In this “hinge moment” in time, our view of the Holocaust is in transition, Daniel Mendelsohn says, from the oral testimony of witnesses to the written archives compiled by historians. And both versions are flawed — as much by failures of memory as by personal bias.
But that, he believes, is how a nation forms its mythology. Just as we have done with the Passover narrative, in 200 or 2,000 years time the Jewish people will have a concise, coherent account of the Holocaust — not necessarily entirely factual, but one that suits our cultural and spiritual needs.
Mendelsohn, a literary critic and author of six books, addressed an audience at Kean University on April 12. The talk was hosted by the Jewish Studies Program as part of its Spring Visiting Scholars series. It drew an audience of around 80 to the new STEM auditorium on the Union campus.
His focus was his own award-winning best-seller, The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million, published in 2006, but his spotlight was on Holocaust research in general.
Mendelsohn grew up on Long Island, obsessed with genealogy but not with Judaism. He made it clear that he set out to write the book with little knowledge of Jewish history or the war. His goal was to explore the “quite small” subject that obsessed him — what had happened to his grandfather’s brother Schmiel and his family, left behind in the shtetl of Bulechow in Poland.
He knew that they had probably all died in the war but not how — or why the subject so tormented his beloved grandfather, who ended his own life by committing suicide in his 80s, probably because of guilt over his inability to save them.
“All family trees wither over time,” Mendelsohn said, “but our family tree had been violently truncated.” Of the 6,000 Jews in Bulechow before the war, only 48 survived.
Along the way, struggling to establish the truth, Mendelsohn came across a much larger realization. “Storytellers,” he said, those we rely on for accounts of the past, “have a willed subjective desire to present certain things and to suppress others.”
‘Jews with guns’
Mendelsohn, a Princeton graduate with prestigious academic credentials, isn’t a gentle observer. He opened by threatening to publicly humiliate anyone whose cell phone rang. He ended by saying that as we lose the survivors of the Shoa, Jews are gravitating to versions that depict armed resistance — films like Defiance and fiction like Inglourious Basterds — because they are easier to accept than images of passive victimhood. “We’re in love with Jews with guns, and a whole country of Jews with guns,” he said. But he is just as hard on himself.
It frustrated him to find quicksand where one might have hoped for firm ground, even in the records at Yad Vashem in Israel, “the greatest of the Holocaust memorials.” Another researcher might have rejoiced and ended that part of the search when Mendelsohn came across an account of how one of Schmiel’s daughters died, submitted in 1957 by a cousin. However, he knew enough by then to recognize that “barely a single element was true.”
Traveling with his brother, photographer Matt Mendelsohn, he tracked down survivors as far apart as Australia and Sweden. All had issues of their own that colored and warped what he had initially taken for objective reports. Some were reporting gossip; others were hiding the fact that they had collaborated to save themselves.
But it was his own fallibility that clinched his outlook, and one word epitomizes that unreliability. Eavesdropping, as a little boy, Mendelsohn thought he heard his grandfather say that Schmiel, trying to evade capture, had hidden in a “kessel,” which the child interpreted as the old man’s way of saying “castle.”
As an adult, after five years of research that took him around the world, Mendelsohn realized why he had never been able to locate that “castle.” The word had been “kestl” — Yiddish for “box.” He had listened “with this American child’s romantic ears,” and deafened himself to the truth. His great-uncle had found brief safety in one tiny room, not a grand palace — before being captured and killed.
It didn’t change the tragic outcome, but for Mendelsohn it drove home how deep-seated our misconceptions can be. But as fragile as memory might be, and how “flawed, porous, and problematic” our view of history, he made clear that the obligation remains to seek out the truth and to keep alive the memory of those whose lives were so violently cut short.
Janet Wolkoff of South Orange was among the people who gathered afterward to have Mendelsohn sign her copy of The Lost, which she has read. “He gives you such a vivid sense of what life was like before the war,” she said. “It left me with a whole new feeling of the connection between American Jews and the Jews in Europe.”