DATE September 21, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM 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
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
When people are threatened by war or ethnic persecution which could lead to
genocide, they face the terrible dilemma of whether they should flee their
homes or stay. Daniel Mendelsohn's book "The Lost" tells the story of his
great-uncle Schmiel, who stayed in his Ukrainian 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 his book, which is
now out in paperback.
Mendelsohn is a contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New York
Times Book Review. He teaches at Bard College. Mendelsohn spoke to Terry
last year when "The Lost" was first published. He began with a reading from
the beginning of the book.
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 often 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 did 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."
TERRY GROSS, host:
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 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--which 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
know it was, so to speak, a mistake, you know, and we look back and we say,
`Oh, well, you know, 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 offer contacts, do something.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: 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: Mm. "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?"
DAVIES: Daniel Mendelsohn, reading letters from his great-uncle Schmiel, who
died in the Holocaust. He spoke with Terry Gross in 2006. We'll hear more
about those letters and about Mendelsohn's book "The Lost" after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: We're back with Daniel Mendelsohn, author of "The Lost: A Search for
Six of Six Million." It's 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 were killed in the Holocaust.
GROSS: 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.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: 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...
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...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, zigzagging 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.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: 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 the street that day and got caught in the
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: 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.
DAVIES: Daniel Mendelsohn speaking with Terry Gross. His book "The Lost" is
now out in paperback. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave
Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're
listening to Terry's interview with Daniel Mendelsohn, author of "The Lost: A
Search for Six of Six Million," which is now out in paperback. It's about
investigating the story of his great-uncle Schmiel, who stayed behind in his
Polish, now Ukrainian, town after his siblings left for America. Schmiel, his
wife and four daughters died in the Holocaust. After Mendelsohn's grandfather
died, he found letters written to his grandfather by Schmiel begging to help
him bring his family to America. When we left off, Mendelsohn was reading
from some of those desperate appeals.
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 above the lintels, 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,
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
ever 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 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 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.
DAVIES: Daniel Mendelsohn, author "The Lost," speaking with Terry Gross.
We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: We're back with author Daniel Mendelsohn. His 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. He spoke with Terry Gross
GROSS: You know, I can't remember whether it was in your book or in an
article I was reading in which you talk about what went through your mind
after first reading about Abu Ghraib and the human pyramid...
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Mm.
GROSS: ...that was formed there of naked Iraqi prisoners.
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 Ukrainians 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 Ukrainian 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 them.
And so when I read about Abu Ghraib, 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'--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
Ghraib 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, 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 has
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
other 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.
DAVIES: Daniel Mendelsohn speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. His book "The
Lost" is now out in paperback.
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Review: David Bianculli on the Ken Burns miniseries "The War"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Beginning Sunday PBS presents the latest documentary epic from filmmaker Ken
Burns. It's about World War II and is titled simply "The War." It spans 15
hours of prime time television over two weeks, but our TV critic David
Bianculli promises the investment is worth the time.
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
"The War," the latest documentary epic by Ken Burns and company, requires a
lot of commitment if you're going to watch it on PBS the next two weeks. It's
15 hours long and spills over so many nights that if you plan to see it all,
you pretty much have to plan your week--your weeks--around it.
That same type of commitment was required exactly 17 years ago when Burns
presented "The Civil War," and it was a huge hit. Then and now, a story of a
complicated, lengthy war was itself doing battle with splashy new shows from
the fall TV season. The difference between now and then is that, in 1990,
there were no such things as DVDs. "The War" is just the sort of show that's
perfect for home viewing, watching at your own leisure and schedule. But
there are fewer and fewer TV events each year that qualify as events, and "The
War" definitely is one of them. It's not only the best thing Ken Burns has
done since "The Civil War," it's the best thing he's done including "The Civil
The structure of the narrative, which got Burns in some trouble when Hispanic
groups demanded to be included, focuses on four American cities: Waterbury,
Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and the small town of
Laverne, Minnesota. We learn about the war, for the most part, from the
points of view of the young men who went overseas to fight and the loved ones
who worried about them back home. This approach, as laid out by Burns,
co-producer and co-director Lynn Novick and writer Geoffrey C. Ward, brings
three fresh things to the table.
