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Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn

Aired July 13, 2002 - 18:18   ET


CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back, everyone. During World War II, some of the greatest human atrocities of record took place in Nazi concentration camps. An estimated 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. And in tomorrow's "New York Times" magazine cover story, a very personal story of Daniel Mendelsohn writes about his quest to learn exactly what happened to his relatives.

And he's with us today to talk about his article, and about his journey. Thank you for being with us. Tremendous article that you've written. I enjoyed it. However, I do feel like there's much more to tell about this story. We'll get to that in a moment.

Your quest was really to find out about what happened to your Uncle Schmiel (ph), right, and his wife and daughters?

DANIEL MENDELSOHN, "NEW YORK TIMES" MAGAZINE: Right, that's correct. We -- my grandfather's brother stayed in Europe when all of the rest of his siblings came to the States in the 1920s. And, we had all grown up hearing these stories about my Uncle Schmiel and...

CALLAWAY: And this is him here with his wife.

MENDELSOHN: That's correct; that's their wedding picture in 1919. And, my story is basically a story about a story. Trying to find out whether this story that we had heard about how they perished in the Holocaust was true. That they had been betrayed by neighbors or people that they knew to the Germans.

CALLAWAY: You know, it just sounds like, Daniel, such an impossible task. I was completely amazed at how you were able to, through a series of communications, eventually able to find people who knew the daughters, you were able to travel to the Ukraine...

MENDELSOHN: That's right.

CALLAWAY: ...and a lot of your answers even came when you returned home.

Here we see three of the -- four of his daughters -- beautiful children.

MENDELSOHN: Right. CALLAWAY: And, you know, you have to cry right along with you as this story unfolds and you travel over to the Ukraine. Let me ask you about when you were there in the village where he lived, where your uncle lived, along with his daughters, and you were meeting these Ukrainians who really just opened their homes to you. What was that like for you?

MENDELSOHN: Well, it was peculiar because it's one of the facts of the history of the Holocaust is that quite a number of Ukrainians had turned on their Jewish neighbors with terrible ferocity. And what -- one of the problems in a sense, that I had, was reconciling that knowledge with the very warm welcome that we got from the Ukrainians who still live there, who were trying to help us in our search. And it was a very peculiar and moving experience.

CALLAWAY: I think we have a photograph here of Olga and Nina (ph), Ukrainians, and you were in their home, they were telling you the story of the Jews being marched into the street -- that's your sister there, with you -- weeping as she told the story.

MENDELSOHN: That's my sister.

CALLAWAY: Tell us about this moment.

MENDELSOHN: Well, we -- the elderly lady who's standing up in the picture was Olga, and she asked us to come in because she had a very clear memory of the machine gunning of the town's Jews at the cemetery.

And, we had asked her, when she told us that they had been marched up the road to the cemetery which is quite near her house, where exactly it was, and she sort of sprang to her feet and pointed out her living room window, which was right there, and said, I saw them going by right here. And, it was a moment of sort of terrible proximity to the past because after having heard about it for so long, we could finally really see it, and that was amazing.

CALLAWAY: Right. You know, you think you can relate -- it's almost like a fairy tale, though, until you get there and you see where it took place.

MENDELSOHN: Right, right.

CALLAWAY: And, did you wonder -- I know you did because you wrote it in the article, which is amazing to me -- that when you were meeting these Ukrainians, you wondered twenty years ago, what would have happened. Would they have been this nice, would they have ratted on you? Would they have turned you in? All those thoughts.

MENDELSOHN: It was impossible not to think about and it's one of the peculiar aspects of making a trip like this. You have to balance what you know about the past with your own place in the present, and it was that sort of strange balance that I wanted to write about. It was a very peculiar experience for us to have.

CALLAWAY: I want to mention, I believe his name is Jack Greene (ph), because we don't have a lot of time, and people really do need to read the entire article, but he is someone who you had contact with after you returned home who knew the daughters and was able to give you a lot more answers than you were -- specifically what happened to your family -- than some of the people in the village, right?

MENDELSOHN: Right, the irony of our trip is we went, we saw these things, and then we got back and through a sort of funny grapevine of Holocaust survivors, this man who had known my family very well, in Europe, called me on the telephone one night and said if you want to talk about them I knew them very well, I dated one of those four girls. Who were my mother's first cousins. And then we started to sort of next step in the investigation.

CALLAWAY: And, Daniel, you really weren't sure after all of this whether or not your Uncle Schmiel (ph) had been killed in the assassinations that took place in the town or if he was taken on the train and murdered later in the camps. Even after all of this, were you?

MENDELSOHN: Right. I mean, the problem, of course, the point of the way these people were killed was to deny them their story to take away the details and the facts. And, its something that still plagues us, even after making this trip and doing everything that we did.

CALLAWAY: Well, Daniel, at the end of your article you write how you will continue to travel on your quest to find out what happened. I know you now have people who knew Uncle Schmiel's (ph) daughters, and you plan to travel to some of those areas. I do hope you will write about it and we'll be able to read about it in the Times.

MENDELSOHN: Thank you. Thanks.

CALLAWAY: Daniel Mendelsohn, thank you very much. His story will be in the "New York Times" Magazine tomorrow. Good luck to you on your journey.




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