As a child, Daniel Mendelsohn always wondered why his beloved grandfather carried two wallets.
There was the wallet holding credit cards and cash in his pants pocket, and the beautiful ostrich-skin wallet carefully placed each day in his shirt pocket.
Mendelsohn assumed it was just part of his Polish-born grandfather’s fashionable ways. The mystery remained unsolved until 1980 when he accompanied his mother to Miami to close out his grandfather’s affairs after his death. While going through some papers, out fell the wallet.
“Inside were these old crumbling letters,” he told the 150-plus people gathered April 18 at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, to commemorate Yom Hashoa.
Mendelsohn said the letters were written in 1939 by his great-uncle Shmiel, his grandfather’s older brother and the only sibling not to leave Eastern Europe in the 1920s. He, his wife, Ester, and their four daughters were murdered in the Holocaust.
“He was writing to my grandfather begging for help getting out of Poland,” said Mendelsohn. “My grandfather kept those letters close to his heart because he felt so guilty he could do nothing for his brother, his wife, and his nieces. Each of those letters was more desperate than the last.”
Those letters were for Mendelsohn — a classics scholar — the beginning of a journey to learn what happened to Shmiel Jager, a meat shipper in Bolechow — now in Ukraine — and his family. The result was The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (Harper, 2006), which became an international bestseller and the winner of numerous awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Jewish Book Award.
Mendelsohn recalled Bolechow, a town of 15,000 where Jews, Ukrainians, and Poles each made up a third of the population and where Jews first settled in 1596.
“Uncle Shmiel had a history,” the author said, adding that it was “extraordinary” that generations of a family lived “400 years in that same house where he lived until the Nazis took him away.”
Mendelsohn described the difficult beginnings of his search in the pre-Internet days, when the Iron Curtain cut off Eastern Europe. As the 1990s gave way to technology and glasnost, he found a Ukrainian man who conducted genealogical research. Two years later, a package arrived containing 110 birth certificates of Yagers going back to 1726.
On a trip to Bolechow with his siblings, Mendelsohn talked to a woman who was a teenager during the war who told him that as the town’s Jews were being marched to the Jewish cemetery to be liquidated, they waved and said, “Good-bye neighbors. Remember us.”
Eventually Mendelsohn contacted other family survivors, including 43 living in Australia. They filled out the picture of Shmiel and his vivacious daughters.
For all he learned about the family, it troubled him that no one seemed to remember anything about Ester.
One day in Tel Aviv, while interviewing a woman who had been a friend of one of the daughters, Mendelsohn pressed her for information about Ester.
As Mendelsohn was leaving, she called out, “I remembered something. All the people in Bolechow said Ester had nice legs.”
“I thought it was both funny and tragic,” he said, “The Nazis tried to wipe these people out so there would be nothing left of them to remember. I considered it kind of an ethical victory. Someone remembered Ester had nice legs.”