The Lost

A Palestinian boy sits at the rubble of his family home destroyed after an Israeli strike in Gaza City, 13 May 2021.
EPA-EFE/MOHAMMED SABER (Photo on Al Jazeera).

But there are certain aspects of this letter, concrete things, things the letter actually says and which, therefore, I do not have to surmise, that force me to think about family quarrels, about proximity and distance and “closeness” that are not temporal or spatial but emotional.

Daniel Mendelsohn grew up in a Jewish family surrounded by stories. His Judaism was, by his own admission, both inalienable and indifferent such that his love of stories led him to the plays and poems of the ancient Greeks rather than to the Torah of his heritage. Nevertheless, he remained captivated by a particular absence in the stories of his family. That is, the stories of his six family members, his grandfather’s brother, sister-in-law, and their four daughters, who had remained in the small Galician town of Bolechow until the arrival of the Germans. Their names — Shmiel (Sam) Jäger, Ester née Schneelicht, Lorca, Frydka, Ruchele, Bronia — were only ever whispered.

Mendelsohn resolves to recover their stories, setting in motion an epic journey that takes him to Bolechow (now Bolekhiv), Australia, Israel, Sweden and Denmark armed only with a few names and photographs to interview anyone who might have known his relatives or know what happened to them.

What he discovers is more complex than he could have imagined. Some of his interview subjects don’t remember much — they were too young, or were then too old — while others don’t want to talk for one reason or another. But none of them were actually there, so everything they told him was little more than hearsay. They agreed on the broad strokes: Shmiel was a good man, a little deaf, and a butcher with two trucks, a pretty wife, and vibrant daughters. But some remembered two daughters. Others three. (There were four.) Some heard that Frydka was pregnant when she was caught. Some heard that Ciszko Szymanski, the Polish boy who loved Frydka and insisted that they kill him, too, when the Germans found her hidden in the house of an art teacher, was the father.

What is memory? What is memory? Memory is what you remember. No, you change the story, you “remember.” A story is not a fact. Where are the facts? There is the memory, there is the truth—you don’t know, never.

The Lost is a memoir about the search for life amidst death.

Of the roughly three thousand Jews living in Bolechow in 1939, only a few dozen survived the German occupation. The rest were killed: at the hands of a Ukrainian mob, in the German Aktionen that combined humiliation and death, in the gas chambers of a death camp, and in the casual and systematic violence that characterized the Holocaust. Between the occupation and the final Aktion, the Jews of Bolechow did what they could to survive. A few ran or hid, some collaborated as the Jewish police, most worked in labor camps.

Death is inevitable in this investigation, but it is also striking for its account of life. The Lost is filled with memorable small details, such as how Cisko Szymanski’s father, a butcher, had a special room where the Jews of Bolechow could taste forbidden meats in secret, or how Itzak Jäger (another of Shmiel’s brothers), also a butcher, had to leave town under a cloud of scandal. We learn that Frydka and her friends used to attend movies at the Catholic center in town and that Shmiel would bring strawberries back from Lviv.

In prose that echoes the rhythms of Homeric poetry, Mendelsohn weaves the story of his years-long investigation with biblical exegesis about the book of Genesis, the stories of his interview subjects, and incisive observations about monuments and memory.

…graves, gravesites, memorials, and monuments are of no use to the dead but mean a great deal to the living.

And yet, I was repeatedly drawn back to the present moment while reading The Lost. In the time that it took me to read this memoir that reconstructs in excruciating detail the extermination of a Jewish community in eastern Europe, Israel cracked down on protesters and then dramatically escalated an ongoing crisis. The grim irony of reading about descriptions of pitchfork-wielding Ukrainians attacking Jews while watching mobs of Israelis attacking anyone they suspected of being Palestinian was not lost on me. Likewise for the Israeli airstrikes destroying media outlets while following Mendelsohn’s challenges in uncovering anything like direct evidence of the crimes against humanity at Bolechow.

The Lost is not a book about Zionism. It comes up from time to time, as does Israel, but it is not the central focus. Instead, the people in this book dream about Bolechow where Jews and Poles and Ukrainians lived in peace side by side until they didn’t.

It is that sort of detail that stood out to me this week.

Anti-semitism remains a serious problem in many corners, but that is not the same thing as opposing Israeli actions — like the eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem at one of the holiest times of year and during pandemic, no less — that seem taken from the Nazi Lebensraum playbook. A number of years ago at a talk, a scholar of the Holocaust and its legacy asked rhetorically of the West Bank settlements: “where do you think they learned it?”

But even before the German racial programs spilled beyond the borders of Germany, critics of Zionism foresaw the problems. In 1938, Henryck Erlich, a leader of the Polish Bund, the General Jewish Workers Union, declared (in Yiddish):

When Zionists speak to the non-Jewish world, they are outstanding democrats, and they present the conditions in today’s and future Palestine as exemplary of liberty and progress. But if a Jewish state is to be founded in Palestine, its spiritual climate will be: an eternal fear of the external enemy (Arabs), unending fighting for every little piece of land, for every scrap of work, against the internal enemy (Arabs), and a tireless struggle for the eradication of the language and culture of the non-Hebraized Jews of Palestine. Is this the kind of climate, in which freedom, democracy, and progress can flourish? Is this not the climate, in which reactionism and chauvinism typically germinate?

Translation found here.

