LONDON — As a child of Holocaust survivors, Esther Safran Foer says she grew up surrounded by ghosts, haunted by relatives that were rarely mentioned. But, as she writes in her book, “I Want You to Know We’re Still Here,” it was not until she was in her early 40s that she discovered a significant new ghost: that of a sister she had never known about. The revelation not only defined the next phase of her life, it would eventually take her on a quest to Ukraine.
Although it is a story about the Holocaust, Safran Foer refers to her book as a “post-Holocaust” memoir, in recognition of the events that happened to her family afterwards. As well as survival, it is also about the importance of remembering and history.
“I wrote the book for my parents and my ancestors, and for my six grandchildren and their descendants,” Safran Foer tells The Times of Israel, speaking on the phone from her Washington, DC, home. “If I didn’t put this story down, it would be lost.”
The message is a positive one, she says, that the family, which includes her three renowned sons — bestselling novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and his brothers Franklin and Joshua, both of whom are journalists and writers — is still here and growing.
Safran Foer describes her professional life as being characterized by the framing and telling of other peoples’ stories, having spent much of it working in public affairs. For almost 10 years, since its inception in 2004, she was the executive director of the Washington based synagogue and cultural institution, Sixth & I, a role she decided to step down from in order to write her book. By then she was a grandmother and felt ready to delve into the past.
“I almost had to do all those things before I could look back, I guess,” she says.
Safran Foer was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1946 and arrived in the United States in 1949 via a displaced persons camp in Germany. Named after her two dead grandmothers, she says she instinctively understood that her role within the family was to bring joy.
“I don’t know if I felt pressure, but it was certainly something that always hung over me. I don’t think it’s unusual for children of Holocaust survivors [to think], ‘How can I cause trouble after everything my parents have been through,’” she says.
Both parents were reluctant to speak about their past, which she describes as typical. “In trying to leave the past behind, they were trying to move on,” she says.
But Safran Foer always asked her mother questions — though she was careful to frame them in a cautious way. “She was trying to protect me and I was trying to protect her. Again, that’s pretty classic,” she says.
When her mother casually revealed that her father had been in a ghetto with his wife and daughter, both of whom were murdered by the Nazis while he was on a work detail, Safran Foer was stunned. This was the first time she heard her father had had a previous family. But she is adamant it was not something her mother had tried to keep from her.
“She was having a conversation with me and it slipped out. I don’t think this was anything conscious. When she kept things from me, it was mostly not to inflict pain, and also, maybe for her not to have to talk about something,” Safran Foer says.
In 1954, when Safran Foer was eight, her father took his own life. The incident caused more unspoken pain within the family.
“It created this whole other world that we couldn’t begin to touch,” she says. “It was easier to ask my mother about her mother than it was to ask about my own father. I just knew it was territory that couldn’t be broached.”
Safran Foer is sure that her father’s Holocaust trauma was a contributing factor to his suicide, which was complicated by living at a time when mental health was not discussed. “Today, blessedly, these things are no longer secrets,” she says.
Safran Foer writes that memory is something of an obsession that runs in her family. She describes her home office as brimming over with photographs, documents and maps, some of which are in neatly labeled boxes and others left in piles.
Memories and bits of personal history are also collected and hoarded in dozens of jars and Ziploc bags: dirt collected from her mother’s shtetl in Kolki, Ukraine, rests in a jar on her living room mantel next to rubble from the Warsaw ghetto. A lone tile found in an ancient Turkish synagogue is tightly preserved in a bag.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2002 novel “Everything is Illuminated” is loosely based on a few details known about the family. A fictionalized account about Trochenbrod, the Ukrainian shtetl where his grandfather Louis Safran was born, the novel and subsequent film sparked new interest in the village from which the family had originated.
However, some members of the small, active Trochenbrod diaspora community — descendants of families who had lived there — took issue with how Jonathan Safran Foer had presented it.
“People were protecting the memory of their town,” Esther Safran Foer says. “It was not exactly the vision they’d had of their shtetl. And I understand that.”
At first, Safran Foer did not want to hear the critical phone calls that would come in, but eventually her own interest and obsession grew accordingly.
“I had more and more conversations [with people connected to the town] and I was beginning to put pieces of information [about my father] together,” she says.
Her book relays a dizzying — and at times confusing — number of relatives and others who Safran Foer comes across and connects with during her research, which takes her to Brazil, Israel and finally to Ukraine in 2009. Armed with a small, faded black and white photograph of two men and two women that her mother had kept, she traveled with her son Frank to try and find the family who had hidden her father from the Nazis, as well as information about her sister.
“I didn’t expect to find anything. I had lots of people tell me, just be satisfied with going and walking the roads and smelling the air of the villages your family came from. And I was kind of prepared for that,” she says.
She was certainly not prepared to track down the family who had sheltered her father and learn about the identities of the people in the photo.
“I remember sitting next to Frank and saying, ‘Is this real?’ And, as I say in the book, he said, ‘A hundred and ten percent.’ If I had been alone and hadn’t had him with me to interpret and verify, I’m not sure I’d have believed it,” says Safran Foer.
She also discovered the name of her deceased sister, Asya, whom she has since entered into the Yad Vashem database. In the spirit of Jewish continuity and tradition, Safran Foer’s youngest granddaughter has Asya as her middle name.
While I wanted to know, I was also afraid to find out
Safran Foer is aware that she might never know the full truth about her father, but says she found what she needed. Her research is ongoing and due to the committed Trochenbrod community, people still contact her with clues and leads as new information emerges. But having spent many years devoted to the project, there is now a sense of release at completing the book.
“It feels so great for me personally to have been able to put the story down,” she emphasizes. “The writing helped me deal with the story.”
In the book, she says the search ultimately took her to places inside herself that scared her, that she was fearful of what she might discover.
“While I wanted to know, I was also afraid to find out,” she says. “And I don’t know what I was afraid of — the unknown? There was so much that we couldn’t talk about. I probably had to be in a place in my life where I felt comfortable with myself in order to do this.”
The mother of literary children, Safran Foer admits that writing the book was a bit nerve-racking, largely because she does not think of herself as a writer — she only showed her sons the manuscript when it was almost finished.
“It was a little scary,” she laughs. “I guess there was a kind of hesitation, of being judged. Also, I knew I had to have my own voice to tell this story and I didn’t realize that until I was really into it. It was more than a book. It was something I had to do for myself, for my family.”