DATE November 8, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Marc Sandalow of the San Francisco Chronicle talks
about Nancy Pelosi's rise to speaker of the House, her new
powers, her style of leadership, and her political career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
With the Democrats having won a majority of seats in the House, Nancy Pelosi
is poised to become the speaker of the House, taking the gavel from Dennis
Hastert. Joining us on the phone is Marc Sandalow, who's Washington bureau
chief for a paper published in Pelosi's district, the San Francisco Chronicle.
He's covered her for 13 of the 19 years she's served in Congress.
Marc Sandalow, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the basics. What
powers will Nancy Pelosi have, assuming she becomes the first woman to be
speaker of the House?
Mr. MARC SANDALOW: Speaker of the House is the number one position in the
House of Representatives, and unlike any of the other offices--minority
leader, majority leader, the whip positions. You're speaker of the entire
House. You don't just have jurisdiction over your own party. So there's some
ceremonial duties: swearing in new members and calling the House to order.
But really, what you are are the titular head of the legislative branch, of
the lower body of the legislative branch. And, of course, you are, in the
Constitution, third in line of secession to the presidency. This is a
position that no woman has even approached before in the history of American
GROSS: As you put it in one of your articles, she was portrayed by some
Republicans during this election as a liberal boogeyman. Give us some
examples of how she was portrayed.
Mr. SANDALOW: Republicans have portrayed San Francisco values as something
that voters should be scared of. And when you ask them, `What are San
Francisco values?' They mean everything from the alternative lifestyles, you
know, the numbers of gays and lesbians in San Francisco, to the left-wing
politics. And the city of San Francisco, the board of supervisors has voted
to impeach President Bush. The city was the one that started grape boycotts
back in the 1970s. City was the first city to have domestic partnerships and
smoking bans, and all sorts of progressive legislation.
So Republicans have tried to scare voters into thinking that if Nancy Pelosi
takes over, then these'll be the values that she will try to impose, as they
said in the campaign, in every district in America.
GROSS: How is she seen in her district?
Mr. SANDALOW: Pelosi's won the election overwhelmingly in each of her, I
think it's now 10 re-election bids. She typically wins with about 80 to 85
percent of the vote. What people in Washington have a hard time
understanding, though, is that there is a strong opposition to Pelosi, which
comes from the left. An awful lot of Pelosi's constituents would like to see
her take a very bold, progressive stance on issues like cutting off funding to
the Pentagon if the United States doesn't pull out of Iraq. Investigating the
president with an eye towards maybe circulating articles of impeachment.
Advancing proposals to expand health care, universal health care, to all
Think Pelosi understands, though, that she owes her majority, in a large part
due to the election of a number of conservative and moderate Democrats. These
are not necessarily people from New York City or from San Francisco or Los
Angeles, but people from southern Indiana, people from the more moderate
suburbs of Philadelphia, people from Connecticut. These are people who won
Tuesday's election who'd have a very, very hard time winning re-election in
2008 if the Democrats pursue that sort of liberal agenda. Pelosi has an eye
towards a much more modest agenda to try to build the majority.
GROSS: And she has said that she would not seek any kind of impeachment
hearings against the president.
Mr. SANDALOW: She said it's off the table. Now, there are a lot of
Republicans who had suspicions that she said that to appear more moderate
until Election Day, and now she will change course. But, you know, Pelosi,
her attitude on this is, even if impeachment were the correct course--and, you
know, in San Francisco, an awful lot of her constituents think it is--it's
simply not worth the time that would be spent on it over the next two years.
What do you get out of an impeachment hearing. Even if it were
successful--which most people think it certainly wouldn't be--even if the
Senate were to convict President Bush and throw him out of office, it would
take a year. You cut a year off of the Bush presidency, and you replace him
with President Cheney. So I think that Nancy Pelosi just sees it as a
non-starter that she doesn't want to waste her time on.
GROSS: Tell us a little bit about her political career and her career in
general before she became a congresswoman. For instance, I mean her father
and brother were both mayor of Baltimore. So what was her career like before
she was elected to Congress?
