Pho­to by Pete Miller

As a jour­nal­ist, I make a liv­ing by telling the sto­ries of oth­er peo­ple: a for­got­ten African-Amer­i­can nov­el­ist, a Mus­lim immi­grant to fron­tier Wyoming, a pair of female chefs oper­at­ing a high-end restau­rant in the mid­dle of nowhere, Utah. So I sup­pose it’s not sur­pris­ing that when I sat down to write a mem­oir, I found myself want­i­ng to write not only about my own life but about the lives of those clos­est to me — in par­tic­u­lar, my wife, whom I met in 2015, and my father, who died the fol­low­ing year. As that sug­gests, Lost & Found is part­ly a love sto­ry and part­ly an ele­gy, but it is also a con­sid­er­a­tion of all the many things, from the triv­ial to the momen­tous, that we lose and find over the course of a lifetime.

As it hap­pens, my father’s own life exem­pli­fied both the trag­ic and the com­ic aspects of loss. Flu­ent in six lan­guages and pos­sessed of an aston­ish­ing intel­lect, he was the clas­sic absent-mind­ed pro­fes­sor fig­ure, famous for con­stant­ly los­ing his wal­let and cell phone and car keys (and occa­sion­al­ly los­ing his entire car). But, as I describe in the excerpt below, his ear­li­est years were marked by loss in some of its most dev­as­tat­ing forms, from exile to geno­cide. One of the cen­tral mys­ter­ies of his life — how such a lov­ing and hap­py adult emerged from so much child­hood trau­ma — is also one of the ani­mat­ing ques­tions of my book: how, in the face of so much inevitable loss, can we find a way to live with grat­i­tude and joy?

From Lost & Found:

I have some­times thought that my father’s life­long habit of mis­plac­ing things was the com­ic-opera ver­sion of the trag­ic series of loss­es that shaped his child­hood. Although you wouldn’t have known it from his lat­er years, which were char­ac­ter­ized by abun­dance, or from his per­son­al­i­ty, which was char­ac­ter­ized by ebul­lience, my father was born into a fam­i­ly, a cul­ture, and a moment in his­to­ry defined to an extra­or­di­nary degree by loss: loss of knowl­edge and iden­ti­ty, loss of mon­ey and resources and options, loss of homes and home­lands and people.

In its broad out­lines, the sto­ry is famil­iar, because it belongs to one of the most sweep­ing and hor­rif­ic episodes of loss in mod­ern his­to­ry. My father’s moth­er, the youngest of eleven chil­dren, grew up on a shtetl out­side Lodz, in cen­tral Poland — by the late 1930s, one of the most dan­ger­ous places to be Jew­ish on an entire con­ti­nent increas­ing­ly dan­ger­ous to Jews. Because her fam­i­ly was too large and too poor for all of them to escape the com­ing war togeth­er, her par­ents arranged, by a pri­vate cal­cu­lus unimag­in­able to me, to send their youngest child off to safe­ty. That is how, when she was still a teenag­er, my pater­nal grand­moth­er found her­self more than twen­ty-five hun­dred miles from the only world she had ever known, liv­ing in Tel Aviv, which at the time was still part of Pales­tine, and mar­ried to a Pol­ish Jew con­sid­er­ably her senior.

Not long after, my father was born, and not long after that, as a tod­dler, he was sent away to a kib­butz, to be raised for some years among strangers. While he was there, two for­ma­tive loss­es befell his fam­i­ly. First, his bio­log­i­cal father died and his moth­er remar­ried — a fact my father only learned more than two decades lat­er, on his wed­ding night. Sec­ond, every mem­ber of my grandmother’s fam­i­ly that had remained behind in Poland was sent to Auschwitz. Her par­ents per­ished there, as did nine of her ten sib­lings. On Jan­u­ary 27, 1945, when the camp was lib­er­at­ed, only her old­est sis­ter, my great-aunt Edzia, walked out alive. I don’t know when or how this infor­ma­tion reached my grand­moth­er, or how she learned all the rest of the news that must have made its way to Tel Aviv name by name. Almost a quar­ter of a mil­lion Jews had lived in Lodz when she left it; bare­ly more than nine thou­sand sur­vived the war. When my father returned from the kib­butz a few years lat­er, it was to a fam­i­ly recon­fig­ured twice over, once by death and remar­riage, once by the emo­tion­al and prac­ti­cal con­di­tions cre­at­ed by this whole­sale anni­hi­la­tion — almost an entire lin­eage gone, grand­par­ents and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and neigh­bors all slaugh­tered, a moth­er bereft beyond description.

Tel Aviv had been a rel­a­tive­ly good place to weath­er the war, but it was not a good place to face its after­math. With the future of the Mid­dle East in flux, the city was increas­ing­ly dan­ger­ous; one morn­ing, a friend of my father’s was killed by a stray bul­let while play­ing in the street out­side their apart­ment. As con­di­tions dete­ri­o­rat­ed, the fam­i­ly, nev­er well-off in the first place, strug­gled to scrape by. My grand­fa­ther was a plumber, but work was scarce, and by then he and my grand­moth­er had two oth­er sons to feed as well. In Feb­ru­ary of 1948, three months before the Unit­ed Nations carved an entire new coun­try out of Pales­tine, my grand­par­ents decid­ed that they were done try­ing to raise their chil­dren there. And so, in one of the more unlike­ly tra­jec­to­ries in the his­to­ry of mod­ern Judaism, they packed up their mea­ger pos­ses­sions, left what was about to become the state of Israel, and moved — to Germany.

