When I first started to read Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, I felt incredibly frustrated. It wandered all over the place. No sooner would Mendelsohn start a riff on the history of his grandfather, who emigrated from a small town called Bolechow in Eastern Europe to the
But I was struck by something different: Mendelsohn’s writing style also recreates a journey, that of genealogical research. For anyone who has ever tried to find out about the lives and homes of long-dead relatives, you know the search comes in tiny, parallel, increments. You find out one small detail and it may be the only information you know for months on end. Then you discover another little clue, information so incidental it seems unimportant, yet it propels your knowledge forward. It takes dozens of those sideways movements to gain a clearer picture of a life.
The Lost is Mendelsohn’s description of this back and forth research. Sometimes you can’t believe he is writing this mundane stuff. He spends pages of trying to discover if one relative was pregnant when she died, and was it by her Polish, non-Jewish lover? One survivor described that cousin as “easy.” Did that mean she had loose morals – as suggested by her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, or did it refer to her fun-loving temperament? Alternatively, he spends time trying to figure out whether another great uncle emigrated to