest and raise his gun? Was he off with the army, fighting other battles? Did he lay low in his cottage, attempting to make it through the war unseen and unscathed? Did he, maybe, cut a trapdoor in his kitchen floor, clear out a living space, and hide a Jewish family there, risking his own life and the lives of his own wife and children as he did so? Or did he notice a neighbor behaving strangely, did he suspect that neighbor of harboring Jews, and did he report his suspicions, hoping that by highlighting that neighbor’s “betrayal” he would ensure his own survival?

Impossible to know.

4 comments:

aimee said...

That was deep. I know that sounds incredibly not deep considering how deep this post was.

I have read or watched a few things about the Holocaust and I too try to keep my distance. But those stories, and there are too many stories like that one of the mother, that makes one feel...hopeless. And fearful. I really hope our distant relative, if there was one, was a good soul. But good soul or not, if you fear for your life or your family's, then who knows what you would do. I get chills thinking about it.

Anonymous said...

I think that it is very easy to think that one would behave nobly and honorably no matter what the situation. However, the human instinct for survival is so very strong that I think that instinct may overcome the honor or nobility that is within us. The Holocaust was so horrible that the mind boggles at both the actions of the villains and the actions of the heroes, not to mention the actions of those who were just trying to make it one more day.

Mom

Anonymous said...

Grandad had several siblings and assorted cousins who he kept in touch with up until about 1935 when one of Stalin's pograms went through the area. The little town no longer existed by the time the war was over. A cousin (i think) and her daughter walked from Russia to West Germany after the war and ended up here in the 60's.
So you had great aunts and uncles directly involved.
Dad

Krista said...

Dad, I remember now hearing that Grandad thought most of his relatives had been killed when Stalin went through. This book pointed out that just a few years before the Holocaust, about 5-7 million Ukrainians were starved to death by Stalin. The Ukrainians of this town (in the book) were actually happy when Germany took over Poland, because they thought they'd fare better under Hitler than under the Soviets.