Daniel Mendelsohn’s award-winning book is a milestone in the transition from the memory to the history of Hitler’s genocide campaign against Europe’s Jews. Although it ostensibly records the fate of one family at the hands of the Germans and their collaborators, the substance concerns the efforts of a young American sixty years later, two generations and one continent away from the events in question, to reconstruct what happened. To this end Mendelsohn assiduously tracks down survivors and eyewitnesses all over the world and assembles an archive of documents and photographs. But his search for direct recollection of what happened to his relatives ultimately proves disappointing. The closer he gets, the more he senses that the truth will always elude him. However much he wants to repossess ‘the lost’ he realises that ‘they had been specific people with specific deaths, and those lives and deaths belonged to them, not me’.
Mendelsohn begins his odyssey with memories of his own childhood in America during the 1960s, when family gatherings were punctuated by the sighs and tears of heavily accented elders about something that could not be uttered, at least not in front