The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million

HarperCollins  2006


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.

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?

JBC Book Clubs questions (c) Jewish Book Council, Inc., 2014

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