the lost a search for six of six million

THE LOST

A Search for Six of Six Million

DANIEL MENDELSOHN

PHOTOGRAPHS BY
MATT MENDELSOHN

To

FRANCES BEGLEY

and

SARAH PETTIT

sunt lacrimae rerum

Contents

The Family of Shmiel Jäger

PART ONE
: Bereishit, or, Beginnings

1

The Formless Void

2

Creation

PART TWO
: Cain and Abel, or, Siblings

1

The Sin Between Brothers

2

The Sound of Your Brother’s Blood

PART THREE
: Noach, or, Total Annihilation

1

The Unimaginable Journey

2

The Story of the Flood

3

And the Tops of the Mountains Appeared Once Again

PART FOUR
: Lech Lecha, or, Go Forth!

1

The Promised Land

2

Sweden/Israel Again

3

Denmark

4

Home Again

PART FIVE
: Vayeira, or, The Tree in the Garden

IN MEMORIAM

AUTHOR’S NOTE

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CREDITS

COPYRIGHT

ABOUT THE PUBLISHER

The Family of Shmiel Jäger

PART ONE
Bereishit,
or,
Beginnings
(1967–2000)

W
HEN WE HAVE PASSED A CERTAIN AGE, THE SOUL OF THE CHILD WE WERE AND THE SOULS OF THE DEAD FROM WHOM WE HAVE SPRUNG COME TO LAVISH ON US THEIR RICHES AND THEIR SPELLS….

Marcel Proust,

In Search of Lost Time

(The Captive)

1
THE FORMLESS VOID

S
OME 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 in Miami Beach in the mid-nineteen-sixties, old. 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 prized bits of gossip or coming to the long-delayed endings of stories or to the punch lines 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 didn’t 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.

Kissing the cheeks of old Jewish relatives! We writhed, we groaned, we wanted to race down to the kidney-shaped heated swimming pool in back of the apartment complex, but first we had to kiss all those cheeks; which, on the men, smelled like basements and hair tonic and Tiparillos, and were scratchy with whiskers so white you’d often mistake them for lint (as my younger brother once did, who attempted to pluck off the offending fluff only to be smacked, ungently, on the side of the head); and, on the old women, gave off the vague aroma of face powder and cooking oil, and were as soft as the “emergency” tissues crammed into the bottom of their purses, crushed there like petals next to the violet smelling salts, wrinkled cough-drop wrappers, and crumpled bills…. The crumpled bills.
Take this and hold it for Marlene until I come out,
my mother’s mother, whom we called Nana, instructed my other grandmother, as she handed her a small red leather purse containing a crinkled twenty-dollar bill one February day in 1965, just before they wheeled her into an operating room for some exploratory surgery. She had just turned fifty-nine, and wasn’t feeling well. My grandmother Kay obeyed and took the purse with the crumpled bill, and true to her word she delivered it to my mother, who was still holding it a number of days later when Nana, laid in a plain pine box, as is the custom, was buried in the Mount Judah Cemetery in Queens, in the section owned (as an inscription on a granite gateway informs you) by the F
IRST
B
OLECHOWER
S
ICK
B
ENEVOLENT
A
SSOCIATION
. To be buried here you had to belong to this association, which meant in turn that you had to have come from a small town of a few thousand people, located halfway around the world in a landscape that had once belonged to Austria and then to Poland and then to many others, called Bolechow.

Now it is true that my mother’s mother—whose soft earlobes, with their chunky blue or yellow crystal earrings, I would play with as I sat on her lap in the webbed garden chair on my parents’ front porch, and whom at one point I loved more than anyone else, which is no doubt why her death was the first event of which I have any distinct memories, although it’s true that those memories are, at best, fragments (the undulating fish pattern of the tiles on the walls of the hospital waiting room; my mother saying something to me urgently, something important, although it would be another forty years before I was finally reminded of what it was; a complex emotion of yearning and fear and shame; the sound of water running in a sink)—my mother’s mother was not born in Bolechow, and indeed was the only one of my four grandparents who was born in the United States: a fact that, among a certain
group of people that is now extinct, once gave her a certain cachet. But her handsome and domineering husband, my grandfather,
Grandpa,
had been born and grew to young manhood in Bolechow, he and his six siblings, the three brothers and three sisters; and for this reason he was permitted to own a plot in that particular section of Mount Judah Cemetery. There he, too, lies buried now, along with his mother, two of his three sisters, and one of his three brothers. The other sister, the fiercely possessive mother of an only son, followed her boy to another state, and lies buried there. Of the other two brothers, one (so we were always told) had had the good sense and foresight to emigrate with his wife and small children from Poland to Palestine in the 1930s, and as a result of that sage decision was buried, in due time, in Israel. The oldest brother, who was also the handsomest of the seven siblings, the most adored and adulated, the
prince
of the family, had come as a young man to New York, in 1913; but after a scant year living with an aunt and uncle there he decided that he preferred Bolechow. And so, after a year in the States, he went back—a choice that, because he ended up happy and prosperous there, he knew to be the right one. He has no grave at all.

