Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Holocaust journey ‘finds’ kin

Talk held at Southern Connecticut State University

By Amanda Howe
Special to the Register
What set out to be an 8,000-word story for the New York Times about how six members of his family died in the Holocaust turned into a book about Daniel Mendelsohn “schlepping” all over the world to find out who six of his family members were and not how they died.
Mendelsohn this week shared the story of his book and the journey he took to write it to an audience at Southern Connecticut State University Student Center Theater that included students, faculty and members of the community.
“The book is not at all about the Holocaust,” Mendelsohn said. “It’s about how the Holocaust touches lives even now—and how I schlepped all over the world, literally, to find the story of my relatives.”
The lecture was part of Southern’s “Genocide: Weeks of Reflection and Remembrance,” and the University-wide Lecture Series, founded in 1995 by David Pettigrew, SCSU professor of philosophy.
“Our aim is to attract two or three speakers each year who enhance the intellectual and ethical culture of the university, as well as the local community,” Pettigrew said. “In particular, we look for individuals who have responded to tragic events with intelligence and grace, who can foster hope and help us recognize and share our responsibility for our human community, its past and destiny.”
Pettigrew said Mendelsohn has been able to do that and pointed to his book, “The Lost.”
“History and theoretical works generally provide us with an abstract, impersonal analysis of the significance of major events, such as the Holocaust,” Pettigrew said. “But what is often lacking are the personal stories involved. Mendelsohn provides us with remarkably moving descriptions of the impact that the Holocaust had on his family. His writing enables us to respond on a profoundly human level.”
Mendelsohn began his lecture with a reading from the first two pages of his book, which illustrated the “old Jewish” people in his family.
The book’s inspiration, according to Mendelsohn, came from very early in his life. He said when he was a child visiting his “old Jewish” relatives, some of the women would cry when they saw him.
The reason for the tears, according to Mendelsohn, was because he resembled a man, his great-uncle, who had died during the Holocaust in Bellacor, Ukraine.
Mendelsohn said he always knew that his great uncle had died in the Holocaust along with a wife and four teenage daughters, but never knew more than that.
“It’s important to know that no one ever told me I couldn’t talk about (my uncle). I just knew. I just had a feeling about it,” Mendelsohn said.
The time to get answers to questions never asked, Mendelsohn said, was when his grandfather committed suicide.
He said in going through his grandfather’s home, he stumbled on one of two wallets he had always carried, yet no one ever questioned why there were two.
“I opened the second wallet and found letters from his brother, begging him to help him and his family get out of Bellacor,” Mendelsohn said.
The idea that his grandfather never talked about his brother, and may have killed himself because of years of guilt he felt, plagued him, Mendelsohn said.
So Mendelsohn set out on a journey to Bellacor, Sydney, Israel, Stockholm and Minsk to talk to anyone who could answer questions about who his family was and how they died.
Of all the people Mendelsohn met, he said only six of them are still alive today, but all have e-mail accounts.
“I visited Australia and Denmark recently and we all e-mail. Yes, Bellacor has Internet access. We turned into a real community,” Mendelsohn said.
Mendelsohn is a humanities professor at Bard College. Before he took his teaching position, he was a journalist and was published in the New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Nation and the Paris Review.
Amanda Howe is a Register intern.

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