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.