 

O
F THOSE OLD
men and women who would sometimes cry at the mere sight of me, those old Jewish people with the cheeks that had to be kissed, with their faux-alligator wristwatch bands and dirty Yiddish jokes and thick black plastic glasses with the yellowed plastic hearing aid trailing off the back, with the glasses brimful of whiskey, with the pencils that they’d offer you each time you saw them, which bore the names of banks and car dealerships; with their A-line cotton-print dresses and triple strands of white plastic beads and pale crystal earrings and red nail varnish that glittered and clicked on their long, long nails as they played mah-jongg and canasta, or clutched the long, long cigarettes they smoked—: of those, the ones I could make cry had certain other things in common. They all spoke with a particular accent, one with which I was familiar because it was the accent that haunted, faintly but perceptibly, my grandfather’s speech: not too heavy, since by the time I was old enough to notice such things they had lived here, in America, for half a century, but still there was a telltale ripeness, a plummy quality to certain words that were ripe with
r
’s and
l
’s, words like
darling
or
wonderful
, a certain way of biting into the
t
’s and
th
’s in words like
terrible
and (a word my grandfather, who liked to tell stories, often used)
truth. It’s de troott
! he would say. These
elderly Jews tended to interrupt one another a lot on those occasions when they and we would all crowd into somebody’s musty living room, cutting off one another’s stories to make corrections, reminding one another what had really happened at this or that
vahnderfoll
or (more likely)
tahrrible time, dollink, I vuz dehre, I rrammembah, and I’m tellink you, it’s de troott
.

More distinctive and memorable still, they all seemed to have a second, alternate set of names for one another. This confused and disoriented me, when I was six or seven years old, because I thought that the name of (say) my Nana was Gertrude, or sometimes Gerty, and so I couldn’t figure out why, in this select company, in Florida, at large family gatherings that took place forty years after her husband’s bossy and self-dramatizing family had disembarked at Ellis Island to remake themselves as Americans (while never ceasing to tell stories about Europe), she became
Golda
. Nor could I understand why my grandfather’s younger brother, our Uncle Julius, a famous giver-out of inscribed pencils, who had married unusually late in life and whom my swaggering, well-dressed grandfather always treated with the kind of indulgence you reserve for ill-behaved pets, suddenly became
Yidl
. (It would be decades before I learned that the name on his birth certificate had been Judah Aryeh: “lion of Judah.”) And who, anyway, was this
Neche
—it sounded like
Nehkhuh
—whom my grandfather would sometimes refer to as his darling youngest sister, who, I knew, had dropped dead of a stroke at the age of thirty-five in 1943 at (so my grandfather would tell me, by way of explaining why he didn’t like that holiday) the Thanksgiving table; who was this
Nehkhuh
, since I knew, or thought I knew, that his beloved baby sister had been Aunt Jeanette? Only my grandfather, whose given name was Abraham, had a nickname that was intelligible to me: Aby; and this added to my sense that he was a person of total and transparent authenticity, a person you could trust.

Among these people, there were some who cried when they saw me. I would walk in the room and they would look at me and (mostly the women) would put both twisted hands, with their rings and the knots, swollen and hard like those of a tree, that were their knuckles, they would put these hands to their dry cheeks and say, with a stagy little indrawn breath,
Oy, er zett oys zeyer eynlikh tzu Shmiel!

Oh, he looks so much like Shmiel!

And then they would start crying, or exclaiming softly and rocking back and forth with their pink sweaters or windbreakers shaking around their loose shoulders, and there would then begin a good deal of rapid-fire Yiddish from which I was, then, excluded.

