Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million is an extraordinary, moving book…one of the greatest non-fiction books I have ever read in my life. It transcends what we expect from nonfiction and creative writing…it moves into a realm where legend, epic, 21st-Century realism, and things so personal you thought you were the only one who ever thought them collide, all topped off with scholarly material which would have blown all of our theses from the MAPH year out of the water.
Dr. Mendelsohn, a classicist and cultural (both high and pop) critic, traveled through Europe, the Middle East, and Australia to find Holocaust survivors who knew his great-uncle Shmiel Jager, a man he so resembled that his relatives would cry when he walked into rooms as a child. Shmiel, his wife, and four daughters all perished in Bolechow, Ukraine, and Daniel wanted to know exactly what happened to them. However, his search instead led him to value even more the stories of how they lived and thought, who they loved and hated, what they believed, and to see that this story was even more important. How often do we look back on our own pasts and wonder how our lives changed so greatly just through adjustments of point of view? What happens when a family, a town, a country undergoes such change? How can we preserve and value the immediacy of life, so precious to each of us? The Lost is a reminder of how to treasure our existence.
And it’s funny. And it strikes multiple nerves as Dr. Mendelsohn muses on family and forms a tight bond with a brother he was never close to before during their journeys. And it weaves a fascinating study of Genesis into the text seamlessly. And its cinematically vivid. And it makes you cry…I dare anyone to read this and not weep. And best of all, it is beautifully written, especially when Dr. Mendelsohn takes off and writes sentences which become entire paragraphs, words and images flowing with the mastery of poetry.
(It strikes me that I now consider two books about the Holocaust in the Ukraine as two of the finest books of my lifetime…it’s such an absolutely specific subject that it surprises me. Then again, as someone who believes God has led him to certain things, it shouldn’t.)