One, it lays out the story of World War II in a comprehensive, chronological
fashion. We follow the ground battles in Europe, but also the sea and air
battles in the Pacific. The prisoner of war camps in Manila, the
shark-surrounded USS Indianapolis, the fire-bombing of Dresden--it's all here,
mapped out--literally mapped out--in that arrows-and-colors graphics style
that brings to mind newsreels of the 1940s.
The second thing this production does freshly is tell its tale from the bottom
up, focusing on soldiers in the foxholes rather than generals in the command
posts. Strategy is touched upon, but what matters more is what happened
during each conflict and how it felt to be there.
This effect is amplified because, as we follow the soldiers from these four
chosen towns, we get to know them very well and care about them a lot. One of
them, a quiet fighter pilot named Quentin Aanenson, tells his own story, so we
know he lives. But thanks to what he reveals in this documentary series, we
also know how he thinks. After years of combat, when his optimistic spirit
finally gives way, here's a letter he writes home:
(Soundbite of "The War")
Mr. QUENTIN AANENSON: I live in a world of death. I have watched my friends
die in a variety of violent ways. Sometimes it's just an engine failure on
takeoff, resulting in a violent explosion. There's not enough left to bury.
Other times it's the deadly flak that tears into a plane. If the pilot is
lucky, the flak kills him, but usually he isn't and he burns to death as his
plane spins in.
Fire is the worst. In early September, one of my good friends crashed on the
edge of our field. As he was pulled from the burning plane, the skin came off
his arms. His face was almost burned away. He was still conscious and trying
to talk. You can't imagine the horror.
So far I have done my duty in this war. I have never aborted a mission or
failed a dive on a target, no matter how intense the flak. I have lived for
my dreams for the future, but like everything else around me my dreams are
dying, too. In spite of everything, I may live through this war and return to
Baton Rouge. But I am not the same person you said goodbye to on May 3rd. No
one could go through this and not change. We are all casualties. In the
meantime, we just go on. Some way, somehow, this will all have an ending.
Whatever it is, I am ready for it.
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: He never mailed it.
The third and final triumph of "The War" is the decision to spend so much time
on the home front. This is where "The War" gets some of its most resonant
moments, too, and where it finds this documentary's most amazing voice. It
sounds like Tom Hanks, because that's who reads the words. But the words were
written by a newspaper editor named Al McIntosh, who wrote a regular column
for the local paper in Laverne, The Rock County Star Herald. His personal
little essays for that paper, the 1940s equivalent of blogs, really, speak
with amazing directness and casualness to readers. Here's what he had to say,
for example, on what could have been a very jubilant occasion, the 1945
announcement that the Germans had surrendered. Here's Tom Hanks reading the
words of Al MacIntosh.
(Soundbite of "The War")
Mr. TOM HANKS: (Reading) "Unlike New Yorkers who whooped, hollered and tore
up tons of paper to throw in the streets, the news here was greeted with quiet
dignity and reverent restraint. One by one, the flags blossomed out on Main
Street; and store by store, the employees quietly filed out, and the business
places were locked up for the day. But there was no shouting, no hilarious
display of any kind. Most everybody went home. There was quiet exultation
over the fact that a great victory had been achieved. But that rejoicing was
tempered by the sobering knowledge that there was another great war yet to be
BIANCULLI: The stories from the various battlefronts are unforgettable. So
are the stories told from back home. They combine to make one of the most
informative yet quietly emotional documentaries I've ever seen. "The War,"
for any medium, is a masterwork.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
Coming up, David Edelstein on Sean Penn's film "Into the Wild," based on the
book by Jon Krakauer. This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: David Edelstein on the Sean Penn film "Into the Wild"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The actor Sean Penn has written and directed the new film "Into the Wild,"
based on Jon Krakauer's 1996 best-selling book. It tells the true story of a
young man who hits the road, stripped of his material past, in search of his
true being he believes he'll find only in the wilderness. Film critic David
Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
Humans testing themselves against nature. That's the theme of Jon Krakauer's
nonfiction book "Into the Wild" and the film adaptation by Sean Penn. The
subject, Chris McCandless, is an upper middle-class college graduate who, in
1992, took to the road without telling his family. He gave away most of his
money and burned the rest. He adopted the gung-ho pseudonym Alex Supertramp.