O
F THIS
S
HMIEL,
of course, I knew something: my grandfather’s oldest brother, who with his wife and four beautiful daughters had been killed by the Nazis during the war.
Shmiel. Killed by the Nazis
. The latter was, we all understood, the unwritten caption on the few photographs that we had of him and his family, which now lie stored carefully inside a plastic baggie inside a box inside a carton in my mother’s basement. A prosperous-looking businessman of perhaps fifty-five, standing proprietarily in front of a truck next to two uniformed drivers; a family gathered around a table, the parents, four small girls, an unknown stranger; a sleek man in a fur-collared coat, wearing a fedora; two young men in World War I uniforms, one of whom I knew to be the twenty-one-year-old Shmiel while the identity of the other one was impossible to guess, unknown and unknowable….
Unknown and unknowable
: this could be frustrating, but also produced a certain allure. The photographs of Shmiel and his family were, after all, more fascinating than the other family pictures that were so fastidiously preserved in my mother’s family archive precisely because we knew almost nothing about him, about them; their unsmiling, unspeaking faces seemed, as a result, more beguiling.

For a long time there were only the mute photographs and, sometimes, the uncomfortable ripple in the air when Shmiel’s name was mentioned. This was not often, when my grandfather was still living, because we knew this was the great tragedy of his life, that his brother and sister-in-law and four nieces had been killed by the Nazis. Even I, who when he visited loved to sit at his feet, shod in their soft leather slippers, and to listen to his many stories about “the family,” which of course meant
his
family, whose name had once been Jäger (and who, forced to give up that umlaut over the
a
when they came to America, over time became Yaegers and Yagers and Jagers and, like him, Jaegers: all of these spellings appear on the gravestones in Mount Judah), this family who for centuries had had a butcher store and then, later, a meat-shipping business in Bolechow,
a nice town
,
a bustling little town
,
a shtetl
, a place that was famous for the timber and meat and leather goods that its merchants shipped all over Europe,
a place where a person could live
,
a beautiful spot near the mountains;
even I, who was so close to him, who as I grew older would ask him so often about matters of family
history, dates, names, descriptions, places, that when he responded to my questions (on thin sheets of stationery from the company he’d owned long before, in blue ink from a fat Parker fountain pen) he’d occasionally write
Dear Daniel, Please don’t ask me any more questions about the mishpuchah, because I’m an old man and I can’t remember a thing, and besides are you sure you want to find more relatives?!
—even I felt awkward about bringing it up, this dreadful thing that had happened to Shmiel, to his very own brother.
Killed by the Nazis
. It was hard for me, when I was a child and first started hearing that refrain about Shmiel and his lost family, to imagine what exactly that meant. Even later, after I was old enough to have learned about the war, seen the documentaries, watched with my parents the episode of a PBS series called
The World at War
that was preceded by a terrifying warning that certain images in the film were too intense for children—even later, it was hard to imagine just how they had been killed, to grasp the details, the specifics. When? Where? How? With guns? In the gas chambers? But my grandfather wouldn’t say. Only later did I understand that he wouldn’t say because he didn’t know, or at least didn’t know enough, and that the not knowing, in part, was what tormented him.

And so I didn’t bring it up. Instead I would keep to safe subjects, the questions that would allow him to be funny, which he liked to be, as for instance in the following letter, written to me just after I turned fourteen:

May 20/74

Dear Daniel

Received your letter with all your questions, but sorry I havent been able to give you all the answers. I noticed in your letter where you are asking me if you are interruptin my
busy schedule
with all your questions, the answer is
NO

I noticed that you are very happy that I remembered HERSH’S wife’s name. I am also happy, because
Hersh
is my Grandfather and
Feige
is my Grandmother.

Now about the dates of Birth of each one I don’t know because I was not there, but when the
MESSIAH
will come, and all the relatives will be Re-United I will ask them…

An addendum to this letter is addressed to my sister and youngest brother:

Dearest Jennifer and Dear Eric,

We thank you both for your wonderful letter’s, and we are especially happy because you have no questions about the
Mishpacha

DEAR JENNIFER

I WAS GOING TO SEND YOU AND YOUR BROTHER ERIC SOME MONEY, BUT AS YOU KNOW THAT I AM NOT WORKING AND I HAVE NO MONEY. SO AUNT RAY LOVES YOU BOTH VERY MUCH, AND AUNT RAY IS ENCLOSING TWO DOLLARS ONE FOR YOU, AND ONE FOR ERIC.

