My Summer Vacation

We had a lovely summer vacation.

It didn't start well. On the Sunday nineteen of us -- staying at three lake cabins in northern Minnesota -- attended Mass at the parish in town. Last year, on this same day, we had heard a marvelous homily about the efforts of rural Minnesotans to work with a poor community in Mexico.

This year there was a new homilist. The readings couldn't be better -- Abraham asking God if he would save anyone in Sodom and Gomorrah in the first reading, and Luke demanding that we account of our actions to our neighbor in the Gospel.And the little kids behaved, atypically, so I heard them.

Then a twenty minute rant. The self-described "newly ordained late vocation" priest, about age 67, offered a rambling tour of his enthusiasm for the Latin Mass ("we better start learning the pater noster!"), purgatory, the church's view of "heretics and schismatics", the need for more priests (a bit ironic, that) and the inadequacies of secular culture. After a feeble stab at the actual readings, "I hope there aren't any scripture scholars out there", he returned to a more congenial subject, the beauties of the Mass. During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, he grew frustrated when the baffled congregation did not kneel at the exact moment he requested them to do so.

But funny thing. That night I began Daniel Mendelsohn's "The Lost" a 2006 history of his investigation of the death of his aunt, uncle, and their four daughters in Bolekhiv, Poland, during the Holocaust. Mendelsohn is a classicist and writer for the New Yorker. He is a bit self-indulgent as a writer, and his own sentences are not as laconic as, say, Thuycidides. But Mendelsohn's ability to recreate the world of his lost relatives through archival research and interviews of survivors located around the world mesmerized me. The story is of course overpowering in its sadness, but Mendelson's own humanity -- and the honesty in describing tensions in his own family as he embarks on his quest -- has a redemptive quality. The cumulative effect, when Mendelsohn discovers where his relatives hid from the Nazis, and where they were slaughtered, is overpowering.

One of the book's most unusual and attractive features is Mendelsohn's repeated interrupting of his own narrative to reflect, as a classicist and a Jew, on the Torah, specifically the Book of Genesis. Near the end of the book, Mendelsohn returns to Bolekhiv in an emotional visit, meeting Ukranians and Poles who knew his relatives. He then offers his own reading of the same passages, of Abraham wondering if God will spare inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, that  I had heard in church. The specter of his decades long quest to understand the fate of his relatives, and the motives of the perpetrators, rescuers, and collaborators in Bolekhiv, hovers in the background. He wonders: "As long as there is one good inhabitant of the country of the wicked, can we say that the entire nation is guilty?"

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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