Monday, November 27, 2006

The Lost (Part II): Impossible to Know...

Posted by PeterAtLarge

I spent a good part of the day yesterday finishing my reading of The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn. The last time I wrote to you about it, Bush, was on 11/21, if you care to look back in the archives, and I was thrilled to find a comment posted on that entry from the author's brother Matt, a photographer, who accompanied Daniel on many of his travels and figures prominently in the story, and whose photographs appear on many of the pages of the book. The pictures, many of them also from family archives, are small, faded and grainy, and their details are hard to make out--an entirely appropriate visual analogy to the author's struggle to make sense of the past.

It was odd, Bush, to find myself sitting out on the sunny balcony of our cottage on the Southern California coast, embarked on a journey through times and places so dark and distant that they might have seemed unreal, had they not been evoked with such poetic truth.

Because this truly is an epic, Bush--a modern Odyssey which takes us on a journey into the past which is part historical narrative, part detective mystery, part Biblical exegesis, part scholarly research, part family saga, part personal confession, part cultural history and in the end, all in all, a poem of epic proportions. It will make you--as they say of certain movies--laugh and cry, though I'm sure you'll do more crying than laughter, given the atrocities that are all too often described, and the heartache of those who were forced to experience them or, if spared, to watch their loved ones victimized before their eyes. It takes five years of study and travel, interviews, recordings, and photography for Mendelsohn to approach his destination and then, finally, to understand that what he was really looking for is unreachable.

But not quite, because we have Mendelsohn's text, the journey, which turns out to be in itself the goal. We have the writing. We have the phtotographs. His search for the factual truth concerning those six lost family members becomes, in his words, "narrower and narrower" as he travels the globe to turn up more and more telling details from the fading, never fully reliable memories of rapidly aging survivors--an extraordinarily rich and engaging cast of characters.

To Mendelsohn's "narrower and narrower"--speaking of the focus of his attention as the narrative proceeds--I would only add "deeper and deeper." Traveling ever further into the depths of the human psyche, the agony of not knowing, of knowing too much, of confronting the ultimate truths, for all of us, of the battle for survival and inescapable death, we end up, as you'll see--I refuse to disclose the "mystery" of this story--in the bowels of the earth, the darkest place of the human soul where moral truths become murkier and more agonizingly ambiguous even as the factual details become clear.

I myself have "known" about the Holocaust. I have seen those terrible films, the photographs from the death camps. I have read some of the books. I was myself alive already, while these events were taking place, not more than a couple of hours by air from where I lived. Other than the (for me) fortunate accident of birth, I could have been that child speared by a pitchfork or thrown from a third story window to the street. But this was not England, where I was born and where, certainly, those German bombs dropped, but Eastern Europe where Daniel's six family members were "lost" to history, swallowed up in the enormity of the Nazi crime--a crime not limited, as Mendelsohn recalls, to Nazis. Nor to the Poles or the Ukrainians who all too readily joined in the slaughter; or even only to those Jews who acted as enablers, betrayers of their own friends, neighbors and family in the misguided and usually futile attempt to ensure their own survival. It was all of us, who failed to prevent its happening, or who failed--as did certain of Mendelsohn's family, to their lasting regret--to respond to desperate appeals for help from America, for transportation out of that hell while it was still possible to leave...

But then I realized as I read this book that I have never "known". That it is, in fact, in the phrase to which the author constantly returns, "impossible to know." But thanks to Mendelsohn I know a lot more than I did. His story, in all its rich complexity and refusal to accept the first or the easy answers, in all the limitation of its scope to a single family, though millions died, in its insistence on the personal and on personal responsibility, opened up the door for a deeper knowing of the Holocaust and its meaning for mankind than I had ever had before, and I thank him for it.

If only all the world were to read this book, I thought, as I sat there in the improbable Sunday sunshine on my peaceful balcony with his book in my lap, there might, there just might be a lesser chance that we would find ourselves repeating that dreadful history.

But then I look to Darfur, and now to Chad, and to the world standing by and, at most, wringing its impotent, unwilling hands, and I'm forced to wonder, Bush. I'm forced to wonder if it will ever end.

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Carly said...

Gringo: Pretty loving picture of a military man. Peters description is however, deep.

But you talk like a man who believes in fighting with violence.

We should never forget, that because of the stupid ignorance of young men who think of nothing but picking up a gun, leaders like Bin Laden and Bush proliferate. Otherwise they could never be.

GringoWithoutBorders said...

So sad. But let us not forget or cover up the 48 MILLION humans who died in WWII, or the 3,000,000 Polish-Christian civilians who were killed along with their fellow Polish-Jewish citizens. FACT, not a single "extermination" camp was located on German land, as this was against German Law and to be hidden from German society, kind of like our Guantanamo Bay torture center located outside of USA law. Oh I know, there will be some ignorant humans that will say they visited a camp in Germany, borders were redrawn after the war. Duhhhh!

Of the approximately 5,400,000 Jews who were killed, 4,000,000 were citizens of Poland & Russia alone (3 million and 1.1 million respectively). Remember, every Polish person was to be killed regardless of whether you were Christian or Jewish.

Before the Nazis invaded Poland, Hitler announced, “The destruction of Poland is our primary task.” He also commanded, “Kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need.” Hitler’s head of secret police, Heinrich Himmler, promised that “all Poles will disappear from the world.”

Of the 21,300,000 Russians who were killed only 1,100,000 were Jewish Russians. Of the 6,850,000 Polish people killed 3,000,000 were Jewish Poles.

I always wonder what would happen if New York was destroyed, would intelligent humans only care or count the jews or would all Americans be counted and recorded for history, irrespective of racial/religious segregation and bigotry. I never understood the racist propaganda that separates humans who died in WWII. Just more ethnocentrism or bigoted racial propaganda for ones own selfish interests I guess.

Carly said...

Waxman Has Bush Administration in Sights
Congressman Henry Waxman has spent the last six years waging a guerrilla campaign against the White House and its corporate allies, launching searing investigations into everything from military contracts to Medicare prices from his perch on the Government Reform Committee. In January, Waxman becomes committee chairman - and thus the lead Congressional hound of an administration many Democrats feel has blundered badly as it expanded the power of the executive branch.

GringoWithoutBorders said...

Carly, I support all defenders who fight an invader, yes with violence or anything at hand. They do not choose to fight but MUST fight an invader who is killing their family and occupying their country. Military men are humans with families and countries they defend from foreign aggression.

No different then you fighting a burglar, rapist or murderer that invades your home.

They did not travel thousands of miles to invade another’s land. There is a difference between a defender and invader. Just as there is a difference between a police officer who uses violence and a murderer who invades a home and uses violence.

PK said...

I will get the book Peter, thank you for your post, and review.