LOVE AND KISSES

AUNT RAY AND GRANDPA JAEGER

Dearest Marlene

Please be advised that Tuesday May 28 is YISKOR…

Yiskor,
yizkor
: a memorial service. My grandfather was always mindful of the dead. Each summer when he came to visit, we took him to Mount Judah to visit my grandmother and all the others. We children would wander around and look blandly at the names on the modest headstones and low footstones, or at the giant monument, in the shape of a tree with its branches lopped off, which commemorated my grandfather’s older sister, who had died at twenty-six,
a week before her wedding,
or so my grandfather used to tell me. Some of these stones bore little electric-blue stickers that said
PERPETUAL CARE
, nearly all of them boasted names like
STANLEY
and
IRVING
and
HERMAN
and
MERVIN
, like
SADIE
and
PAULINE
, names that to people of my generation seem quintessentially Jewish although, in one of those ironies that only the passage of a certain amount of time can make clear, the fact is that the immigrant Jews of a century ago, born with names like
SELIG
and
ITZIG
and
HERCEL
and
MORDKO
, like
SCHEINDEL
and
PERL
, had chosen those names precisely because to them the names seemed quite English, quite un-Jewish. We would wander around and look at all this while my grandfather, always in a spotless sport coat, crisply creased slacks, boldly knotted tie, and pocket square, would make his meticulous and orderly progress, stopping by each stone in turn, his mother’s, his sister’s, his brother’s, his wife’s, he had outlived them all, and would read the prayers in Hebrew in a kind of urgent mumble. If you drive along the Interboro Parkway in Queens and stop near the entrance of the Mount Judah Cemetery, and look over the stone fence by the road, you can see all of them there, can read their adopted, slightly grandiose names, accompanied by the ritualistic labels:
BELOVED WIFE, MOTHER, AND GRANDMOTHER; BELOVED HUSBAND; MOTHER
.

So yes: he was mindful of the dead. It was to be many years before I realized just how mindful he was, my handsome and funny grandfather, who knew
so many stories, who dressed so famously well: with his smoothly shaven oval face, the winking blue eyes and the straight nose that ended in the barest suggestion of a bulb, as if whoever had designed him had decided, at the last minute, to throw in a hint of humor; with his sparse, neatly brushed white hair, his clothes and cologne and manicures, his notorious jokes and his intricate, tragic stories.

M
Y GRANDFATHER WOULD
come each year in the summer, since in the summer the weather on Long Island was less oppressive than it was in Miami Beach. He would stay for weeks at a time, accompanied by whichever of his four wives he happened to be married to at the time. When he came to stay he (and, sometimes, the wife) would occupy my little brothers’ room, with its narrow twin beds. There, on arriving from the airport, he would hang his hat on a lamp shade and neatly fold his sport coat over the back of a chair, and afterward he’d set about taking care of his canary, Schloimele, which is Yiddish for
little Solomon:
settling the cage on a tiny oak child’s desk, sprinkling the little bird with a few drops of water
just to refresh a little
. Then, slowly,
meticulously, he would remove his things from his carefully packed bags, gently placing them on one of the two tiny beds in that room.

My grandfather was famous (in the way that certain kinds of Jewish immigrants and their families will talk about someone being “famous” for something, which generally means that about twenty-six people know about it) for a number of things—his sense of humor, the three women he married and, except for the one who outlived him, divorced in rapid succession after my grandmother died, the way he dressed, certain family tragedies, his Orthodoxy, the way he had of making waitresses and shopkeepers remember him, summer after summer—but to me the two salient things about him were his devoutness and his wonderful clothes. When I was a child and then an adolescent, these two things seemed to be the boundaries between which his strangeness, his Europeanness, existed: the territory that belonged to him and no one else, a space in which it was possible to be both worldly and pious, suave and religious, at the same time.

