The Conquered in The Lost, Ivanhoe, and Rob Roy
A few weeks ago my wife proposed that we read a book together. Her choice, based on the recommendation of a friend and the fact that she recently had worked on a Holocaust related documentary, was The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn. My wife read the paperback in French, I read the Kindle edition in English. In this book Mendelsohn recounts his search for details on the life and death of his great uncle Shmiel and his family (wife and four daughters) in a small town in Poland (now Ukraine) during World War II. Normally I am loath to read a current book (first published in 2005) and especially from an academic (but he is also a writer). I am not the first to note that a husband has many obligations in life that are not always to his liking. But in the end, I thought this book was worth reading. In fact, Mendelsohn is an excellent writer, if also a deliberate storyteller (he notes in the manner of Homer or Proust). His travels from Eastern Europe to Australia (a dozen countries on four continents) in search of survivors to interview is engaging. A fundamental theme is how this old town in the Hapsburg Empire was a happy place for the Poles, Ukranians, and Jews who lived there together in relative harmony. But the Soviet and later German invasions brought forth hostility that continued in the minds of his relatives and the survivors up to this day. They would tell him the Poles were bad but the Ukranians were the worst. Mendelsohn needed to know what had happened. “My desire to have that narrative was no different from my grandfather’s desire to believe the stories about the Jewish neighbor or the Polish maid. Both were motivated by a need for a story that, however ugly, would give their deaths some meaning—that would make their deaths be about something.”
In any case, after fulfilling this obligation I went back to my grossly entertaining reading of Walter Scott’s novels, in particular Ivanhoe, published in 1819. I had some notion of the romantic knights and damsels related to the tale of Ivanhoe, but I did not know any particulars of the plot of Scott’s novel. To my great surprise, this old romantic novel had the same theme as Mendelsohn’s modern memoir The Lost! That is, it was also a story about a conquered people and their stories of survival. In Ivanhoe the victims were the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Pagans, really mostly Catholic with old pagan thoughts) who were oppressed by the Norman conquerors. But here there were also the Jews.
And thus it is probable, that the Jews, by the very frequency of their fear on all occasions, had their minds in some degree prepared for every effort of tyranny which could be practised upon them; so that no aggression, when it had taken place, could bring with it that surprise which is the most disabling quality of terror. Neither was it the first time that Isaac had been placed in circumstances so dangerous. He had therefore experience to guide him, as well as hope, that he might again, as formerly, be delivered as a prey from the fowler. Above all
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