I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: An Interview with Esther Safran Foer

I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir
By Esther Safran Foer
Tim Duggan Book
$27.00, 226 pp.

Though her parents didn’t talk about it, Esther Safran Foer knew she had lost family members, even close relatives, in the Holocaust—she just didn’t know how close. “My childhood was filled with silences,” she writes, “that were punctuated by occasional shocking disclosures.” Born to survivors in a displaced persons’ camp, brought to the U.S. as a small child with false papers, she was already in her forties when her mother casually mentioned that her father had had a previous wife and daughter who were murdered by the Nazis. Foer, astounded, realized that the victims of the Holocaust included her own half-sister. 

Her father by then was long dead, a victim of suicide—another fact never discussed in the family. The barriers to restoring those lost memories seemed formidable, but Foer set herself the task of learning her lost sister’s forgotten name, along with whatever other information she could dig up. Her book, the story of that quest, meditates on loss and on the triumph of memory. A self-described builder of Jewish futures, Foer has spent a career in Jewish communal and philanthropic affairs, including a decade at the helm of Washington’s Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. The memoir makes her the latest published member of a much-published family. In contrast with her silent parents, Foer’s three sons are all writers; one, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, actually explored a version of her quest fictionally in his award-winning 2002 novel Everything Is Illuminated. She spoke with Moment opinion and book editor Amy E. Schwartz about her new memoir, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here.

Who is the “you” in your title?

The title came from my visit to Ukraine in 2009. I went there looking for my family’s stories, but I also wanted to leave something of myself in these places. I immediately knew I would leave our Rosh Hashanah card. We do a card every year. I’ve done it since our first son was born, and some of them are framed on a wall in our house. I love looking at them year after year, seeing our first son, then three sons, daughters-in-law and six grandchildren. My mother was often in that card, too. I thought, this is what I’m going to leave behind. This is how I’m going to say to my grandmothers and these mass graves, “You had no idea what was going to happen. You had no idea that anybody survived, but we’re still here.” I feel I’m addressing the past and also addressing the future.

I’m a natural optimist, which I think is reflected in the book. I tend to look forward. Two years after the trip, I got an email from a tour guide, one of the Ukrainian researchers I’d gotten to know, who said, “Look at what I saw.” My card was coming up out of one of the mass graves. He sent me a picture. The card had survived Ukrainian winters, rain and snow. He must have put it into a plastic bag, because I later got another email from someone else, a different tour guide on the trip, who also sent me the picture, the same picture, but the card was now wrapped in plastic.

I was struck by your comment that when we look at photographs, we see what we need to see in them. You talk about seeing a picture of yourself as a small child and thinking of it as very cozy, but in fact when you look carefully, there are guard towers in the background.

The image I have of my childhood—from those pictures, and from my mother—is that I was adored by my parents. The DP camps had the highest birthrate of any place in the world. People were overjoyed that they were producing a next-generation, that these families were continuing. I have pictures of myself in our camp riding a tricycle in a beautiful rabbit coat, way oversized, wrapped in it with toys. From the pictures, life looks really good, and it probably was for me.

But then I started reading about these camps and I found out that just before we arrived, this one was a POW camp, where the Nazis kept Soviet prisoners. It didn’t have heat, it didn’t have plumbing. It was in shambles. The DPs had to clean these camps and make them habitable. 

Do you have conscious memories of that camp?

I don’t know. I don’t know if they are conscious memories or if they are things I’ve been told or memories I’ve created from looking at these pictures.

So much of the family story was hidden—not just your father’s suicide but even the time and place of your own birth. What was it like to unearth it? 

I guess it emerged in pieces. My parents, and then ultimately after my father’s suicide, my mother, who was constantly moving forward, did not want to inflict pain on us, her precious children. Delving into her story, I knew, would cause her additional pain. How could I do that to this heroic woman who had been through so much? I was very reluctant to hurt her. This is very typical of children of Holocaust survivors. But at the same time, consciously or unconsciously, I was putting the story together in my head.

I’m somebody who makes connections. I’m a networker. When I worked in a political campaign, I was the person who knew all of the donors and whom to introduce to whom. I recognize people and relationships. I can do anybody’s family tree just by looking at them, maybe because I didn’t have a family tree of my own. But I was always putting pieces together, and when little pieces of information would somehow appear somewhere, I would go for it and try to find out more. In a way, I was kind of a detective.

This comes through very clearly when you’re finally on the streets of your father’s town, talking to people, and asking, “Yes, but who lived in this house?”

Well, that was really amazing to me, that in 2009, that many years after the Holocaust, there were still people who had pieces of information. They were mostly people who had witnessed what happened as children or were told stories by their parents about what happened. But every place I went, I was able to find nuggets, and I’m still finding nuggets. It’s really quite unbelievable. It’s a search that never ends.

If the search goes on, how did you know when you had finished the book

When I started writing the book, I didn’t know how it would end. I went to Ukraine, I found my half-sister’s name, something I thought I’d never find, and then lo and behold, our youngest son had a daughter and named her for my half-sister. I couldn’t have predicted that that was going to happen. 