The first among the things that he would remove as he unpacked was the velvet bag that contained the things he needed to say his morning prayers—to
daven
. This he did every day of his life from the day in the spring of 1915 when he was bar mitzvahed to the morning before the June day in 1980 when he died. In this satin-lined bag of burgundy velvet, on the face of which was embroidered, in gold thread, a menorah flanked by rampant lions of Judah, were his yarmulke; an enormous old-fashioned white and faded-blue tallis sewn with its tickling fringes, in which, in conformance with the instructions that he meticulously dictated to me one hot day in 1972 when I was twelve, a year before my bar mitzvah, he was buried that June day; and the leather phylacteries, or
tefillin
, that he bound around his head and left forearm each morning as, while we watched in mute awe, he davened. To us it was a sight both bizarre and majestic: each morning after sunrise, murmuring in Hebrew, he would wrap his arm with the leather bands, and then wrap a single thick leather band around his skull, attached to which was a wooden box containing verses from the Torah that nestled in the center of his forehead, and would then put on the huge, faded tallis and the yarmulke, and then taking out his
siddur
, his daily prayer book, would mumble for about half an hour, his words completely incomprehensible to us. Sometimes, when he was finished, he’d say to us,
I put in a good word for you, since you’re only Reform
. My grandfather was an Orthodox Jew of the old school, and it was for his sake, more than anything else, that we had any religion at all: went to services on the holidays, got bar mitzvahed. As far as I know, my
father, a scientist who did not see eye to eye with his garrulous father-in-law, went to the little synagogue we belonged to exactly four times: on the mornings of his sons’ bar mitzvahs.

As exacting and meticulous as the ritual of the davening was, so too the way in which my grandfather would dress each morning: precise and orderly, just as much of a ritual. My grandfather was what used to be called a “snappy dresser.” His brushed and polished appearance, his fine clothes, were merely the external expression of an inner quality that, for him and his family, characterized what it was to be a Jäger, something they would refer to as
Feinheit:
a refinement that was at once ethical and aesthetic. You could always count on his socks matching his sweater, and he preferred to wear soft-brimmed hats in whose bands you could spot a rakish feather or two, until the last of his four wives—who had lost her first husband and a fourteen-year-old daughter in Auschwitz, and whose soft, tattooed forearm I used to love to hold and stroke, when I was little, and who because she had lost so much, I now think, could not abide anything so frivolous as a feather in a hat—started to pluck them out. On a typical summer day in the 1970s, he might wear the following: mustard-yellow summer-weight wool trousers, crisply creased; a soft white knit shirt under a mustard-and-white argyle sweater-vest; pale yellow socks, white suede shoes, and a soft-brimmed hat that, depending which year in the 1970s it was, did or did not sport a feather. Before stepping outside to walk around the block a few times, or to the park, he’d splash some 4711 cologne on his hands and slap it onto the sides of his head and beneath the wattles of his chin.
Now,
he would say, rubbing his manicured hands together,
we can go out
.

I would watch all this very carefully. (Or so I thought.) He might also wear a sport jacket—this, to me, seemed incredible, since there was neither a wedding nor a bar mitzvah to attend—into which he would slip, invariably, both his wallet and, in the inside breast pocket on the other side, an odd-looking billfold: long and slender, rather too large in the way that, to American eyes, certain items of European haberdashery always look somehow the wrong size; and of a leather, worn to an almost suedelike smoothness, which I now realize was ostrich skin, since I own it now, but which then I merely thought amusingly pimply-looking. I would sit on my little brother’s bed as he talked, watching him and admiring his things: the argyle vest, the white shoes, the sleek belts, the heavy blue-and-gold bottle of cologne, the tortoiseshell comb with which he slicked back the sparse white hair, the worn, puckered wallet that, as I knew even then, contained no money, unable as I was to imagine at
that point what might be so precious that he had to carry it with him every time he dressed himself so impeccably.

 

T
HIS WAS THE
man from whom I gleaned hundreds of stories and thousands of facts over the years, the names of his grandparents and great-uncles and aunts and second cousins, the years they were born and where they had died, the name of the Ukrainian maid they had had as children in Bolechow (Lulka), who used to complain that the children had stomachs “like bottomless pits,” the kind of hat his father, my great-grandfather, used to wear. (Homburgs: He’d been a courtly man with a goatee, my grandfather liked to boast about his father, and was something of a bigwig in his small but bustling town, known for bringing bottles of Hungarian Tokay to prospective business associates “to sweeten the deal”; and had dropped dead at the age of forty-five of heart failure at a spa in the Carpathian Mountains called Jaremcze, where he’d gone to take the waters for his health. This was the beginning of the bad years, the reason, in the end, why nearly all of his children eventually had to leave Bolechow.) Grandpa told me about the town park, with its statue of the great nineteenth-century Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, and the little park across the square with its allée of lime trees. He recited for me, and I learned, the words to “Mayn Shtetele Belz,” that little lullaby-like Yiddish song about the town quite near the one he grew up in, which his mother had sung to him a decade before the
Titanic
sank—

Mayn heymele, dort vu ikh hob

Mayne kindershe yorn farbrakht.

