turning your family into a book…

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The first full day of Jewish Book Week ended with a fascinating and moving debate about Israel at 60 and what the future holds. But it started with writers who have put families at the centre of their work (the first time ever the event has expanded across the road into the Institute of Education).
At first the line-up seemed surprising. Blake Morrison’s memoirs take us back to the quiet, inhibited, respectable England of the 1950s, where his Irish-Catholic mother was forced to deny most of her past in order to fit in, and a mysterious “aunt” was an unexplained part of the family scene. Charlotte Mendelson, by contrast, was talking about her novel When We Were Bad, where the noisy, vibrant and high-achieving clan of Rabbi Claudia Rubin goes into meltdown at the wedding of her son. And Israeli graphic novelist Rutu Modan has constructed a haunting tale of confusion and grief in which a young taxidriver sets out on a search for his father, dead or perhaps just disappeared after a suicide bombing.
Yet common themes soon emerged. Whether falling apart or sticking grimly together, repressed or exuberant families can be equally dysfunctional, and the closest ones may need to have the most secrets and no-go areas. All authors dealing with families faced charges of exploitation, that their fictional creations were really their own families – admit it, the Rubins were just a version of “the amazing dancing Mendelsons” – while all three panellists reflected on the ways that we become children again in the presence of our parents. Should we still talk about our parents’ house as our “home”? Modan is clearly concerned with how the political situation in Israel plays itself out in domestic situations, but she also described an experience which could happen anywhere – her deep upset when, after her mother’s death, her father turned the place where she had grown up into a bachelor apartment and said his daughters were told they could visit by appointment only . . .

It is not often one hears the writer of a book about the Holocaust admitting that he’s a sentimentalist, that his favourite film is ‘Love, Actually’. But Daniel Mendelsohn’s probing conversation with psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips – which he described as “more like a session with a shrink” – was full of surprises. It was also a masterclass in the complex intellectual challenges, and emotional tangles, which confront anyone trying to unravel family history during the Nazi era.
Why, asked Phillips, would anyone want to search out the most painful, even agonizing details of what had happened to their ancestors? Mendelsohn explained how he had always been fascinated by his grandfather’s mesmerizing tales of “the old country”, so much more exciting than life in a dull New York suburb. He had become the family historian by the age of 7, compiling facts on index cards and poring over photos of dead relatives. When he set out to research the book which became The Lost: A Search for Six out of Six Million, he determined to avoid library work and to cross the world, if necessary, to get people to tell their equally mesmerising but terrifying stories.
When Phillips asked about the aggressiveness of his curiosity, he agreed he almost had to bully frail old people into revealing more about the traumatic events they had gone through. And what was the point? He soon came to realize that he couldn’t take the word even of eyewitnesses at face value. He would show pictures of his great-uncle with four children to people who had known him and be told categorically that he had only had two. If they couldn’t get things like that right, why should he believe what they said about the fate of his family during the Holocaust? All stories are “leaky buckets” spilling errors, so his book was inevitably built on a tragic form of Chinese whispers.
Mendelsohn was equally interesting about stereotyping. One of the refrains of his childhood was that “Germans are bad, Poles are worse and Ukrainians are worst.” But although he was frightened to visit the Ukraine, he was greeted with milk, cookies, great kindness and hospitality. When he told this to elderly relatives, they were often irritated to have their monolithic images shattered. But what could he do? “They did give me milk and cookies, should I have said they attacked me with an axe?”
Any readable book about the Holocaust has to be an interpretation, a narrative which reflects the needs and values of the teller. But although he wanted to convey the excitement of his research, Mendelsohn was worried that this would make the book too readable and detract attention away from the harrowing things his relatives had suffered. One of his way round this dilemma was to break up the text with biblical commentary, to slow readers down and make them reflect on gnawing moral issues.
And there could be no redemptive ending. Perhaps the only real lesson Mendelsohn learned from researching the Holocaust, he said, was to be more sceptical, that all “facts” were at best guesses or approximations. Once you write them down, “It’s all going to be wrong and the bits which aren’t are lost. It’s problems or nothing. Is that Jewish or what?”

Matthew Reisz writes for the Times Higher Education Supplement and is the former editor of the Jewish Quarterly 

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