Mr. SANDALOW: Yeah, Pelosi was, you know, very much a mother for the younger
portion of her life. You know, she raised five children, had five children in
six years, and never really thought about running for elected office until she
was in her mid-40s. But that said, she's always been very involved in
volunteering in the Democratic Party. Her dad, when she was born, was a
member of Congress from Baltimore, went on to become mayor. Her older brother
was mayor of Baltimore. She lived and breathed Democratic politics her entire
She moved across coast with her husband, Paul Pelosi, and began volunteering
with the Democratic Party in California. When the seat in San Francisco for
Congress became open, she seized it. She was already 47 years old by the time
she first ran for Congress. And she's often said one of the reasons it's very
difficult for women to advance in the House of Representatives and the Senate
is because many women spend the early part of their lives raising families.
By the time they get to Washington, they're already middle aged. And if
you're working on a seniority system, by the time they get into a position to
assume the leverage of power, many of them are already too old. Pelosi worked
extraordinarily fast at a very fast pace, and in the 19 years she's gone from
being the elected representative of San Francisco to what will soon be speaker
of the House.
GROSS: What have her tactics been as House minority leader?
Mr. SANDALOW: To be a powerful leader on Capitol Hill, there're all sorts of
different techniques. And, you know, Sam Rayburn used to yell at people and
make their collars wilt, is what members tell me. And, you know, there're
people like Jim Wright, who used to tower over people. Well, Pelosi, as a
woman, is not physically intimidating to people, but she can be very much a
stern taskmaster. Her staff talks about when she uses her "mother-of-five"
voice, and it's not a voice that they look forward to.
Pelosi had been very strict in terms of party discipline. What her strategy
when she came in, four years ago, as a Democratic leader, is the Democrats
must stay together. And by staying together, she hoped to force moderate
Republicans to make votes with their party's leadership and to get them in
trouble come election time. So Pelosi told her members, who didn't always
want to vote with the party, `Look, we need you.' And in fact, she started to
punish people who didn't vote consistently with the party, at times telling
them they were in danger of losing their committee assignments, they might not
get as much money from the Democratic committees for re-election if they
didn't stay in line.
So it was a very, very disciplined operation. And according to Congressional
Quarterly, Democrats have voted more united the last two years than they ever
have before in the past. So it's been a very united Democratic Party under
Pelosi. And of course that, in part, makes enemies of people because there
are some folks who don't want to vote with the Democratic Party, even though
it's their party, all the time. So she has some enemies out there. But boy,
I'll tell you, now that she's dropped the Democrats back into the majority,
she's a very, very popular leader.
GROSS: How does Nancy Pelosi get along with President Bush?
Mr. SANDALOW: See, Pelosi's called President Bush incompetent. She said
that in order to make decisions you have to have both experience and judgment,
and this president has neither. On the flipside, President Bush has made
Nancy Pelosi the butt of his jokes in the closing months of his campaign and
watched his party vilify her as being the personification of liberal
craziness. So the two of them on a personal level don't really get along very
well at all.
That said, I think both of them understand that there are things that they can
accomplish together. I mean, you look at their attitudes on immigration
reform. Nancy Pelosi was a supporter of a comprehensive immigration plan,
which is not that much different from what President Bush supported. With
Republicans now losing in the House, immigration reform is probably a bigger
probability than it was before.
You could make the argument that even a balanced budget is more likely than it
was before. If you have the Democrats refusing to extend President Bush's tax
cuts and you'll have the president with his veto pen probably standing in the
way of any Democratic spending proposals, the idea that the two parties need
to get along to get something done may be wrong. Things could get done
despite the fact the two of them have mutual disdain.
GROSS: Any other kind of insights you have, as a reporter from Nancy Pelosi's
Mr. SANDALOW: People watch Nancy Pelosi on television and she can, at times,
be an inarticulate speaker, and they wonder, `How does somebody like that, how
does a liberal become the leader and the speaker of the House of
Representatives?' And I think what people miss is what got her to where she is
today. The reason that Pelosi was leader of the Democrats and is poised to
become speaker of the House, it's because she is a very, very skilled
tactician. She is a political operator who came up through the Democratic
Party in California, she was the party chairwoman in California. She knows
where her members, the members of the House of Representatives, need to be on
votes, on committees, on pieces of legislation to win them re-election. And
she's very hands-on involved with that.
When the camera goes on, people sometimes expect someone to articulate a
Democratic vision. That's not going to be Nancy Pelosi's skill. Nancy
Pelosi's skill is going to be putting Democrats legislatively or
parliamentary-wise in the place they need to be to advance what she will see
as their set of priorities.
