A His­to­ry of the Grand­par­ents I Nev­er Had

Ivan Jablon­ka; Jane Kuntz, trans.

  • Review
By – August 11, 2016

Ivan Jablon­ka, a not­ed French his­to­ri­an, sets out to uncov­er the lives of his pater­nal grand­par­ents he nev­er knew in his fas­ci­nat­ing book A His­to­ry of the Grand­par­ents I Nev­er Had. The lives of Mates and Idesa Jablon­ka, face­less vic­tims of the great twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry tragedies: Stal­in­ism, World War II, and the anni­hi­la­tion of Euro­pean Jew­ry,” were end­ed when they were in their late twen­ties and ear­ly thir­ties. They left a few doc­u­ments, let­ters, a pass­port, and two orphaned chil­dren, Mar­cel (Jablonka’s father) and Suzanne, aged three and four.

With lit­tle infor­ma­tion to go on, Jablon­ka uti­lized his skills as an his­to­ri­an to recre­ate their lives and to uncov­er the details of their trag­ic end. Using archival mate­r­i­al and oral inter­views with sur­vivors and their descen­dants — includ­ing a hand­ful of sur­vivors of his grandparent’s era, who pro­vid­ed pre­cious infor­ma­tion — Jablon­ka dis­cov­ered that Mates and Idesa were per­se­cut­ed as com­mu­nists in Poland, as refugees in Paris, and then as Jews under the Vichy regime.

This book is beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten and respon­si­bly pre­sent­ed, bal­anc­ing the engaged pas­sion of a fam­i­ly mem­ber ful­ly invest­ed in the sto­ry and the rig­or­ous dis­tanc­ing of a schol­ar fol­low­ing the evi­dence wher­ev­er it leads. Jablon­ka rarely allows his imag­i­na­tion to move the nar­ra­tive, even when there are gaps in the sto­ry. Near the end he relax­es his stan­dards a bit in an attempt to recon­struct the last months of his grandfather’s life in Auschwitz: the evi­dence sug­gests that Mates may have been a mem­ber of the Son­derKom­man­do that worked in the cre­ma­to­ria, but because his death was not wit­nessed or record­ed, Jablon­ka presents sev­er­al plau­si­ble pos­si­bil­i­ties for how his grand­fa­ther came to his end.

A His­to­ry of the Grand­par­ents I Nev­er Had is a deeply mov­ing, poignant, and sad book, but one also filled with hope, light, and inspi­ra­tion. As Jablon­ka writes, I’ll nev­er know if they would have been as proud of me as I am of them. Their lives were a string of unful­filled dreams, but they nev­er gave in, nev­er gave up.” His book is a cry against the ways of the world, per­va­sive indif­fer­ence, and the urge to for­get, serv­ing as a fit­ting trib­ute not only to his grand­par­ents but to the mem­o­ry of all who have no one to tell their sto­ries. Mates and Idesa Jablon­ka sym­bol­ize a gen­er­a­tion of anony­mous but cher­ished peo­ple caught up in the hor­ror of the Holo­caust, of love sto­ries shat­tered by the Shoah, of lives cut off before they could reach their poten­tial or real­ize their dreams, of par­ents who could bare­ly raise their chil­dren. Jablonka’s sto­ry is micro-his­to­ry at its best, writ­ten with the sweep of twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish his­to­ry as the backdrop.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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