Belz, mayn shtetele Belz,

In ormen shtibele mit ale

Kinderlakh dort gelakht.

Yedn shabes fleg ikh loyfn dort

Mit der tchine glaych

Tsu zitsen unter dem grinem

Beymele, leyenen bay dem taykh.

Belz, mayn shtetele Belz,

Mayn heymele vu ch’hob gehat

Di sheyne khaloymes a sach.

My little home, where I spent

My childhood years;

Belz, my shtetl Belz,

in a poor little cottage with all

the little children I laughed.

Every Sabbath there I would go

With my prayer book

To sit down under the little green

tree, and read on the river’s edge.

Belz, my shtetl Belz

My little home, where I once had

So many beautiful dreams…

—learned these words, which I recently had the bizarre experience of hearing again, for the first time since my grandfather’s death twenty-five years ago, at a Sixties “theme” party at a club in New York City, and when I asked the DJ where he’d found this particular song he handed to me, without ceasing to gyrate to the strange music, the worn cover of a 1960 album, made by a famous Italian-American pop singer, titled
Connie Francis Sings Jewish Favorites
. From my grandfather I learned, too, about the old Ukrainian woodsman who lived in the hills above Bolechow but who, on the night before Yom Kippur, watching the unusual and, to him, frightening stillness settle along the glinting towns beneath the Carpathians’ timbered foothills as the Jews of the shtetls prepared for the awesome holiday, would make his way down the mountain and stay in the house of a kindly Jew, such was this Ukrainian peasant’s fear, on that one night each year, of the Jews and their glum God.

The Ukrainians, my grandfather would say now and then with a weary little sigh, as he told this story.
Oo-krah-EE-nyans
. The Ukrainians. Our
goyim.

So he would come each summer to Long Island and I would sit at his feet as he talked. He talked about that older sister who’d died
a week before her wedding,
and talked about the younger sister who was married off at nineteen to that older sister’s fiancé, the hunchbacked (my grandfather said), dwarflike first cousin whom first one and finally the other of these lovely girls had had to marry because, my grandfather told me, this ugly cousin’s father had paid for the boat tickets that had brought those two sisters and their brothers and mother, brought all of my grandfather’s family, to the United States, and had demanded a beautiful daughter-in-law as the price. He talked bitterly about how this same cousin, who was of course also his brother-in-law, chased my grandfather down forty-two flights of steps in the Chrysler Building after the reading of a certain will in 1947, brandishing a pair of scissors, or perhaps it
was a letter opener; talked about that mean aunt of his, the wife of the uncle who’d paid for his passage to America (the same aunt my grandfather’s older brother, the prince, had had to live with during his brief stay in the United States in 1913, and perhaps it was her meanness that had resulted in his decision to go back to Bolechow to live, the decision that seemed so right at the time); my grandfather talked about that aunt of his,
Tante,
who in the few remaining photographs of her is a huge, doughy, sour-faced matriarch whose fat arms settle around her torso like opulent robes of state, a woman so formidable that even today, in my family—even among those of us born a full generation after she died—it is impossible to hear the word
Tante
without a shudder.

And he talked about the pleasing modesty of Old Country bar mitzvahs as compared (you were meant to feel) to the overdressed and officious extravagance of the ceremonies today: first the religious ceremonies in cold, slope-roofed temples and, afterward, the receptions in lavish country clubs and catering halls, occasions at which boys like myself would read the
parashah,
the Torah portion for that week, and uncomprehendingly sing their
haftarah
portions, the selections from the Prophets that accompany each
parashah,
while dreaming of the reception to come and the promise of furtive whiskey sours. (Which is how I sang mine: a performance that ended with my voice cracking, loudly, mortifyingly, as I chanted the very last word, plummeting from a pure soprano to the baritone in which it has remained ever since.)
Nu, so?
he would say.
So you got up at five instead of six that morning, you prayed an extra hour in shul, and then you went home and had cookies and tea with the rabbi and your mother and father, and that was that
. He talked about how seasick he was on the ten-day crossing to America, about the time, years before that, when he had to guard a barn full of Russian prisoners of war, when he was sixteen during the First World War, which is how he learned Russian, one of the many languages he knew; about the vague group of cousins who would visit every now and then in the Bronx and who were called, mysteriously, “the Germans.”