GROSS: Marc Sandalow, thank you very much.
Mr. SANDALOW: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Marc Sandalow is Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco
Coming up, Daniel Mendelsohn talks about investigating the story of his great
uncle Schmiel, who died in the Holocaust. His new book is called "The Lost."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Daniel Mendelsohn talks of his book "The Lost," a tale
of him searching for the story of his great uncle, left behind in
Poland during the Holocaust, and how his generation is the last
generation to have real, physical memories of Holocaust survivors
TERRY GROSS, host:
I often wonder how some people know when it's time to flee their country just
before a war or genocide while others stay. The new book "The Lost" tells the
story of Daniel Mendelsohn's great uncle Schmiel, who stayed in his Ukranian
town after his siblings left. Schmiel, his wife, and their four daughters
died in the Holocaust. When Schmiel realized what was in store for the Jews,
he wrote letters to his relatives in America begging for help in getting out.
Mendelsohn found Schmiel's letters in the wallet of Mendelsohn's late
grandfather. How Mendelsohn learned the rest of the story is the subject of
Daniel Mendelsohn is a contributor to The New York Review of Books and the New
York Times Book Review. He teaches at Bard College. Let's start with a
reading from the beginning of "The Lost."
Mr. DANIEL MENDELSOHN: "Some time ago, when I was six or seven or eight
years old, it would occasionally happen that I'd walk into a room and certain
people would begin to cry. The rooms in which this happened were located,
more after than not, in Miami Beach, Florida, and the people on whom I had
this strange effect were, like nearly everyone else in Miami Beach in the
mid-1960s, old. And like nearly everyone else in Miami Beach at that time, or
so it seemed to me then, these old people were Jews. Jews of the sort who
were likely to lapse--when sharing prize bits of gossip or coming to the
long-delayed endings of stories or to the punchlines of jokes--into Yiddish,
which of course had the effect of rendering the climaxes, the points of these
stories and jokes, incomprehensible to those of us who were young.
Like many elderly residents of Miami Beach in those days, these people lived
in apartments or small houses that seemed to those who do not live in them
slightly stale, and which were, on the whole, quiet, except on those evenings
when the sound of the Red Skelton or Milton Berle or Lawrence Welk shows
blared from the black and white television sets.
At certain intervals, however, their stale, quiet apartments would grow noisy
with the voices of young children, who had flown down for a few weeks in the
winter or spring from Long Island or the New Jersey suburbs, to see these old
Jews, and who would be presented to them, squirming with awkwardness and
embarrassment, and forced to kiss their papery cool cheeks."
GROSS: That's Daniel Mendelsohn reading from his new book "The Lost: A
Search for Six of Six Million." At the beginning of the reading, you say that
your family--you had family members who cried when you came into the room.
Did you ever know why they were crying?
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Well, I did. I did know why they were crying. It maybe not
have been clear to me when it first started happening, but it was soon very
obvious to me that the reason they were crying was that I bore, or was said to
have borne this uncanny resemblance to my grandfather's brother, my great
uncle Schmiel, who had been killed in the Holocaust.
And so, at some moment, you know, in the way that childrens' consciousness
become aware of things, I understood what it was, and why this was happening.
And for a long time, I don't think I made much of it because of the way in
which you accept things as part of your family story or family behavior. And
it may be crazy to other people, but you accept it.
And then, of course, it was much later when I started to be interested in the
story of this person, to whom I was supposed to bear this resemblance.
GROSS: So, you know, Schmiel is your great uncle who stayed behind in Eastern
Europe and died in the Holocaust. And did they talk about--did your family
talk about Schmiel, why he stayed, how he died? Did they talk about him a
lot? Did they speculate much?
Mr. MENDELSOHN: My grandfather, to whom I was very close growing up and who
was a great, you know, raconteur in the wonderful style and very mesmerizing
as a storyteller, told a lot of stories about a lot of things. He grew up in
this small then-Austro-Hungarian and subsequently Polish town at the beginning
of the 20th century, and he liked to talk about his experiences. The one
thing that he didn't like to talk about was his brother. He told me some
things about his brother, as long as it didn't have to do with his brother's
death and what happened to Schmiel and his family in the Holocaust.
