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Bookmarks Issue: 
25-Nov-Dec-2006
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A Search for Six of Six Million

A-The LostAs a child in the 1960s, Daniel Mendelsohn, a classics scholar and literary critic, was repeatedly told how much he resembled his great-uncle Shmiel Jäger, who, with his wife and four daughters, had perished at the hands of the Nazis. As an adult, after reading letters Shmiel wrote to his brother in 1939, Mendelsohn made it his mission to unearth his great-uncle’s fate. In 2001, Mendelsohn traversed the Ukraine, Israel, Australia, and Sweden to locate survivors from his uncle’s Ukrainian shtetl of Bolechow. As their individual stories unfold, Mendelsohn learns about Shmiel, a big man in Bolechow—and starts to evaluate his own Jewish beliefs. By his journey’s end, Mendelsohn not only uncovers the horrific details about his relatives’ deaths but in the process recovers the vitality of their lives.
HarperCollins. 512 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 0060542977

Chicago Tribune 5 of 5 Stars
"The resulting book is a singular achievement, a work of major significance and pummeling impact. … What elevates The Lost among many other searing Holocaust narratives is Mendelsohn’s concern with life before the German invasion." Samuel G. Freedman

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"In its own vast circling loops, The Lost mediates between history and the present, the living and the dead, between the story being told and the emotional life of the storyteller. … [Mendelsohn’s] accomplishment is enormous, and it is personally costly." Louise Steinman

Pittsburgh Trib-Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Non-Jewish readers researching their genealogy and cultural roots will find in Mendelsohn’s quest an experience that parallels their own, with its unexpected turns and revelations and chance breakthroughs. … The Lost is an extraordinary book, and in its breadth and uniqueness of vision, is one of the exceptional books of this year." David Walton

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"[The story] unfolds in a circular fashion, so that only, at the very end, when he returns to Bolechow a second time, are all the threads—the purse with the $20 bill, his grandfather’s suicide, the identity of the man his family called ‘Herman the Barber’—truly woven together, with an essayistic rigor and force that recall the recent work of Jonathan Franzen or early Joan Didion. … But he still can’t quite reconcile the larger picture." Joanna Smith Rakoff

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"To draw parallels to the book’s themes of origins, family, betrayal, and death, Mendelsohn weaves in italicized medieval Jewish interpretations of the biblical stories of Creation, Cain and Abel, and the Flood. … But the powerful ending—that final visit to Bolechow and the streets where Shmiel and his family lived and died—is poignant and heart-rending enough to eclipse the excesses and turn The Lost into a memorable, insightful book about what can be tragically lost—and ultimately, with persistence, found." Don Oldenburg

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Mendelsohn, an evocative, ruminative writer, brings to life the vanished world not just of prewar Poland but also of his childhood and his extended family, and his growing fascination with the story of Shmiel. … But the same obsessiveness that takes him to a dozen countries in the course of a year also causes him to overplay his hand." William Grimes

Critical Summary

Daniel Mendelsohn, an award-winning book critic and author of The Elusive Embrace, tells a magnificent, heartbreaking story that toggles between past and present. Masterfully and lovingly narrated, his story extends Holocaust remembrance past the tragedy itself to rescue from oblivion the vanished world of prewar Poland. Despite the utterly compelling nature of this family history (Mendelsohn’s own life included), The Lost is not an easy read. First, there’s the difficult subject matter. Second, Mendelsohn interweaves medieval Jewish interpretations of biblical stories into his story, which gives the book tremendous depth but, according to some critics, confuses the central story line. Self-conscious and elaborate prose detracted a few others. In the end, however, "By honoring these six relatives, Mendelsohn has paid homage to all of those who perished in Hitler’s Final Solution" (San Francisco Chronicle).