He wondered the South and Northwest and ended up in Alaska, on the edge of the
Denali National Forest, the setting for what he called in his journal "the
climactic battle to kill the false being within." Sadly, he also killed the
true being without. His decomposed body was found in a sleeping bag in an
When Krakauer covered the story for Outside magazine, he got bags of mail from
people who said McCandless was a self-destructive nutcase who gave wilderness
exploration a bad name. The book was an attempt to refute that, to put the
young man's odyssey in a great American tradition of wilderness explorers,
some of them nutcases, but others visionaries.
Books by Thoreau, John Muir, and Jack London were in McCandless' backpack
beside his moldering corpse. In the movie, Penn goes further than Krakauer in
affirming his protagonist's heroism. As played by Emile Hirsch, McCandless is
a big-hearted, high-spirited youth who needs to break from his
over-controlling family and whose only mistake is forgetting to come up with a
way out of the wild.
Penn brooded on McCandless' story for a decade and, watching the film, you can
feel his envy of McCandless' life and even, in a masochistic way, his death.
That passion carries you over some bad ideas, like the original songs by Pearl
Jam's Eddie Vedder, irony-free odes to leaving big bad society behind.
Emile Hirsch has a wide open face that's instantly readable, even when he
sports a full black beard. He seems lofted by optimism. Almost everyone who
meets Alex--that's his nom de voyage, remember--wants to adopt him, like
Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker as a pair of hippie nomads.
(Soundbite of "Into the Wild")
Mr. BRIAN DIERKER: (As Rainey) See, you're a leather now?
Mr. EMILE HIRSCH: (As Christopher McCandless) I'm a leather?
Ms. CATHERINE KEENER: (As Jan Burres) Yeah, a leather tramp. That's what
they call the ones that hoof it on foot. Technically we're rubber tramps.
Mr. DIERKER: (As Rainey) Because we have a vehicle.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KEENER: (As Jan Burres) Yeah, Alex could have a vehicle as well, but he
decided to burn all of his money. And why did you do that?
Mr. HIRSCH: (As Christopher McCandless) I don't need money. It makes people
Ms. KEENER: (As Jan Burres) Come on, Alex. You've got to be a little
cautious. I mean, that book of yours is cool and everything, but you can't
depend entirely on eating berries.
Mr. HIRSCH: (As Christopher McCandless) I don't know if you want to depend
on much more than that.
Ms. KEENER: (As Jan Burres) Where are your mom and dad?
Mr. HIRSCH: (As Christopher McCandless) Living their lives somewhere.
Ms. KEENER: (As Jan Burres) You look like a loved kid. Be fair.
Mr. HIRSCH: (As Christopher McCandless) Fair?
Ms. KEENER: (As Jan Burres) You know what I mean.
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: Hirsch's McCandless is a little manic, but he's otherwise
romanticized, which makes him blander than in Krakauer's book, where people
say he was often angry and aloof. One critic I read said the movie is good
even though the protagonist is a cipher. I don't think he's quite a cipher,
but if I did, I'd have a hard time calling the movie good.
As a director, Penn has a lot of restless energy. He leaps around in time.
He serves up fancy montages, lyrical slow motion, and narration by several
different characters, among them McCandless' sister, played by Jena Malone.
There are long excerpts from McCandless' letters and journals, with an
occasional bon mot plucked out and scrawled across the screen. Alex flees
civilization to learn to be in the moment, but the movie is so busy, it has no
present tense. It's at war with its own message.
After all the nits are picked, though, there are scenes in "Into the Wild"
that stay with you. Kristen Stewart plays a leggy 16-year-old in a vagabond
flea market with a whopping crush on McCandless. Her longing for him and the
liberation he represents is incredibly vivid. Hal Holbrook plays an old man
who lost his family to a drunk driver and withdrew into himself. His scenes
aren't well staged, but his craggy simplicity inspires Penn to slow down.
The final Alaska sequences, in which Chris makes a mess of butchering a moose
and loses the meat to maggots, have a shock value beyond the yucky imagery.
It's his first inkling of his vulnerability, his first real lesson from the
natural world. It would have made a great story in the book McCandless didn't
live to write.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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