And one thing that struck me only much later, as an adult, was the
information--and this my grandfather didn't tell me until toward the end of
his life, and it came to me as a great surprise--was that Schmiel, who was
always sort of known as the one who stayed behind. You know, my grandfather
was one of seven siblings and six of them emigrated and only Schmiel remained
in Poland. And what came as such a surprise was the information, then new to
me, that Schmiel had actually come to the United States in 1913 as an
18-year-old young man to sort of explore the possibilities of resettling the
family in New York City. And he came alone and stayed with an aunt and uncle,
his mother's brother and his family, in New York City on the Lower East side,
and decided he didn't like America and went back to Poland. He didn't think
there was any future for him in America. And so he went back in 1914. Then,
of course, World War I started, and he was a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian
army, and then the rest is history.
You know, you have to--I think one of the really important and crucial and
interesting points about thinking about people who stayed behind, as we now it
was, so to speak, a mistake, you know, and we look back and we say, `Oh, well,
didn't they see the writing on the walls?' Or something like that. But, you
know, after World War I, he was a prosperous businessman, he had a good life,
a nice wife, four children. He was very successful. And it wasn't until,
really, the bitter end, in the very late '30s, that it became clear that the
world was going to change in a very bad way.
And so, to us, the decision to go back looks suicidal, almost. You know,
people are always shocked to hear that. But of course, he didn't have the
benefit of hindsight, as we do, and to him it looked like the right choice.
GROSS: Well, you found--your grandfather died in 1980, and sometime after he
died, you found several letters that your great uncle Schmiel had written to
his brother, your grandfather. And they were all asking for help from your
grandfather and his family to help get the brother and his family out, to give
them money, to provide help, to provide contacts, do something. And reading
these letters, which you reprint in the book, it's like finding these
artifacts. And I'm going to ask you to read several of the excerpts for us.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Sure. The letters that Schmiel wrote, the first one is
dated in January '39, and the last one we know, miraculously made it through
to New York in December of '39, which is to say after the war started. And
here's a letter in which he's very anxious about the world situation, and
clearly also self-conscious about having to hector his relatives in America.
"If only the world were open and I had been able to send one child to America
or Palestine, it would be easier, since today children cost a great deal to
send, particularly girls. Dear God should only grant that the world should be
quiet, because now it's absolutely clouded. One lives constantly in terror.
Don't be broygis"--which is Yiddish for angry--"don't be broygis with me, my
dears, because I write to you so many letters in this pessimistic vein. It's
no wonder. In life, now, there are so many opportunities for people to be so
evil to each other. I've now written to you so many times, dear Abey..."
GROSS: And later, in letters he starts almost like begging the family, `Help
get me out of here.' Would you read some of that?
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Yeah. There's a point at which the desperation is quite
"You should make inquiries. You should write that I'm the only one in your
family still in Europe, and that I have training as an auto mechanic, and that
I've already been to America from 1912 to 1913. Perhaps that might work. For
my part, I'm going to post a letter written in English to Washington,
addressed to President Roosevelt. And I'll write that all my siblings and my
entire family are in America, and that my parents are even buried there.
Perhaps that will work. Consult with my sister-in-law, Mina, and maybe she
can give you some advice about this, as I really want to get away from this
Gehennom, this hell, with my dear wife and such darling four children.
I emphasize here to you that I do not want to leave here without something to
live on. Life is the most precious thing of all, as long as you've got a roof
over your head and bread in your mouth and all is safe and sound. I'll now
close my letter today and await a swift answer to the whole question and what
you have to say about it."
GROSS: There's one more excerpt I want you to read, and this is in response
to a letter Schmiel has gotten from your grandfather.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: "Dear Abey, I was just about to send this when, at that very
moment, I received your letter. You upbraid my dear wife for not having
turned to her brothers and sisters and so I write to you saying that you're
out of your mind. She already wrote to them and never got an answer. What
should she do?"
GROSS: That's Daniel Mendelsohn, reading letters from his great uncle
Schmiel, who died in the Holocaust. We'll talk more about those letters and
about Mendelsohn's book "The Lost" in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Daniel Mendelsohn,
author of the new book "The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million." It's
about investigating the story of his great uncle Schmiel, who stayed behind in
his Polish-now-Ukranian town after his siblings left for America. Schmiel,
his wife, and four daughters died in the Holocaust.
