The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn

The story of a quest for answers 

The facts of the Shoah have the same power to shock today as when the few survivors straggled out of the death camps and the first witnesses started testifying. These facts have been extensively documented and analysed over the years. So when I picked up The Lost, I was prepared to be disturbed again about the refinement in cruelty, the utter randomness and the sheer vastness of the horror inflicted upon millions, and duly was. I was also interested in gaining insight into that horror from an author whose personal family interest into the matter translated into a quest for the fate of his great-uncle, his great-aunt and their four daughters. The only known fact about them was that, like countless others, they had disappeared, they were “lost”. 
What I wasn’t expecting was to learn entirely new things. What shocked me most, in this respect, was to find out that the “final solution” to the “Jewish question” was at least partly brought about by the fact that the initial mass killings by shooting were not only “inefficient” because of the huge numbers involved, but also because their perpetrators found them traumatising. So, incredible though this seems, annihilation on a much larger scale by gas poisoning in concentration camps was partly prompted by “sensitivity” to the feelings of the operators of the extermination machinery. I had always imagined that this change in momentum had simply emanated from the diseased brain of an increasingly bloodthirsty monster, who had come to power for explicable but not understandable reasons. (I was so surprised by what was for me new information that I had to check it out on Internet).
A second, though far less shocking, surprise was that I had always thought of “Galicia” as being the name of part of Spain, not realising that it is also the name given to a region in Eastern Europe with a checkered history…
I was fascinated by the “quest” part of the story that Daniel Mendelsohn had to tell, especially as he seemed to be an ideal candidate to carry it out, combining his strong desire for knowledge with an academic background, the lack of an obvious religious agenda and the resources required to bring the project to fruition. I particularly admired how brilliantly he demonstrated that many family stories make up world history. He isn’t the first to have done so, and won’t be the last, but his narrative makes the point particularly compellingly.
I also enjoyed the description of how his investigative skills were honed with practice, how he slowly came to the realisation that he was truly “looking back”, even if the reader is never really told why he did so quite so insistently. The fact that relationships with some of his family members were changed in the process, notably with one brother, and for the better, is another interesting aspect of the book
Just as I was about to regret, quite deep into the book, that the “Why?” question was being eluded, the author did touch on that topic. When discussing the involvement of Ukrainians and Poles in the atrocities, he mentioned the fact that the Soviets had starved millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33. He reminded us too how Nazis and Soviets were initially variously seen as liberators or oppressors, depending on where (or when) you stood. He also had to deal with the question of betrayal by a few Jews themselves. This brings me to what I think is one of the most amazing things about this book: after years of research, of travel, of delving into people’s painful memories, after the incredible achievement of ascertaining a number of solid facts about the authors’ relatives’ disappearance, after reading the first bits of the Torah properly, the only answer to the “Why?” question seems to be “there were good people and there were bad people”. And indeed, what else can you say?

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