19 March 2007

Record your history before it's too late!

I first became aware of Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million when he spoke at the 2006 IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in New York.

He discussed his journeys to Sydney, Tel Aviv, Copenhagen and Stockholm to interview 12 of the 48 surviving Jews of Bolechow - some 6,000 Jews lived there before WWII. Since those interviews, five of the individuals Mendelsohn spoke with have died.

How many of us have elderly relatives whom we have not yet interviewed? What stories and experiences remain to be told? What clues to our unique family histories remain to be uncovered?

If you have not yet read the book, the following excerpt from this review should inspire you to rush out and obtain a copy.

As a child growing up in a New York Jewish family Daniel Mendelsohn would overhear fragments of whispered conversation about six relatives who perished in the Holocaust. When, at 12, he dared ask his mother what happened to his great-uncle Shmiel Jager, great-aunt Ester, and their four daughters - Bronia, Frydka, Ruchele and Lorka - she replied flatly: "They raped them and they killed them all."

Yet his querying mind was not stilled. For one, his resemblance to his murdered great-uncle "killed by the Nazis" was so striking that he'd sometimes inadvertently cause members of his extended family to cry. And he was passionate about history, researching archeology and teaching himself Egyptian hieroglyphics and ancient Greek by age 12. As a precociously curious child obsessed with lost worlds, the silence which shrouded his slain relatives spurred, rather than impeded, his imagination.

By 13, Mendelsohn had became the family's unofficial genealogist, compulsively amassing data about his family tree. He also recorded conversations with his loquacious maternal grandfather, whose sinuous tales of prewar shtetl life awakened his love of storytelling. Yet his grandfather never discussed his brother's murdered family.

Mendelsohn's book about his five-year quest recently earned a National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography.

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