After Mendelsohn's grandfather died, Mendelsohn found letters written to his
grandfather by Schmiel, in the late 1930s, begging to help Schmiel and his
family come to America. When we left off, Mendelsohn was reading some of
those desperate-sounding letters.
Do you know why your family in America didn't send him money? Did they not
have the money? Was your great uncle the kind of person who was always asking
favors? Were they annoyed with him for that? Did they not understand how
dire the situation was for Jews in Eastern Europe?
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Well, it's an interesting question because it raises what,
to me, is such a thorny and also interesting and poignant issue, which is, you
know, we of course have all of Schmiel's letters to my grandfather and his
other siblings in New York. But we don't know what they did. There's no way
of knowing what they wrote back, so to speak, I mean, except to parse it from
internal clues in the letters that Schmiel's writing. For example, at one
point he makes a reference to money that my grandfather did send. So clearly
he sent something. But whether they were able to send $5,000, which is an
enormous sum of money to ordinary middle class people in the year 1939, we
have no way of knowing, except from what Schmiel writes.
And it's impossible to tell whether his increasing impatience with the
American siblings is a reflection of reality, so to speak, in other words, a
reflection of the fact that they weren't helping at all, or was, instead, the
impatience of a doomed man who understands that the world is locking down
around him no matter what the relatives were doing. I mean, you know, we
simply don't know.
You know, in the book, I mention this. You know, in this letter that my
grandfather sent to Schmiel to which Schmiel angrily refers in the segment
that I wrote, you know, my grandfather could've said many things. He could've
said, `We have exhausted every legal possibility. We have tried to wire you
money. Have you also asked Mina's--have you also asked your wife's
relatives?' Or he could've said, `Stop bothering us with these endless
pestering letters. We've done what we could. Go ask her relatives.' You
know, it's impossible to tell the tone of the response.
But that, to me, was very interesting and it raised, for me, an issue that I
wanted to really get to the bottom of in the book, which is to try to
resuscitate the personalities of these lost people, and that includes my
grandfather and many other of those old Jews in Miami Beach that I refer to in
the first page of the book. To make the book be about humans with human
frailties and human failings and human emotions, and not just these sort of
idealized people from the 1940s, which is how I was always forced to see them,
you know, just a bunch of faces in photographs and a little epithet here and
there. But those letters were so electrifying to me, because they suddenly
brought out the personalities and the thorny issues involved.
GROSS: To find the story of what actually happened to your great uncle during
the Holocaust and to his wife and four daughters, you tracked down the
surviving members of the town he lived in, Bolechow. How many people were in
that town? How many people actually survived the Holocaust?
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Well, the Jewish population of the town in 1939 was about
3,000. And when the Nazi occupation began, they rounded up the Jews from a
lot of smaller towns nearby, so in 1941 there were 6,000 Jews in Bolechow.
And of those 6,000, there were 48 survivors in 1944, when the Soviets
liberated the town. And of those 48 survivors in 1944, it turned out that 12
were still alive in 2003 when I began my travels all over the world, tracking
them down, trying to get them to tell the story.
GROSS: Did you find all 12?
Mr. MENDELSOHN: I did. Well, you know, it was funny, because it was like
dominoes. You know, once I found one, I found all the rest, because they all
know each other. They're all in touch with each other, either by mail or
actually e-mail. A lot of them are on e-mail. So I made contact with the
first one in February 2002, and he told me then, he had heard that I was
looking for relatives of the Jaeger family in Bolechow, and he called me from
Sydney, Australia, one night out of the blue. I didn't even know who he was.
And he said, `Well, I heard you were looking for the Jaegers from Bolechow.'
And he said, `If that's true, you should come to Australia.' And I said,
`Why?' And he said, `Because there's five Bolechower Jews, survivors, living
in Sydney, and you should come talk to us.'
So I did. I got on a plane with my brother Matt and we went to Australia.
And once we were in Australia, you know, we interviewed them, and that was
just amazing and really helped us a lot to get to the personalities of my lost
family and what happened to them. And then as we were leaving, they said,
`Oh, have you been to Stockholm?' And I said, `Who's in Stockholm?' And they
told us. And then when we went to Stockholm, you know, somebody in Stockholm
said, `Oh, you must go to Tel Aviv.' And we went to Tel Aviv.
So it was, you know, it was like in the old movies when you see somebody's
peregrinations around the globe and there's that little arrow that gets drawn
from country to country.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: And that's what it really was, zig-zagging back and forth,
crazily sometimes. So it was really like following the bouncing ball. And
that's what we did. We found them all.
