May 27, 2022

Author Daniel Mendelsohn speaks at 2021 Gerhold Lecture in Humanities

Best-selling author Daniel Mendelsohn spoke on Oct. 18 in Mees Hall about his family’s Holocaust story “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million.”

Mendelsohn’s event was part of the Gerhold Lecture Series, an academic series that has brought numerous presentations to Capital University for over 25 years. In addition to Daniel Mendelsohn, Gerhold Chair in the Humanities department and Professor of History, Dr. Alexander Pantsov; Capital University President David Kaufman; and Adjunct Professor of History, Alan Katchen, all spoke at the event. 

The presentation reflected on tension between witnesses and historians. Mendelsohn compared his experiences with oral narratives and online databases as he sought to find information on six of his relatives that died in the Holocaust.

Daniel Mendelsohn is shown delivering a speech in Mees Hall.
Daniel Mendelsohn shares his experiences in writing best-selling book, “The Lost: A Search for Six in Six Million”. Photo taken by Shannon Craig.

Mendelsohn offered an intimate showcase of his family, emphasizing how the past can be lost between history and memory. 

After visiting numerous locations across the globe in search of information about his relatives, Mendelsohn was introduced to an online database created by Yad Veshem, the Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, only to find a variety of inaccuracies. 

Mendelsohn explained that there are two kinds of error when it comes to recording history: those that come from eyewitnesses and those that come from historians. 

“Historians are subject to their prejudices, fantasies, and wishful thinkings as anyone else is,” Mendelsohn said. “We’re telling the stories of a past that doesn’t belong to us.”

Saying that he was more of a story-teller than a lecturer, Mendelsohn detailed the relation between the flawed witness and the flawed historian through his own experiences. 

Mendelsohn’s grandfather had not given him much information about his great Uncle that had died in the Holocaust, except that his family had hid in a castle.

During one of his trips to Poland, Mendelsohn discovered that the Yiddish word for box was close in pronunciation to “castle” in English. Mendelsohn’s relatives had not lived in a castle, but had been hidden in an underground cell before they were found. 

Mendelsohn also encountered witnesses that were reluctant to share their experiences during the Holocaust. 

He remembered a woman telling him, “I don’t want to tell you my story because it will become your story,” as she objected to his questioning. “You think you deserve to know all of this because it is history, but it is my life. And as long as I am alive, it belongs to me.”

To conclude the presentation, Mendelsohn speculated on how the Holocaust would be remembered in the future, a future he designated “a vast territory… in which my seemingly thick book is just a grain of sand.”

“There is still some memory alive today, but time always wins out, and history is inevitably all that is left,” Mendelsohn said. “The people of the future will need room to live their own lives and their own histories… It’s not just about the war. It’s about saving these people –this culture– from oblivion.”

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