Cover image for I want you to know we're still here : a post-Holocaust memoir
Title:
I want you to know we're still here : a post-Holocaust memoir
ISBN:
9780525575986
Physical Description:
pages cm

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Summary

Summary

"A beautiful exploration of collective memory and Jewish history."--Nathan Englander

"Esther Safran Foer is a force of nature: a leader of the Jewish people, the matriarch of America's leading literary family, an eloquent defender of the proposition that memory matters. And now, a riveting memoirist."--Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic

Esther Safran Foer grew up in a home where the past was too terrible to speak of. The child of parents who were each the sole survivors of their respective families, for Esther the Holocaust loomed in the backdrop of daily life, felt but never discussed. The result was a childhood marked by painful silences and continued tragedy. Even as she built a successful career, married, and raised three children, Esther always felt herself searching.

So when Esther's mother casually mentions an astonishing revelation--that her father had a previous wife and daughter, both killed in the Holocaust--Esther resolves to find out who they were, and how her father survived. Armed with only a black-and-white photo and a hand-drawn map, she travels to Ukraine, determined to find the shtetl where her father hid during the war. What she finds reshapes her identity and gives her the opportunity to finally mourn.

I Want You to Know We're Still Here is the poignant and deeply moving story not only of Esther's journey but of four generations living in the shadow of the Holocaust. They are four generations of survivors, storytellers, and memory keepers, determined not just to keep the past alive but to imbue the present with life and more life.


Author Notes

Esther Safran Foer was the CEO of Sixth & I, a center for arts, ideas, and religion. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Bert. They are the parents of Franklin, Jonathan, and Joshua, and the grandparents of six.


Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Foer--former CEO of a Washington, D.C.--based arts center and the mother of authors Franklin, Jonathan, and Joshua Foer--documents her quest to gather information about her family's life during the Holocaust in this skillfully written debut. "I am the offspring of Holocaust survivors, which, by definition, means there is a tragic and complicated history," Foer writes. Born in 1946 in Poland, Foer lived in a German displaced persons camp with her parents as a baby, and in 1949 they emigrated to Washington, D.C., where her father ran a grocery business. An enigmatic figure, her father committed suicide in 1954, which Foer attributes to lingering trauma ("I believe the Holocaust killed him"). In unadorned prose, Foer chronicles her efforts to research the lives of her kin and excavate family secrets. The narrative culminates in a trip to Ukraine that Foer took in 2009 with her son Franklin to locate the family of the man who hid her father during the war and confirm the identity of her now dead half sister. This narrative serves as something of a companion piece to Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated, which fictionalized aspects of the Foer family history. Foer's engrossing, well-researched family history will resonate with those curious about their own roots. (Mar.)


Kirkus Review

A family's mysteries inspire a search into a dark past. In the novel Everything Is Illuminated (2002), Jonathan Safran Foer invented the journey of a 20-year-old Jewish American man who travels to a town in Ukraine in search of his family's past, particularly for the woman he believed saved his grandfather from Nazi persecution. The novel had roots in his own family's history, which Foer's mother excavates in her moving literary debut, a recounting of her own real-life quest to uncover facts about her assorted relatives who fled from the Nazis. Her life, she writes, has been "haunted by the presence of absence": the silence surrounding her family's experiences before they arrived in the U.S. in 1949. She knew that her mother had wandered through Russia for three years and her father had been hidden by a Christian family. But she was stunned when her mother remarked that he had fled after Nazis had murdered everyone in his village, including his wife and daughter. The revelation about a half sister was shocking, but her mother could add nothing more about this first family. Foer needed to know: "I feel a great responsibility to keep the past alive." Combing databases and archives, hiring a researcher in Ukraine, sending saliva for DNA testing, and making trips to Ukraine, the author unearthed more than she had imagined. "The more I learned," she writes, "the more complicated the story became," as the family's struggles emerged from the clouds of history. She met distant cousins she hadn't known existed, and in Ukraine, where her ancestors' village had been obliterated, she trekked into a forest to the site of "unimaginable horror": the mass grave of murdered Jews. Foer, who in her 60s became the director of Sixth & I, a Jewish cultural institution in Washington, D.C., sees her "side career as the family connector," an undertaking in which her husband and sons have enthusiastically participated. "Traumatic memories," she writes, "live on from one generation to the next." A vivid testimony to the power of memory. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