GROSS: One of the things you learned was that there were basically two
different slaughters in which the Germans killed most of the Jews in Bolechow.
What did you learn about those two events?
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Well, there were--what we learned, and this was in Australia
when we really started to get the full picture. Because you have to
understand, we didn't know anything. When I started this book, we did not
know anything except what was available, in like, you know, a Holocaust
encyclopedia, which is very clipped. And we learned, quite typically for a
town in this area in Eastern Poland, there was an initial--the Nazis came in
the summer of '41, and there was an initial aktion, or mass killing. In the
fall of '41 they killed 1,000 people in a mass grave, machine gunned in a mass
grave. And that's when one of my uncle Schmiel's daughters was taken. She
just happened to be out on that street that day and got caught in a dragnet,
and was marched over to this open pit and killed there.
And what was interesting is that between 1941 and 1942, the death camps began
to run in earnest and Belzec began to run. And so in the autumn of 1942 was
the second aktion. And that's when most of the Bolechow Jews were killed.
There was an aktion that lasted several days, three days, in which they
rounded up 2500 people and they kept them in the courtyard of the city hall
for a number of days. When they killed most of the children, there were 500
people killed. And the remaining 2,000 were marched to the little town train
station and put in cattle cars and they went to Belzec, and that's where most
of Bolechow's Jews perished.
And at that point there remained about 1,000 people, and most of them were
younger people, and most of my survivors, the people who are helping me, who
remembered Schmiel and his family, were among those 1,000 young, healthy
people who had been kept for last, because they could work in the forced labor
businesses. This was an industrial town, and they had a, you know, a sawmill
and a barrel factory and they were forced to work in them, and those people
were eventually liquidated in 1943, except the ones who went into hiding.
GROSS: My guest is Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the book "The Lost: A Search
for Six of Six Million." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Daniel Mendelsohn. His new book, "The Lost," is about
investigating the story of his great uncle Schmiel, who died in the Holocaust
along with his wife and four daughters.
There are so many interesting twists and turns and mysteries along the way in
your family research that we can't possibly do justice to here, so I want to
just skip ahead a bit. You found the house where your great uncle, it turned
out, had hidden in the basement. At least, you thought you found that house.
You'd thought you'd found that house, thought you'd found that cramped
basement or cellar, maybe cellar's a better word, that the family had hid out
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Right.
GROSS: And then, after thinking, `OK, this is it,' you finally found it, you
went into it, you experienced what that space was like, and then you met a
neighbor you hadn't met before, who said, `No, that wasn't really the house.'
And I love that part of the book, because I think, among other things, it's so
kind of telling about the excitement and also the limitations of history, of
how, you know, if you hadn't met that other neighbor, you never would've known
it wasn't exactly the house.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Right. Although, you know, as you know, then we met another
neighbor who said it was the house. So I completely agree with you. One of
the issues that I was forced to confront in the researching and the writing of
this book was precisely the limits of memory, the almost blurred quality that
is characteristic of so many of the stories that become the written,
authoritative histories that we read. And that day was an unbelievably
emotional day in which we, quite by accident--so much of what happened in my
research, was accidental, starting with being contacted by Jack Greene in
But in that culminating day, we were told that there was this man who knew the
story, the terrible story of the last of my relatives who were the object of a
failed rescue attempt. And we were taken to a place where we were told that
they had been hidden, and we were told it was a different place. Then we were
told it was the same place. Until we finally met somebody who was actually
there the day it happened, and she told us exactly what happened and exactly
But certainly, that day becomes a kind of symbol, almost, of the problems of
the limits of memory and history, because so many of the stories that I got
along the way during the two years that I was traveling, tracking down the 12
Bolechow people, so many of these stories were alternate versions, different
versions, versions of stories we had heard with some key detail different.
GROSS: Once you found survivors of Bolechow who knew your great uncle and his
family, did you ask them if they knew about the responses that your great
uncle was getting from the family in America in response to his pleas to help
him get out of Bolechow and into the United States?
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Yeah, I did ask them--well, I, you know, at that point of
course, everybody was in the same boat, you know. Everybody was frantically
trying to think of a way out and had been writing to their American relatives.
