Growing up, classics professor Daniel Mendelsohn knew virtually nothing about his grandfather’s brother Shmiel, apart from the fact that he, his wife, and their four daughters were “killed by the Nazis.”
For his new book, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Mendelsohn set out to learn everything he could about their lives, and their deaths. The search, which begins with a small packet of letters after his grandfather died, leads him to Israel, Australia, and, of course, the Ukrainian village where Shmiel’s family lived and perished.
Mendelsohn talks to Nextbook about how a search for six people became a 500-page meditation on history, memory, family, and the story of Cain and Abel.
From The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million
She was not what I expected. Tiny but ramrod-straight, her auburn hair, with its expensive copper highlights, swept back in an impeccable and clearly expensive coiffure, she exuded an air that was at once crisp and distant. She was wearing dark colors that highlighted her brilliant hair: a black silk blouse, a violet sweater. Large gold earrings adorned her long lobes. Jack kissed her on each cheek as she strode in.
This is Daniel Mendelsohn, he said, pointing me out; and then, pointing to Matt, he smiled and said, And this is also Mr. Mendelsohn.
I’m so pleased to meet you, I said. My mother is Frydka’s cousin.
Yes, she said, walking past me and seating herself at the table, where she immediately picked up some photographs, I know. Unsmiling, she abruptly started looking through the pictures Matt had taken during our trip to Ukraine: an ancient crone in L’viv, leaning out of a doorway in which you can just make out a groove for the mezuzah that had once been affixed there; an old man in the little square in Bolechow, holding a goat by a leash.
As I stood there trying to think of what to say, I noticed that the air of gentle reminiscence that has characterized the first fifteen minutes of this strange reunion had become charged. Clearly I wasn’t the only one whom Meg Grossbard put on edge. I wondered what private histories, dating sixty years back, lay beneath the polite greetings being uttered by the others at that moment. Six months later, I would find out.
Because I was already a little afraid of her—this woman on whom I had to depend to rescue Frydka from total obscurity, and yet who was clearly already resistant in some undefinable but palpable way—I found myself instinctively trying to appease her, the way that, when I was a boy, I would try to appease my grandfather’s fourth and last wife, that difficult and unsmiling woman with the tattoo on her arm, of whom we were all afraid. So when Mrs. Grossbard turned to me, pulling a photograph from a plastic bag and handing it to me, a posed studio shot of Frydka in which the pretty, long-dead girl is wearing a babushka and very barely smiling, an image I had never seen before and which looks strikingly like my mother—when Mrs. Grossbard turned to me and said, That is Frydka Ja’ger, I stupidly replied, as if to confirm something she considered important,That’s my mother’s cousin. She looked at me, not smiling, and said, Yes I know, she was my girlfriend, with just the barest, proprietary emphasis on the word “my.”
She returned to her bag. I have only a few group photos of Frydka, she said. She explained that they weren’t hers. They had belonged, she said, to a girlfriend of hers and Frydka’s, a young woman called Pepi Diamant.
She perished, but her album survived, Mrs. Grossbard said, tonelessly. I found her album after the war, when I came back to Bolechow, and I took some—her pictures, my pictures, Frydka’s pictures.
I knew that what she meant was: pictures of Pepi, pictures of Meg, pictures of Frydka. (Pepi’s nickname, it became clear that afternoon, had been Pepci, pronounced PEP-shuh.) Oddly, Meg did not offer any of these miraculously preserved photos to me to look at just yet. I could just barely glimpse, through the plastic, snapshots of groups of girls: in summer frocks, posed in front of garden gates; in swimming costumes at the water’s edge; in wasp-waisted winter jackets, standing on skis.
Across the table, Boris Goldsmith, squeezed between Jack Greene and Bob Grunschlag, was looking through more photographs; they were all clearly waiting for the group interview to begin. Ignoring them, Mrs. Grossbard went on. She said, I saw Frydka for the last time—this was when we were still able to walk around freely—in February ‘forty-two.The last time . . .
Her voice trailed off. Suddenly she stopped short and looked right at me for the first time. You look very Aryan, she said, slightly accusingly.
I was taken aback. I do? I said, half in amusement.
Yes, Meg shot back. It’s very important, you know. We have a little thing about it, all of us. Because someone who looked like you had a chance to live.
I was unable to think of any adequate response to this, so instead I took out a photograph that had belonged to my grandfather, a picture in which Shmiel, white-haired and tired-looking, and Ester, stout and big-bosomed in a print dress, stand protectively on either side of Bronia, who looks to be about ten. I put the photograph on the table in front of Meg Grossbard, and she picked it up tenderly. For the first time the hardness, the resistance, seemed to dissolve, and Meg Grossbard, nodding softly, said quietly, Yes. That was her parents.
And—also for the first time—she smiled.
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