The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million

Daniel Mendel­sohn 

By – October 26, 2011

Daniel Mendel­sohn presents this mem­oir in vast cir­cling loops.” Essen­tial details are clev­er­ly embed­ded with­in kinet­ic sen­tences, sto­ry with­in sto­ry, and nar­ra­tive with­in nar­ra­tive, each forc­ing the read­er to return to the begin­ning to dis­cov­er the end­ing. The begin­ning, how­ev­er, is in the end of this mem­oir, as Mendel­sohn gives voice to the silence of a fam­i­ly mys­tery: the anni­hi­la­tion of six of six mil­lion in Nazi Germany.

As he trav­els to the far reach­es of the world to col­lect the mem­o­ries of those who can help him to per­son­al­ize the six fam­i­ly mem­bers, Mendel­sohn, in effect, writes them all into his­to­ry. Their char­ac­ters, their strug­gles, their jour­neys, and their fears are thus threads woven in the tapes­try of Holo­caust history.

Although the most obvi­ous theme of this auto­bi­og­ra­phy is Mendelsohn’s search for his rel­a­tives’ sto­ries, there are many sub­texts for the read­er to fol­low: the effects of mem­o­ry; the need to tell a sto­ry so that each event turn[s] out to con­tain anoth­er”; and the lens through which the trav­el­er sees space and place. One can eas­i­ly argue as well that the title, The Lost, car­ries with it Mendelsohn’s desire to com­plete his own his­to­ry. The con­stant inter­sper­sions of bib­li­cal inter­pre­ta­tion and com­men­tary, for instance, enable him to ratio­nal­ize his rela­tion­ship to Judaism.

All in all, read­ers of The Lost will trav­el with Mendel­sohn on his jour­ney toward under­stand­ing, and they will do so by fol­low­ing his atten­tion to detail, to sub­stance, to truth, and to the sto­ries as yet unwritten.

Malv­ina D. Engel­berg, an inde­pen­dent schol­ar, has taught com­po­si­tion and lit­er­a­ture at the uni­ver­si­ty lev­el for the past fif­teen years. She is a Ph.D. can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Miami.

Discussion Questions

1. How much do you know about your fam­i­ly his­to­ry? How many gen­er­a­tions back does that knowl­edge go?

2. Are old­er rel­a­tives and the sto­ries they may have shared about their lives part of your mem­o­ries about grow­ing up? What kind of effect do you think they had on you and your sense of who you are?

3. Daniel Mendel­sohn talks in his book about the hinge gen­er­a­tion” – the last gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple who will have had direct con­tact with the peo­ple who lived in the WWII era and who will be respon­si­ble for keep­ing their sto­ries alive and pass­ing them on to future gen­er­a­tions. Dis­cuss ways in which we can ensure that those sto­ries are passed on to future generations.

4.What began as a trip to Bole­chow became a jour­ney into the past that took Daniel Mendel­sohn all over the world… Were you sur­prised at the reac­tions of any of they peo­ple he met along the way? Did you expect him to find out as much about his fam­i­ly’s fate as he did?

5.Do you think our fam­i­lies’ his­to­ries play a big part in shap­ing who we are as Americans?

JBC Book Clubs Dis­cus­sion Questions 

1) How do you think the quote One death is a tragedy, a mil­lion is a sta­tis­tic” shapes The Lost? Do you think the book proves or dis­proves the quote?

2) How did the bib­li­cal struc­ture of the nar­ra­tive, the chap­ter head­ings, and the essays on the Torah por­tions effect your reading?

3) When Daniel is inter­view­ing Jack Greene he writes that We are, each of us, myopic; always at the cen­ter of our own sto­ries” (p. 147). Do you think that’s true? How does that res­onate for you as a read­er of some­one else’s sto­ry? What does that mean com­ing from a man in the midst of a sev­er­al year jour­ney across many con­ti­nents in search of some­one else’s (albeit, part of his own fam­i­ly) story?

4) In Mendel­sohn’s com­men­tary on Lot’s wife, he writes, regret for what we have lost, for the pasts we have to aban­don, often poi­sons any attempt to make a new life.” And that those who look back at what has been, rather than for­ward into the future… knew not only a pain but a nar­cot­ic plea­sure, too: a mourn­ful con­tem­pla­tion so flaw­less so crys­talline, that it can, in the end, immo­bi­lize you.” In light of that, what do you think Daniel’s search over­all? What about the last few para­graphs of the book?