So I did ask them what the situation was, and one of them laughed, you know,
when I mentioned to him Schmiel's letters. And this gentleman, whose name is
Jack Greene, and he's one of the Sydney Bolechowers, was the high school
boyfriend of one of Schmiel's daughters, so he was very close to the family.
And he sort of just waved a hand dismissively. He said, you know, `People
were writing letters like maniacs in 1939.' He said, `It was already closed,
you couldn't leave. And anyway, there were already in place, in Poland'--this
is before the invasion by Hitler. You have to remember, there was an
extremely right wing anti-Semitic government in place in Poland who were
already passing very severe restrictive economic measures against Jews, so
these people already were having trouble getting their money out, you know,
buying tickets. I mean, even if it had been possible, it was already, as this
man said to me, "farfalen," it was already hopeless, you know. It was a lost
cause. So, although they didn't specifically talk about Schmiel's letters, he
just dismissed the whole idea. He said nobody at that point could get out,
even if they had wanted to.
GROSS: You've said that you've come to think of Europe as a giant cemetery.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Right.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Well, one of the things that you get from being immersed in
the study of the Holocaust in any way, as an historian or in my fashion, which
was much more personal and narrow--but anything that forces you to travel in
Eastern Europe leaves you with a sense of the--I don't know how to say it in
any other way but to say the wrongness of Europe as it is today. I mean,
you're constantly reminded as you travel in Europe, if you're traveling with
an eye to the Holocaust, of the bizarre absence of these many millions of
people, and now, 60 years later, many more millions of people who would have
And you can't get that out of your head, not least because so many of the
physical remains of European Jewry, particularly in Eastern Europe where the
devastation was so total, so many of the physical remains, the synagogues, the
storefronts with Yiddish letterings still on the bricks, the Jewish
cemeteries, the Mikvahs, the ritual bath buildings still with stars of David
carved about the lentils, you know, all of these things are still there.
They're still there.
And to be confronted with that is to just have brought home in the most
devastating way both the sense of the recentness of this event, which sounds
like a peculiar thing to say, but I mean, you realize it happened recently
enough that there's still all the evidence, so to speak, is still there.
Nobody has bothered to clean up. You're confronted with that. And so you
think Europe today is completely other than it would have been, in a way from
which it will never recover.
You know, my older brother Andrew said the most moving thing to me, late into
my research and traveling. And he said, `Well, you know,' he said, `they feel
like they're so remote, Uncle Schmiel and his wife and kids, because they died
so long ago.' He said, `But, you know, there's no reason in the 1970s that
they would not have been, "Oh, yeah, you know, the Polish aunt and uncle and
cousins that we would have to go see once a year in Poland," if the whole
history of the 20th century had been different.' And that I just found
electrifying, because it brought home to me the fact that these people ought
to have been alive in my lifetime. And of course they're not, and many
millions more are not.
And in that sense, I feel like Europe is just a cemetery. And I say this as
just a, you know, a scholar of the classics, a lover of high European culture,
a person who believes in European civilization. But I really do feel like
it's--there's something poisonous and very haunted that I don't think I'll
every get over.
GROSS: Your mother's mother, your grandmother on your mother's side...
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...is buried in a cemetery in Queens in a section labeled "The First
Bolechow Sick Benevolent Association."
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: What was this association?
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Well, a lot of the Jews who emigrated at the turn of the
last century to the United States formed community associations, so that, say,
all the Jews from Bolechow now living on the Lower East Side, would contribute
to a fund and they would, in a very communal way, they would help the sick
people. If somebody got ill, because, you know, of course, these were very
recent immigrants with not a lot of money, they would pool resources. And
they would also buy a plot of land in a cemetery and reserve it for people
from that town. So even in the new world, even in death, they were all still
representing the old schtetl that they came from, and that's what that was.
GROSS: Well, you know, having been to Bolechow and having done so much
research there about how your family was killed, what does it mean to you now
to see that, the First Bolechow Sick Benevolent Association, in the cemetery?
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Well, it's very moving to me, because I think of it as a
sort of colony, you know. And of course at the time, these places were
started up and these cemetery plots were bought in New Jersey and New York,
you know, they could have no idea that the mother country, so to speak, would
be erased from the face of the earth. And the fact of what subsequently
happened during the Holocaust gives, in my mind, a special poignancy to these
little outposts of Bolechow and all these other places, of course, in the new
world. I think of them--I'm glad they're there. Because if they weren't
there, there would be no trace of this place anywhere.
