I vividly remember reading this book. I was home sick and read it from cover to cover in about 3 days, even though the book is over 600 pages. I absolutely could not put it down, despite not feeling well at all. The book begins with Mendelsohn describing how his elderly relatives would cry when he entered a room. They would tell him how much he looked like his Great Uncle, Schmiel. No one would ever say anything more about Schmiel, his wife, or his four daughters, other than they were “killed by the Nazis”. Later, as an adult, he found a set of letters from Schmiel, asking for help to leave Poland. Mendelsohn decided to search for more information, and to see if it would be possible to find out exactly what had happened to them.
Mendelsohn’s research uncovers as much information about the small town of Bolechow as it does about his family. He travels to meet the survivors of the town who are now living in Israel, Australia, and many other places. His goal is to get as many descriptions as possible of the life they lived and what happened during the war. The stories he hears are like many stories from other towns of Eastern Europe: how the local population were often worse in their persecution of the Jewish population, but also how brave people helped or hid some of the Jewish people. In addition, he learns the complicated history of this town which had belonged to several different countries over time, including Poland and Ukraine.
The book is a combination of a personal journal, a mystery story, and a historical quest. Mendelsohn succeeds because he learns not just about his family’s deaths, but also about their lives. They become real people to him with personalities, likes and dislikes, and complicated lives before they died. They are no longer just six names listed among the six million who died.