I wanted to share this review by Ron Rosenbaum in the NY Times Book Review, September 24, 2006: "Giving Death a Face," about Daniel Mendelsohn's book “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million”
Read the full review here: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/24/books/review/Rosenbaum.t.html
From the article:
"The Holocaust is so big, the scale of it is so gigantic, so enormous, that it becomes easy to think of it as something mechanical. Anonymous. But everything that happened, happened because someone made a decision. To pull a trigger, to flip a switch, to close a cattle car door, to hide, to betray."
How do you tell the story of the Holocaust in a way that encompasses both its vast geopolitical and its intimately personal dimensions?
Mendelsohn’s initial quest begins with normal, if death-inflected, genealogical curiosity. The fact that his begins with a physical resemblance to one of the Lost suggests that an important aspect of the obsession is a search for his own identity, his face in the face of the Loss. The tears he provoked as a child grow in this saga into a meditation upon “the tears of things”; the sorrow of one family becomes the sorrow of us all.
. . . Not knowing certain stories, being ignorant of intricate histories that, unbeknownst to us, frame the present, can be a grave mistake.”
Mendelsohn sees the episode of Lot’s wife as a warning that “regret for what we have lost, for the pasts we have to abandon, often poisons any attempt to make a new life.” For those compelled to look “back at what has been, rather than forward in to the future, the great danger is tears, the unstoppable weeping the Greeks…knew was not only a pain, but a narcotic pleasure, too: a mournful contemplation so flawless, so crystalline, that it can, in the end, immobilize you.”
We can’t look forward until we can look back, until we know how we came to be who we are – until we know what we have lost.
Mendelsohn writes: “Whatever we see in museums, the artifacts and the evidence, can give us only the dimmest comprehension of what the event itself was like. . . We must be careful when we try to envision ‘what it was like.’