GROSS: My guest is Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the book "The Lost: A Search
for Six of Six Million." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Daniel Mendelsohn. His new book, "The Lost," is about
investigating the story of his great uncle Schmiel, who died in the Holocaust
along with his wife and four daughters.
You know, I can't remember whether it was in your book or in an article I was
reading, you talk about what went through your mind after first reading about
Abu Gharaib and the human pyramid that was formed there of naked Iraqi
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Right. Right.
GROSS: Tell us what it made you think about.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Well, one of the pieces of information that I got on my
first trip to Bolechow, when I was just interviewing elderly Ukranians who had
been there during World War II, was that, during the first aktion, when the
1,000 people were rounded up, they were kept first in a local building and
tortured for about a day and a half before they were taken to this mass grave.
And one of the things, apparently, that they were forced to do was to--the
Germans and the Ukranian accessories would make the Jews form these pyramids,
and they would put the rabbi on the top, human pyramids, and put the rabbi on
the top and knock him off and beat him.
And so when I read about Abu Gharaib, I just, I had to pause and wonder, `What
is it that makes people want to do this terrible sort of ritual humiliation,
of building people into these sort of weird perversions of buildings, you
know, because that's what a pyramid is, and then destroying it.' It seemed to
me to be a kind of metaphor for civilization and destruction right there, this
weird mock building up and knocking down. And I was just--because I'd been so
electrified by this fact when I first heard it, about Bolechow, when the Abu
Gharaib thing happened, of course it was the first thing I thought of.
GROSS: And what did it mean to you, what were you thinking of, knowing that
Americans had done this to Iraqis?
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Well, I thought the natural thing, that you end up thinking
when you study the history of the Holocaust, which is that anybody is capable
of anything, and that there's no nation that has claim to moral superiority.
I mean, I think that much has been made clear. And that there's some very
base, low human impulse toward desecration and torture and violence that
exists, apparently, in everybody.
You know, the thing about the Holocaust, especially in little Eastern European
towns where neighbors turned against neighbors, that you keep getting is that
otherwise-normal-seeming people would, if under the right combination of
circumstances, turn into what one of my survivors kept referring to as
cannibals, savages. And that certainly ran through my mind.
And it continues to run through my mind. And it's the thing that impressed me
most: you don't feel safe any more, after you think about this material,
because you realize anybody could do anything.
GROSS: You know, you've pointed out that you think of yourself as the last
generation to have come in direct contact with, you know, to have grown up
with people of that Holocaust generation of Jews. You're the grandchild of
people who survived the Holocaust and of people who were killed in the
Holocaust. And after that, as you point out, it's history. People will know
of it as history. I don't know what my question is there, but I think we're
very aware of a generation dying out.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Well, I was certainly possessed by this notion all through
my life, and certainly the writing of my book, which is that, you know,
history is specific. It's not general. It's certain people at certain times,
and my generation is, essentially, the last generation in the history of this
planet that will have been in a position to talk to, to know as a subsequent
generation knowing an older generation, the people who went through the
Holocaust. And after us, it's all people who will never have direct personal
contact with Holocaust survivors, with people who were there.
And the question I keep thinking about, and which I was possessed by as I
wrote my book, is, `What happens to this event then?' There will come a time
in our lifetime in which the last Holocaust survivor dies. What happens then?
How does this event then get transmitted to a subsequent generation, to whom
it can never be a tangible reality, a memory of what an old man looked like or
smelled like or felt like? And that's the thing that I kept thinking of.
And I think that we're the hinge. You know, my generation, kids who knew old
people in the 1960s and '70s who were Holocaust survivors, are the last
generation to have that. And as a person who's a writer, as a person who's a
scholar of lost civilizations, I'm very interested in the phenomenon of how a
person's or a generation's lived experience becomes the narrative that is
transmitted to a subsequent generation.
And, of course, what my book is trying to do is to, in some sense, be that
narrative. And it's very aware of itself as that narrative. And the people
who were talking to me knew that they were entrusting to me like a precious
little package. And they knew I was going to be the one to give it to many
people when they couldn't anymore. And that was a very moving thing.
GROSS: Well, Daniel Mendelsohn, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Daniel Mendelsohn is the author of "The Lost: A Search for Six of Six
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.