Daniel Mendelsohn had always been interested in his own family’s genealogy, even when he was a child. As an adult, he eagerly gathered information and stories: the branch of the family that went to Israel, the ones who lived in America, and especially his own beloved grandfather. But there was one family missing: Shmiel, his grandfather’s brother, who had gone back to the Ukrainian town of Bolechow (pronounced BOL-uh-khov), where the whole family originated, to be a prosperous butcher with his wife and four daughters. Killed by the Nazis, that was all anyone knew. The girls were raped. Maybe they were raped. They were in hiding, and they were betrayed. By a maid. By a neighbor. By a schoolteacher. They went and fought with partisans and they were killed two years later. They were killed. They perished. They’re gone.
So Daniel Mendelsohn and his brother Matt undertook the almost-impossible task of finding out exactly what happened to these six people: Shmiel, Ester, Lorka, Frydka, Ruchele, and Bronia. This book — almost 600 pages long — traces the terrible history of the town, under Soviet rule and then captured by the Germans to be made Judenrein, free of Jews. But more importantly, Mendelsohn actually finds the very last surviving people who knew his family. He travels to Australia, to Sweden, to London, to Israel — literally all over the globe — to talk to the “old Bolechowers” on the possibility they might have known his family. He wants to know not just how they died, but how they lived. How Frydka carried her bag. Whom Lorka dated. What kind of toys Bronia played with. What kind of a man Shmiel was. And bit by bit, from people suffering their own unspeakable memories, he gathers this information, he gathers photos and interviews and scraps of lives, and begins to understand who these people were.
Mendelsohn is extremely careful in this book. He is very clear about what witnesses and testimony can and cannot accomplish: the very people giving him vital information have agendas and ideas of their own, and besides, they cannot have witnessed the death of his family, or they would be dead themselves. The witnesses’ stories are amazing stories, but of survival, not death. He also emphasizes how much is impossible to know. This phrase rings out again and again in the book. We can walk through an empty cattle car in a museum, but it will never be the same experience as riding in it to our deaths with hundreds of others after seeing our children killed before our eyes. Impossible to know. Impossible, and it’s well to be reminded of that.
One interesting technique Mendelsohn uses in this book is to have quite long sections dissecting passages of Genesis. He talks about two different rabbinical traditions, one old and one new, offering insights on the Fall, on Cain and Abel, on Noah, on Abraham. Each time he considers a passage, it has some bearing on Bolechow and the terrible events there. Cain and Abel, for instance: two brothers come to violence, like the Ukrainians and the Jews in Bolechow. Sometimes it is easiest to hurt the ones we live the closest to. Mendelsohn’s style is meandering — I’ve rarely read such long sentences outside of Proust — but it seems to fit the book’s content. His own peregrinations and his sentences match perfectly.
This book is part detective story, part memoir, part biography. I’ve read a lot about the Holocaust, but while this book never sought to evade the horrors of it — much of it indeed was heart-rending — it felt different, too. Many historical books about the Holocaust (that is to say, not novels about it) seek to impress with numbers: millions of people, bales of human hair, rooms full of shoes. And of course the numbers will always be bone-shatteringly impressive. But this book seeks only six. A dad who told jokes, a mom with great legs, four pretty daughters. Only six. Somehow it’s the focus that makes it fresh, unforgettable, again, again, again.