Also, in December 2018, when I was in the middle of completing my book, my mother died. She had been sick and living in our house. When she died, I had what I thought was a pretty good draft. But between the time she died and the time I turned it in, in February, I was able to add so much to it emotionally—things I couldn’t say while she was still alive. Her death somehow gave me space, not having her know I was telling these stories. I don’t think she was ready to share them with the world. 

Did she feel that way about your father’s suicide? Did she not want anyone to know?

We never talked about it. Never, ever.

In the book, there’s a scene where she doesn’t want to show you his suicide note, but then she finally does. 

She never actually showed me anything. We were in her apartment, cleaning things out, getting ready to move her to our house. I said, “We have to go through things.” Then after a few minutes I summoned the courage and sat down with her on her bed, in her bedroom, and I said, “You have to show me the box.” I didn’t even know what was in it, but I knew that she was a meticulously organized person and that she kept things that were important. She said, “Oh, I don’t know where it is.” Here we were, two strong women, sitting on the bed trying to wait each other out. I said, “Well, we’re not going to move. We’re going to stay here, we’re not going to do anything else until you tell me.” She just sat there for a while and finally, she said, “On the top shelf of the closet on the right.”

There were lots of other interesting things in the box that she had kept, besides the note. She had the ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) from Lodz, Poland, where she and my father were married—a beautiful old ketubah. I’d never seen it before. All our documents said that they were married on May 5, 1945. I was talking to a friend of mine who said his parents were married in Poland in May of that year. I said, “So were mine—they were married on May 5.” That’s what the DP documents all said. He said, “No, they weren’t. If it was in May, the only day they could have been married was Lag B’Omer, and that year Lag B’Omer was May 1.” That’s when his parents were married. And lo and behold, I went back to the ketubah, I checked the Hebrew date and they had been married on Lag B’Omer. Can you imagine these Jews who had been through so much were waiting for this particular day? I’m visualizing weddings that day all over Eastern Europe.

All this time you had thought you were born in Ziegenhain, Germany.

Well, I knew there was confusion. I never quite knew all the details. Even to this day, I go into the pharmacy or something and they say, “When is your birthday?” and I’m thinking, what did I put down on that sheet of paper? My passports, all my official documents say I was born September 8 in Germany. To change it would be so complicated. But I also realize now in this environment that I’m a Dreamer.

Actually, a friend of mine who was Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security under the last administration, and who knows my story, said, “You can’t get up there and talk about your false birthday, at least without knowing what the risks are.”

Now? Even now?

Well, particularly now. Another friend said, “Let me put you in touch with a lawyer who’s an expert at this so that you’ll understand this before you do it.” My husband, of course, he walks a straight line and he said, “You’re not going to put that in the book.” I said, “I’m going to start the book with it.” 

You talk about having to find a space that your mother’s not in. On a much more contemporary American psychological level, all these years you’ve been the mom of all these writers. What’s it like to shift from being the mom of writers to be the writer?

I’m going to find out soon. I don’t know what the answer is. I’m a little concerned. I’m stepping into my kids’ space instead of their stepping into my space, which is what normally happens. People ask me about Everything Is Illuminated, my son Jonathan’s novel about looking for the same story. They’re each very different stories, different works, and they, I think stand on their own and speak to different audiences.

You’re also taking your place in the genre of Holocaust memoirs. Was this a genre you’d read very widely in?

Yes. If you walked into my home office, there are two big bookshelves on each side of the sofa. One is all art books, and the other shelf is all filled with Holocaust stories—memoirs, histories, maps. That’s kind of where my head has been.

Obviously, you wouldn’t have taken it on if you hadn’t felt there was something new to say. Can you articulate what that was?

Years ago, not too many years ago, our house was broken into and they took the computers and stuff like that, but they also took my jewelry—a few things that my mother had given me and some things that my great aunt, my de facto grandmother, had given me. I thought, well, I could get hysterical, but these are just things. I need to tell their stories because that’s what will live on. In the process of writing, I think I learned a lot about myself, in that at the end of the day, the story is that we’re still here. That’s the optimism that I think I approach life with and that my mother approached life with. It’s different from some of the memoirs that I’ve read that are more bitter. 

Also, you retrieved the memory of this little girl, your sister.

Right, because her name wasn’t anywhere. You wonder how many children are nameless. You read quotes from books about children who were killed, and one of them says—from Theresienstadt, I think—“I just want the world to know that I lived.” Here I had a half-sister that I didn’t know lived, and the world didn’t know lived. Even cousins that I found didn’t remember her. 

To state the obvious, I suppose that must be part of the weight your father was carrying that you didn’t know about.

Right. And I was the replacement child, and I didn’t know that either. I’m able to understand my father a lot better after writing the book. He had been a total enigma to me. We didn’t talk about him. What it was that pained him so much, I’ll never really know. But I do believe this had to have been part of it.

It seems like quite the journey.

It was, and I hope that it will help somebody else to take their journey

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