An American Jew undertakes a quest to find out what happened to six of his own relatives who died in the Holocaust.
When he was a boy, some of Mendelsohn’s older relatives would cry when he entered the room. He reminded them of his great-uncle Shmiel, who, along with his wife and four daughters, was a Holocaust victim in Poland. Though Mendelsohn (Humanities/Bard Coll.; The Elusive Embrace, 1999) took on the role of “family historian,” the exact fate of the six remained unknown to him. After his grandfather’s death, Mendelsohn reads a stash of letters from Shmiel that illuminates his great uncle’s desperate efforts to save his family as World War II approached. Mendelsohn then puts extraordinary effort into unearthing their stories. He twice travels to Shmiel’s town, now in Ukraine, and makes trips to countries including Israel, Australia and Sweden to interview relatives and other survivors. The author lets the survivors—many of whom have passed away since the interviews recounted here—unfold their own stories. Many Jews from the town were taken into the woods and machine-gunned; others were gassed. Slowly, a picture emerges of Shmiel and his family—his pride in his butcher business, the girls’ attractiveness—that reclaims them from the past. His search also brings him back to his own religion—he intersperses the story with Biblical passages as a way to grapple with what happened—as well as his own brother, who travels with him. Only at the very end of his hunt, after he thinks he is finished, does Mendelsohn encounter a man who steers him to the actual house where Shmiel and one of his daughters were dragged from a cellar and shot.
A forceful meditation touching on loss, memory, Jewishness and the vagaries of chance in human life.