Friday, October 26, 2007

The Lost

My cousin, who I have never been close to, lent me The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million on her recent visit to France. At the time, she had no idea how interested in this book I would be.

The memoir recounts Daniel Mendelsohn’s search for information about the lives and deaths of his great uncle and his family. His journey starts with only one sure fact: his Uncle Shmiel and family were killed during the Nazi occupation of eastern Poland (now Ukraine).

As a Ukraine-phile, I was particularly interested that from his childhood, Mendelsohn’s grandfather (Uncle Shmiel’s brother) teaches him that Ukrainians are the worst people alive—much worse than the Nazis themselves. Yet, when he returns to his family’s ancestral village, Mendelsohn discovers the Ukrainians there are kind and gracious.

These sections resonate with me as I, too, struggle with similar feelings (though, of course, not on such a personal level as Mendelsohn). How can I love Ukraine so much knowing many Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis?

I had an epiphany as I read Mendelsohn’s hypothesis that both Ukrainians and Jews, at this time, are at the bottom of the food chain. As such, the two groups struggle to gain ground on each other. For example, when the Russians are in power, the Jewish community is relieved because they alleviate some of its suffering. Yet, the Ukrainians are tortured at the Russian’s hands. Conversely, when the Germans take over, the Ukrainians are happy, while the Jews suffer unimaginably.

I read this section, had my epiphany, on a flight from Slovakia to France and wept furtively on the plane.

Yet, the book also includes graphic accounts of Ukrainian abuse that is simply irreconcilable. I found myself constantly shaking my head as I read descriptions of torture—of children smashed against rocks and men’s eyes cut out. I instinctively tried to shake these images from my mind.

Although the book is long, over 500 pages, and often meanders and is repetitive, I was completely invested in knowing for myself what happens to Uncle Shmiel, his wife, and four daughters.

Yet, I also sense that Mendelsohn is disingenuous in some of his writing. For example, he shares a family narrative about his great aunt being sold into marriage. In an earlier book, Mendelsohn writes about discovering this family story is not true. Yet, he never shares this fact with the readers of The Lost. I finished the book wondering if what Mendelsohn leaves out of the book is just as important as what he includes.

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