All people have a right to safety and security. What is happening right now in Gaza and East Jerusalem isn’t about Israeli safety or security. It is about politics. I don’t have any love for Hamas, but blaming both sides is a false equivalence. The ghettoization of Gaza is an ongoing policy and Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions have only further stoked ethnic hatred. Israelis have and will die in rocket attacks, but they have the Iron Dome system and bunkers. The Palestinians don’t. To focus on Hamas is to forget that they aren’t primarily the ones losing water, losing medical infrastructure, and dying because of these airstrikes. Palestinian children are.

If The Lost is about recovering life in a Bolechow from a time before the mobs, before the Aktionen, from a time when Shmiel Jäger wanted to live in a town where he was a big deal rather than coming to America and could go by Samuel, and from a time when Polish citizens of Bolechow sacrificed their lives to protect their neighbors, then, this week, that Bolechow seemed further away than ever.

An Israeli airstrike hits a building with apartments, offices, and international media agencies. Mahmud Hams.

ΔΔΔ

I plowed through Ben Cohen’s The Hot Hand earlier today and am on the fence as to whether to write about it. On the one hand, Cohen had a number of interesting case studies in his discussion of the science of streaks. On the other, I found it much less coherent as a book than, for instance, David Epstein’s Range. It wasn’t even so much that Cohen was wrong about anything he wrote so much as that he had several different things he was working with — the math behind streaks, the psychology of how we perceive randomness, various uses of big data, and the titular “hot hand” — but a lot of the connections struck me as a stretch, such as characterizing groupings of people’s production, which tended to come in spurts, as a the product of being “hot” in the same way as a basketball player. In short, hot streaks do exist, but they’re usually misunderstood and much easier to identify after the fact than in the moment.

I haven’t decided what to read next, but am leaning toward Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were and the fifth volume of Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman in some order.

Re-evaluating Antisemitism

I am not particularly religious. I generally don’t begrudge people their religion and am frequently awed by the faith of others, but personally fall into the categories “agnostic” and “skeptic.” My fascination with holy books comes out of my instincts as a historian rather than in a search for answers. All of this is rooted in my personal philosophies and while I am happy to discuss them, both the philosophies and religion generally, I am not in the business of proselytizing. This was not always the case, but I have more interesting things to do with my time than argue about religion, provided that it isn’t being used as an excuse for bigotry.

It is for this reason that I do not feel a strong attachment to my Jewish heritage. I had a moment to reflect on this at my grandfather’s funeral earlier this year. He was particularly active in the Jewish community in Minneapolis, helping settle refugees among other things, and in his synagogue. I’d be best described as adjacent to Jewish culture—loosely conversant, barely observant, and mostly there for the food. I’ll light candles at Channukah and know a lot of the stories, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been to services for high holidays and don’t keep kosher (the home kitchen is vegetarian, however). I’ve been to Israel on Birthright and attended Brandeis, but, as I thought about in January, this part of life that was so important to my grandfather is something that I could see from the outside, but never fully enter.

Here’s the thing: I’m Jewish enough. I don’t count myself a Zionist, I don’t look particularly Jewish, and I don’t attend temple, but none of that matters. For the purposes of the intolerant, rationalized with pseudo-scientific concepts of genealogy or loosely conceived and broadly construed labels about culture and lifestyle, I count.

Ultimately this post has been formulated in the tumult following the rioting in Charlottesville. In the past I have been largely indifferent to neo-Nazi posturing, not because it isn’t important (it is), but because “Nazis are bad” seemed to be one of the few points of consensus in mainstream American politics. Even with strains of Holocaust-denial breaking out like a bad rash that could never quite be eliminated, anti-semitism in the form of anti-Judaism seemed mostly benign, contained by social contracts. To follow through on the medical analogy, this sort of anti-semitism is chronic, but treatable and not fatal.

This is hardly an endorsement of anti-semitism, rather that I was more conscientious of other forms of bigotry, against African Americans, Muslim-Americans, women, and people who fall outside the hetero-normative gender and sexuality spectrums—i.e. forms of intolerance that, if not deemed acceptable, are more widely tolerated.

Now, I am not so sure.

Other forms of bigotry are still more common and that obviously makes them more dangerous, but it is becoming difficult to dismiss the increasingly visible anti-semitism. A recent poll showed that nearly 1 in 10 Americans believe that holding Nazi beliefs is acceptable. A glance at the numbers show a decent amount of noise in this poll; “only” 3% agreed strongly with the statement and it did not get specific about specific beliefs. Allowing for the undecideds and the somewhat-agrees to be mere defenders of free speech does not improve the situation because it means that a growing number of people are willing to tolerate antisemitism, and in this tolerance is a slippery slope toward tacit endorsement.

Throw this situation into a mixer with the polarization and toxicity that the internet can facilitate and a dash of a void in leadership, strained over easy access to weapons and you have a dangerous cocktail. Just this morning Brandeis University announced it is closed today because of threats sent by email.

Like the poll linked to above, the recent rally in Boston demonstrated again that many more people oppose these forms of intolerance than support them, but recent events have been pointing to a trend moving in the wrong direction. There are no easy answers or solutions, and the longer that the current political atmosphere persists, the more toxic things are going to get.

Let me offer two relevant quotations by way of conclusion.

“I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that ‘the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, 1948

“No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours, are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
– Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, 1770