My grandfather told me all these stories, all these things, but he never talked about his brother and sister-in-law and the four girls who, to me, seemed not so much dead as lost, vanished not only from the world but—even more terrible to me—from my grandfather’s stories. Which is why, out of all this history, all these people, the ones I knew the least about were the six who were murdered, who had, it seemed to me then, the most stunning story of all, the one most worthy to be told. But on this subject, my loquacious grandpa remained silent, and his silence, unusual and tense, irradiated the subject of Shmiel and his family, making them unmentionable and, therefore, unknowable.

Unknowable.

Every single word of the Five Books of Moses, the core of the Hebrew Bible, has been analyzed, examined, interpreted, and held up to the scrutiny of rigorous scholars over many centuries. It is generally acknowledged that the greatest of all biblical commentators was the eleventh-century French scholar Rabbi Shlomo ben Itzhak, who is better known as Rashi, a name that is nothing more than an acronym formed from the initial letters of his title, name, and patronymic: Ra(bbi) Sh(lomo ben) I(tzhak)—Rashi. Born in Troyes in 1040, Rashi survived the terrible upheavals of his time, which included the slaughters of Jews that were, so to speak, a by-product of the First Crusade. Educated in Mainz, where he was the student of the man who had been the greatest student of the renowned Gershom of Mainz (because I have always had good teachers, I love the idea of these intellectual genealogies), Rashi founded his own academy at the age of twenty-five and lived to see himself recognized as the greatest scholar of his age. His concern for each and every word of the text he was studying was matched only by the cramped terseness of his own style; it is perhaps because of the latter that Rashi’s own commentary on the Bible has itself become the object of some two hundred further commentaries. One measure of Rashi’s significance is that the first printed Hebrew Bible included his commentary…. It is interesting, for me, to note that Rashi, like my great-uncle Shmiel, had only daughters, which was, as far as these things go, more of a liability for a man with a certain kind of ambition in 1040 than it was in 1940. Still, the children of these daughters of Rashi carried on their grandfather’s magnificent legacy, and for that reason were known as
baalei tosafot
, “Those Who Extended.”

Although Rashi stands as the preeminent commentator on the Torah—and, hence, on the first
parashah
in the Torah, the reading with which the Torah begins, and which itself begins with not one but, mysteriously, two accounts of the Creation, and includes the story of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, and which is for that reason a story that has attracted particularly rigorous commentary over the millennia—it
is important to acknowledge the interpretations of modern commentators, such as the recent translation and commentary by Rabbi Richard Elliot Friedman, which, in its sincere and searching attempts to connect the ancient text to contemporary life, is as open-faced and friendly as Rashi’s is dense and abstruse.

For instance, throughout his analysis of the first chapter of Genesis—the Hebrew name of which,
bereishit
, literally means “in the beginning”—Rashi is attentive to minute details of meaning and diction that Rabbi Friedman is content to let pass without comment, whereas Friedman (who is, admittedly, writing for a more general audience) is eager to elucidate broader points. An example: Both scholars acknowledge the famous difficulties of translating the very first line of
Bereishit—bereishit bara Elohim et-hashamayim v’etha’aretz
. Contrary to the belief of millions who have read the King James Bible, this line does not mean, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” but must mean, rather, something like “In the beginning of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth…” Friedman merely acknowledges the “classic problem” of translation, without going into it; whereas Rashi expends quantities of ink on just what the problem is. And the problem, in a word, is that what the Hebrew literally says is “In the beginning of, God created the heavens and the earth.” For the first word,
bereishit
, “in the beginning” (
b
’, “in,”
+ reishit
, “beginning”) is normally followed by another noun, but in the first line of
parashat Bereishit
—when we refer to a parashah by name we use the form “parashat”—what follows the word
bereishit
is a verb:
bara
, “created.” After an extended discussion of the linguistic issues, Rashi eventually solves the problem by invoking certain parallels from other texts in which
bereishit
is followed by a verb rather than a noun, and it is this that allows us to translate these first crucial words as follows:

In the beginning of God’s creating the skies and heavens—when the earth had been shapeless and formless, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and God’s spirit was hovering on the face of the water—God said, “Let there be light.”