It was, unsur­pris­ing­ly, not their first choice. After the war, my grand­par­ents had applied for visas to Amer­i­ca, but there were few of those avail­able and eleven mil­lion oth­er refugees in need of a place to call home. Between the phys­i­cal per­il and their dwin­dling finances, they could not afford to wait indef­i­nite­ly; and so, when my grand­fa­ther heard a rumor that it was pos­si­ble to make a decent liv­ing on the black mar­ket in post­war Ger­many, he took notice. He had no reli­gious devo­tion, no Zion­ist impuls­es, and no scru­ples what­so­ev­er about bend­ing the rule of law in the for­mer Third Reich; his alle­giance was to his fam­i­ly, and to sur­vival. If a liv­ing could be made in Ger­many, then nev­er mind that the whole tide of his­to­ry was just then surg­ing in the oth­er direc­tion: to Ger­many they would go.

It was a ter­ri­ble jour­ney. To get to a port with a ship bound for Europe, the fam­i­ly, togeth­er with an uncle who had decid­ed to join them, had to trav­el by car from Tel Aviv to Haifa — a dis­tance of just six­ty miles, but haz­ardous ones, in those days. By then, civ­il war had bro­ken out in Pales­tine between Arab nation­al­ists and Jew­ish Zion­ists, and block­ades, bomb­ings, ambush­es, land mines, and sniper fire were all increas­ing­ly com­mon. Mid­way along the route, the uncle was shot in the front seat. My father, sev­en years old, sat in the back and watched while he grad­u­al­ly died. In lat­er life, my father’s nor­mal vol­uble­ness always veered around this tragedy; either from lin­ger­ing trau­ma or out of an instinct to pro­tect his chil­dren, he recount­ed it with­out elab­o­ra­tion, as bare bio­graph­i­cal fact. I know only that his fam­i­ly, lack­ing any oth­er option, con­tin­ued on to Haifa, where they left the body, then sailed to Genoa and made their way to Germany.

They stayed for four years, set­tling in a lit­tle town in the Black For­est. My father played in the woods and learned to swim in the riv­er and befriend­ed an enor­mous sheep­dog named Fix. At school, he mas­tered Ger­man, the lan­guage in which he first read Kid­napped and Trea­sure Island, and was sent by his teach­ers to sit alone in the hall­way for an hour each after­noon dur­ing reli­gious instruc­tion. On evenings and week­ends, his father set him down in the side­car of his motor­cy­cle and drove him all over the coun­try, an adorable bright-eyed decoy atop a stash of Leica cam­eras and illic­it Amer­i­can cig­a­rettes. It was a pleas­ant exis­tence, but also a pre­car­i­ous one, and the old­er my father got, the more he under­stood that his fam­i­ly was in trou­ble. The mon­ey they made was stashed under floor­boards and rolled inside cur­tain rods; there was talk, not meant for the chil­dren to hear, of near miss­es and con­fronta­tions, of whether and where and how much the author­i­ties had begun crack­ing down on smug­glers. Over time, it became obvi­ous to my father that his fate hinged on the ques­tion of whether the visas or the police would arrive first.

By luck, it was the visas: in 1952, my grand­par­ents packed up their chil­dren, made their way to Bre­men, and set sail for the Unit­ed States. My father began throw­ing up while land was still in sight, and even if the ocean hadn’t been pitch­ing beneath him, it is easy to imag­ine why he would have felt unsta­ble. By then, he had lost, like Eliz­a­beth Bish­op, two cities and a con­ti­nent, along with almost all of what should have been his fam­i­ly. He had lived on a com­mune and in a war zone, in the Mid­dle East and in Europe, in the burn­ing forge that made Israel and the cool­ing embers of the Third Reich. He was not yet twelve years old. He spent almost the entire voy­age in his steer­age-class berth, at sea in both sens­es, mis­er­ably ill. Only when his par­ents told him that they were draw­ing near to port did he strug­gle up to the deck to look at the view. That is my father’s first mem­o­ry of his life in Amer­i­ca: com­ing unsteadi­ly into the sun­light and wind and see­ing, there in the nar­row waters off of Man­hat­tan, the Stat­ue of Liberty.

Kathryn Schulz is a staff writer at The New York­er and the author of Being Wrong. She won a Nation­al Mag­a­zine Award and a Pulitzer Prize for The Real­ly Big One, her arti­cle about seis­mic risk in the Pacif­ic North­west. Lost & Found grew out of Los­ing Streak, a New York­er sto­ry that was anthol­o­gized in The Best Amer­i­can Essays. Her work has also appeared in The Best Amer­i­can Sci­ence and Nature Writ­ing, The Best Amer­i­can Trav­el Writ­ing, and The Best Amer­i­can Food Writ­ing. A native of Ohio, she lives with her fam­i­ly on the East­ern Shore of Maryland.