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Remembering Victims Remains an Elusive Act

May 8, 2008 By:
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Daniel Mendelsohn

Commemorating victims of the Holocaust remains a crucial act, but it should not be confused or conflated with the far more elusive process of remembering individuals whose lives were cut short by the Nazis, according to a noted author who's penned a memoir about his personal search to uncover the fate of relatives who perished then.

"There is an impossibility to what we are trying to do this evening," Daniel Mendelsohn, author most recently of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, said during a speech at a Yom Hashoah program at Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood. In his talk, Mendelsohn alluded to the staggering incomprehensibility and magnitude of the loss of life in the Holocaust, in addition to the conundrum associated with the custom of lighting six memorial candles -- one candle for every million lives.

"We have to be careful of the word 'remember,' " he continued. "You cannot remember what you did not know."

Born in 1960, Mendelsohn earned a doctorate in classics from Princeton University before becoming a contributor to publications such as The New York Times, The New York Review of Books and The Paris Review. He is the author of several other books, including a 1999 memoir about family, sexual orientation and self-knowledge titled The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity.

Mendelsohn told the audience that, as a young child, he had been told that he closely resembled his grandfather's older brother, Shmiel Jäger, who had stayed behind in the Ukrainian town of Bolechow and was killed in the Holocaust. Mendelsohn's odyssey began with his attempt to learn the details behind the deaths of Jäger and his wife, Esther, as well as their children.

But instead, Mendelsohn took on an even more daunting project -- to learn as much as he could about the lives they had lived, which had essentially gone unrecorded.

"It took me six years of international travel to 13 countries on four continents just to get a handful of facts about six people," said Mendelsohn, noting that, for many of the Nazi's victims, those who may have known them generally perished along with them.

Upon publication, the book received critical acclaim, including a front-page review in The New York Times Book Review.

During the course of his research, he tracked down 12 people who'd been born in the town of Bolechow -- six of whom have since died -- and was able to glean more about his great-uncle and aunt, as well as their four children.

But what surprised him most, he said, was how little he knew about his own grandfather, who he'd been close to growing up and who died in 1980.

Mendelsohn relayed that his grandfather never spoke of his brother. It was only after his grandfather's passing that Mendelsohn learned how haunted his grandfather had been throughout his life -- that he'd carried letters of distress written by his brother from Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.

In the end, Mendelsohn asserted that while the past is in many ways unknowable and irretrievable, the snippets and glimpses of the lives he was able to recover have helped, in his mind, to restore an identity to these people that goes beyond that of Holocaust victim.

Roughly 400 people attended the memorial program organized by the Kehillah of Lower Merion, in conjunction with Main Line Reform Temple, Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, Adath Israel in Merion Station and Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.

The orchestra from Lower Merion High School played a rendition of Samuel Barber's "Agadio for Strings." Holocaust survivors from the participating congregations lit the first five memorial candles; the sixth was reserved for the children in attendance.

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