The key issue, for Rashi, is that the wrong reading suggests an incorrect chronology of Creation: that God created the heavens, then the earth, then light, and so forth. But this is not how it happened, Rashi says. If you get the small details wrong, the big picture will be wrong, too.

The way in which tiny nuances of word order, diction, grammar, and syntax can have much larger ramifications for the entire meaning of a text colors Rashi’s commentary overall. For him (to take another example), the infamous “double opening” of Genesis—the fact that it has not one but two accounts of Creation, the first starting with the creation of the cosmos and ending in the creation of humankind (Genesis 1:1–30), the
second focusing from the start on the creation of Adam, and moving almost immediately to the story of Eve, the serpent, and the Expulsion from Eden—is, at bottom, a stylistic issue, easily enough explained. In his discussion of Genesis 2, Rashi anticipates readers’ grumblings—the creation of man has, after all, already been dealt with in Genesis 1:27—but declares that, after having himself consulted a certain body of rabbinic wisdom, he has discovered a certain “rule” (number thirteen of thirty-two, as it happens, that help explain the Torah), and this rule says that when a general statement or story is followed by a second telling of that story, the second telling is meant to be understood as a more detailed explication of the first. And so the second telling of the creation of mankind, in Genesis 2, is, so to speak, meant to be taken as an enhanced version of the first telling, which we get in Genesis 1. As indeed it is: for nothing in the first chapter of Genesis, with its dry, chronological account of the creation of the cosmos, the earth, its flora and fauna, and finally of humankind, prepares us for the rich narrative of the second chapter, with its tale of innocence, deceit, betrayal, concealment, expulsion, and ultimate death, the man and the woman in the secluded place, the sudden and catastrophic appearance of the mysterious intruder, the serpent, and then: the peaceful existence shattered. And at the center of all that drama—for Rashi goes to no little trouble to explain that it does indeed stand at the center—the mysterious and somehow moving symbol of the tree in the garden, a tree that represents, I have come to think, both the pleasure and the pain that come from knowing things.

Interesting as all this is, when I immersed myself in Genesis and its commentators over a number of years recently, I naturally came to prefer Friedman’s general explanation of why the Torah begins the way it does. I say “naturally,” because the issue that Friedman is interested in having his readers understand is, in essence, a writer’s issue: How do you begin a story? For Friedman, the opening of
Bereishit
brings to mind a technique we all know from the movies: “Like some films that begin with a sweeping shot that then narrows,” he writes, “so the first chapter of Genesis moves gradually from a picture of the skies and earth down to the first man and woman. The story’s focus will continue to narrow: from the universe to the earth to humankind to specific lands and peoples to a single family.” And yet, he reminds his readers, the wider, cosmic concerns of the world-historical story that the Torah tells will remain in the back of our minds as we read on, providing the rich substratum of meaning that gives such depth to that family’s story.

Friedman’s observation implies, as is certainly true, that often it is the small things, rather than the big picture, that the mind can comfortably grasp: that, for instance, it is naturally more appealing to readers to absorb the meaning of a vast historical event through the story of a single family.

 

B
ECAUSE
S
HMIEL WASN’T
much talked about, and because when he was talked about it tended to be in whispers, or in Yiddish, a language my mother spoke with her father so that they could keep their secrets—because of these things, when I did learn something, it was usually by accident.

Once, when I was little, I overheard my mother talking to her cousin on the phone and saying something like, I thought they were hiding, and the neighbor turned them in, no?

Once, a few years later, I heard someone saying,
Four beautiful daughters
.

Once, I overheard my grandfather saying to my mother,
I know only they were hiding in a kessle
. Since I knew by then how to make adjustments for his accent, when I heard him say this I simply wondered, What castle? Bolechow, to judge from the stories he told me, was not a place for castles; it was a small place, I knew, a peaceful place, a little town with a square and a church or two and a shul and busy shops. It was only much later on, long after my grandfather was dead and after I had studied more seriously the history of his town, that I learned that Bolechow, like so many other little Polish shtetls, had at one time been owned by an aristocratic Polish landowner, and when I learned this fact I naturally fitted the new information to my old memory of what I’d overheard my grandfather saying,
I know only they were hiding in a kessle
. A castle. Clearly, Shmiel and his family had managed to find a hiding place in the great residence of the noble family who’d once owned their town, and it was there that they were discovered after they had been betrayed.