Non­fic­tion

I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holo­caust Memoir

By – April 20, 2020

For much of my adult life I have been haunt­ed by the pres­ence of absence,” con­fess­es Esther Safran Foer at the end of her deeply mov­ing mem­oir, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here. Foer was born in a dis­placed-per­sons camp in Lodz, Poland in 1946 to par­ents who had man­aged to evade death — through sheer luck in the case of her moth­er, Ethel (“My moth­er spent the war on the run,” Foer recounts), and through the brave actions of right­eous gen­tiles, who helped her father, Louis, escape invad­ing Nazis after they mas­sa­cred most of the Jews liv­ing in his Ukrain­ian shtetl, Trochen­brod (an inci­dent detailed by Foer’s son, Jonathan Safran Foer, in his 2002 nov­el Every­thing Is Illu­mi­nat­ed).

Grow­ing up in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Esther Safran Foer felt the dis­abling weight of her par­ents’ silence about the war. Above all, she was haunt­ed by her father’s sui­cide, which hap­pened in 1954, when she was a young girl. His death became part of the fam­i­ly canon of unspeak­able sto­ries” she tells the read­er. Rather than ignore the repressed hor­rors her rel­a­tives expe­ri­enced, Foer chose to become the keep­er of mem­o­ry,” the col­lec­tor of shards of mem­o­ry,” the his­to­ri­an inves­ti­gat­ing fam­i­ly trau­ma. Find­ing these links,” she writes, is my calling.”

How do you remem­ber some­one who has left no trace?” Foer asks at the begin­ning of her nar­ra­tive. How exact­ly did he sur­vive? What hap­pened to his fam­i­ly — his first fam­i­ly, which he had before he met Foer’s moth­er after the war?

Find­ing the answers involves both luck and end­less detec­tive work; she trav­els to Brazil, Argenti­na, Israel, and Ukraine in order to seek out Holo­caust sur­vivors who might fill in gaps in mem­o­ry. The emo­tion­al core of I Want You to Know We’re Still Here recounts Foer and her jour­nal­ist son Franklin’s pil­grim­age to the for­mer shtetls of Kol­ki and Trochen­brod. Moth­er and son imag­ine the once vibrant life of her par­ents’ and grand­par­ents’ world in East­ern Europe, before the Shoah. The result is a poignant nar­ra­tive of return and reded­i­ca­tion, a phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al teshu­vah to the site of fam­i­ly origins.

I Want You to Know We’re Still Here is a beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten account of a relent­less jour­ney to the genealog­i­cal — indeed geo­graph­ic — core of fam­i­ly trau­ma to uncov­er mys­ter­ies buried in the mass graves of an old-world shtetl. The mem­oir con­cludes with a new-world birth — a grand­son who car­ries Foer fam­i­ly his­to­ry in his name and soul — sym­bol­iz­ing the promise of the next gen­er­a­tion. In uncov­er­ing the past, Foer demon­strates how mem­o­ry can, ther­a­peu­ti­cal­ly, fill an aching absence.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He lives in Amherst, MA.

Esther Safran Foer lived in a dis­placed per­sons camp with her par­ents before com­ing to the Unit­ed States as a child. She has spent a life­time sift­ing through sliv­ers of mem­o­ry … pil­ing frag­ment on frag­ment” to piece togeth­er her fam­i­ly canon of unspeak­able sto­ries,” to iden­ti­fy and mourn fam­i­ly mem­bers who were mur­dered in the Holo­caust. Her quest is illus­trat­ed by a curat­ed still life” in her home — dozens of glass bot­tles that are filled with earth from [her] mother’s shtetl in Ukraine … and rub­ble from the War­saw ghet­to” — a shrine to their dias­po­ra and to her dri­ve to unearth their lives and their deaths.

Esther Safran Foer is the proud moth­er of three cel­e­brat­ed authors (Franklin, Jonathan, and Joshua), but she was raised in a tac­i­turn fam­i­ly where mem­o­ries were too ter­ri­ble to com­mit to words.” She has giv­en her­self the mis­sion of illu­mi­nat­ing the truth and keep­ing her ances­tors’ names alive. This slim vol­ume of numi­nous prose ful­fills that goal. Mea­sured even by the high stan­dards her sons’ works have set, this book is a lit­er­ary tour de FOERce.