Foer, former CEO of the center and synagogue Sixth & I, probes her family's history in this moving personal account. Born in Poland in 1946, Foer immigrated with her family to the United States in 1949 and has few memories of postwar Europe. Her mother and father were the only members of their immediate families to survive the Holocaust. Foer may have grown up in the shadow of their grief, but her parents weren't open to sharing details about their pasts. Foer travels the world to solve the mystery of how her father survived the war and meets distant relatives and old friends along the way. She also, unexpectedly, uncovers the story of her father's first wife and the half-sister she never knew she had. The story is at once beautiful and heart-rending, and sheds light on what happened after the war--an often overlooked aspect of the Holocaust experience. VERDICT Foer explores her family with context and detail. Her story will interest readers of historical and personal narratives, especially memoirs and genealogy.--Rebecca Kluberdanz, Central New York Lib. Resources Council, Syracuse


Excerpts

Excerpts

1 My birth certificate says that I was born on September 8, 1946, in Ziegenhain, Germany. It's the wrong date, wrong city, wrong country. It would take me years to understand why my father created this fabrication. Why, each year, my mother came into my room on March 17 and gave me a kiss and whispered, "Happy birthday." Piecing together the fragments of my family story has been a lifelong pursuit. I am the offspring of Holocaust survivors, which, by definition, means there is a tragic and complicated history. My childhood was filled with silences that were punctuated by occasional shocking disclosures. I understood there was a lot that I didn't know, besides the secret of my invented birthday. My parents were reluctant to speak of the past, and I learned to maneuver around difficult subjects. When I was in my early forties, preparing to give a talk at a local synagogue, I decided that this might be a good opportunity to fill in a few gaps of our family story. I sat down with my mother in the pink kitchen of her 1950s-suburban tract house, on a street where most of the other homes were occupied by families of Holocaust survivors. Sitting at her faux-marble laminate kitchen table, I could see the carefully cut coupons sorted into neat piles by the refrigerator, ready for the next shopping trip. In the cabinet below, there was enough flour and cereal, all of it purchased on sale, to withstand a major catastrophe. I started with a few questions about my father and his experience during the war. He had been an enigma, a mercurial figure that all conversation danced around, even in my own head. My mother took a sip of the instant coffee that she loved and casually mentioned that my father had been in a ghetto with his wife and daughter. He'd been on a work detail when they were both murdered by the Nazis. Absolutely stunned, I blurted out, "He had a wife and daughter? Why haven't you ever told me this before? How can you be telling me now for the first time?" I had grown up surrounded by ghosts--haunted by relatives who were rarely talked about and by the stories that no one would share. Now there was a new ghost that I hadn't even known about--my own sister. I pressed my mother for more, but she made it clear that the conversation was over. Genug shoyn . Enough already. I'm not sure how much she even knew about his family--I suspected that she and my father didn't speak much of the past, even to each other. Life was all about moving forward. I walked out of my mother's house in a daze. I didn't know it then, but this was the beginning of a search that would define the next phase of my life. Determined to learn more, I scoured online Holocaust databases to see if I could find a birth or death record of my sister, to no avail. I hired researchers in Ukraine. I even hired an FBI agent to analyze photographs. My searches came up empty. I talked to everyone I could think of to see what they knew, and I got the same response: "There were so many people killed, so many babies, how can we remember all of the names?" I didn't want all of the names. I wanted the name of my sister. Of the person closest to me killed in the Holocaust, my half sibling, I had not one detail, not a name, not a picture--not one piece of a memory. Here was a child, one among at least six million Jews, one of almost 1.5 million children who were murdered during the Holocaust, and there was no way to remember that this child had even lived. How do you remember someone who has left no trace? The search took me to places that allowed me to more deeply understand the Holocaust and how it continued to reverberate long past the liberation and into future generations. It was ultimately a search that took me to places inside myself that scared me. It has been said that Jews are an ahistorical people, concerned more with memory than history. A curious fact: There is no word in the Hebrew language that precisely connotes history. Zikaron and zakhor , used in its stead, translate to "memory." The word for "history" in modern Hebrew is lifted from the English word, which was originally lifted from the Greek historia . History is public. Memory is personal. It is about stories and select experiences. History is the end of something. Memory is the beginning of something. "Jews have six senses. Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing . . . memory." This is the way my son Jonathan summed it up in his 2002 novel, Everything Is Illuminated . "The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. . . . When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?" Parsing this intersection of history and memory may seem an abstraction, a mere matter of linguistics, but for me it is quite real. I have spent much of my life trying to excavate the memories that elude me. On the mantel in my living room is a curated still life of glass jars. A casual visitor to my home might think I have created a shrine to dirt and debris, and they wouldn't be entirely wrong. Inside each carefully labeled jar is a sliver of memory: a piece of earth from my mother's shtetl in Kolki, Ukraine; sandstone from the massive Uluru rock in Central Australia; remnants of the Berlin Wall; rubble from the Warsaw Ghetto. Once, on a trip to Sardis, Turkey, I noticed that a piece of the marble mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue had come loose, and I discreetly slipped a fragment of tile into my bag when my husband had turned the other way. Despite his frequent admonitions to please not abscond, let alone cross international borders, with my purloined ruins, my husband, Bert, knows that getting me to abide is hopeless. I'm an aggressive collector, a woman with a mission, who walks around stuffing pieces of personal history into Ziploc bags. Memory is everywhere in my house. The twenty-one jars in my living room are part of a larger collection that spills into my kitchen, where along the window ledge are nearly forty more. This obsession runs in my family. Who knows, it might even be genetic. As improbable as it sounds, the youngest of my three sons, Joshua, was the 2006 U.S.A. Memory Championship winner. It's a subject about which he wrote a book: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything . Frank, my oldest, a writer and historian, recently spoke on a panel in Kiev, Ukraine, our ancestral homeland, titled: "Can memory save us from history? Can history save us from memory?" Jonathan, my middle child, managed to elicit the words "holy shit" from fire inspectors who paid a routine visit to his dorm room at Princeton in the late 1990s, where they saw, along with the usual collegiate fire hazards of tangled electrical cords and DIY lighting, a collection of Ziploc bags carefully tacked to his wall in rows--his own receptacles of memory. Even when entombed inside a jar, memory is both tangible and shape-shifting. Memories aren't static; they change with time, sometimes to a point where they bear only a passing resemblance to what actually happened. Even so, I feel a great responsibility to keep the past alive. "How will I know who these people are?" my oldest grandchild, Sadie, asked me one day, while we were sitting in my home office, which overflows with photographs, documents, and maps, some neatly organized in labeled boxes and others in piles around the room. Sadie's question haunts me. I haven't bothered to identify the people in these photographs, because I know who they are. My mother, interestingly, took the time to label and categorize all of her pictures--not just the old ones, but even those of her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sadie's query made me want to cast aside all other obligations and tend to my vast messy archive. In those crammed boxes, most of what is known of my family's past resides. The photos are all that remain of long-dead relatives with no direct descendants to tell their stories or even to remember their names. They are not just photos of those killed in the Holocaust but even of family in America, such as the one of my young cousin Mark, whose grandparents and parents took my parents and me in when we arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1949, after almost three years in a displaced-persons camp in Germany. Mark, an only child and an only grandchild, died shortly after this photograph was taken, after a routine tonsillectomy, at the age of four--just a few months before we came to the United States. We left behind the deprivations of the DP camp and the horrors of war only to slip into the wake of this other quiet tragedy. Now that his parents are gone, too, it is up to me to keep the memory of this wisp of a boy alive. To know me, you would think I am a happy woman with an easy smile--which I am. But at the same time, my joy is tempered by the shadows of the past. In the darker corners of my mind live the ghosts who visit me from the shtetls in Ukraine where my family once lived, and where most of them died. Some of the details that make these visions so vivid are imagined, because I grew up in a family where memories were too terrible to commit to words. Excerpted from I Want You to Know We're Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir by Esther Safran Foer All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.