There are heartbreaking moments in Esther Safran Foer’s “post-Holocaust memoir” about her obsessive quest to uncover the details of her immigrant parents’ Holocaust history. How could there not be?
After surviving against terrible odds, her mother and father struggled to reconstruct their lives amid unimaginable losses. And Foer herself had to deal with their silences and erasures, inheriting a trauma that has rippled through her life. “I Want You to Know We’re Still Here” is her attempt to tame that trauma and fill in the gaps of her family’s past.
As the events themselves recede, the rich literature of second- and third-generation Holocaust memoirs continues to grow. But the terrain it charts — including the inevitable journey back to the Old Country to find traces of a vanished world and mourn the dead — has become increasingly familiar. Foer’s rambling, repetitive narrative, marred by pedestrian prose and a profusion of mundane details, is, at best, a minor contribution to this burgeoning genre.
Born in Lodz, Poland, Foer spent her early childhood in a displaced persons camp in Germany, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors who grew up just miles apart and married in 1945. She is, more famously, the mother of three best-selling writers, Jonathan, Franklin, and Joshua Foer, all of whom have tackled their heritage in varying ways. The most notable is Jonathan Safran Foer’s award-winning 2002 novel, “Everything Is Illuminated,” a fictional account of his collegiate pilgrimage to Ukraine that became a 2005 film.
“I Want You to Know We’re Still Here” interweaves Esther Foer’s personal history with accounts of her mother and father, as well as a confusing plethora of other relatives and minor characters. “Piecing together the fragments of my family story has been a lifelong pursuit,” Foer writes. One doesn’t doubt it. But the result remains fragmentary, perhaps deliberately so.
Central to Foer’s narrative are two mysteries of identity: What courageous family sheltered her father during the war and thereby saved his life? And who exactly were her father’s first wife and daughter, both murdered in the so-called Holocaust by Bullets in present-day Ukraine?
Her father, Louis Safran, a savvy businessman in his postwar heyday, could have provided the answers. But, perhaps because of the lingering emotional fallout of the Holocaust, he took his own life when Foer was just 8 years old. As a result, she writes, “he remains an enigma” that she must work to penetrate. Her discovery of his poignant suicide notes is the memoir’s emotional climax, more shattering even than her trek to Ukraine.
For years, Foer’s mother, Ethel Bronstein, an inveterate coupon-clipper who remarried and lived until 2018, revealed little. “My childhood,” Foer writes, “was filled with silences that were punctuated by occasional shocking disclosures,” among them the existence of her father’s previous family.
About her own travails, Bronstein repeated only a single, heart-wrenching anecdote, about her sister, Pesha, running after her as she was leaving home to offer a pair of shoes. Bronstein never said goodbye to her own mother, with whom she’d been quarreling, and never saw anyone in her immediate family again.
In later interviews conducted by US Holocaust Memorial Museum volunteers and others, Bronstein offered details about her home town of Kolki, Ukraine (then Poland), and her flight east with a girlfriend. Like many Polish Jews, the two women traveled, mostly on foot, to the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to wait out the war. Returning to Kolki afterward, they encountered a survivor who related the sad fate of their relatives, all murdered.
In the case of her father’s rescuer, Esther Foer had one good clue: a fading black-and-white photo of four people. She gave it to her son Jonathan when he traveled to Ukraine. He came up empty, but his subsequent novel elicited contact from survivors from her father’s home town of Trochenbrod. The Internet, DNA testing, and sites such as Ancestry.com also helped her connect with cousins and others who’d known her father.
A big breakthrough occurs when a new friend, collaborating on a documentary, locates people he believes to be descendants of her father’s rescuer. Esther Foer, with her son Franklin in tow, travels to Ukraine in 2009 to confirm the discovery. On that same trip, she also visits a mass grave near Kolki and joins others with Trochenbrod roots to look for traces of that vanished town and memorialize its dead.
A self-professed hoarder of “dirt and debris,” Foer stuffs Ziploc bags with mementos from these various sites, and leaves mementos of her family behind. “For much of my adult life I have been haunted by the presence of absence,” she writes. Her homely dirt collection is one attempt to address that absence.
Foer also cites an idea, which she credits to Columbia University professor Marianne Hirsch, that “inherited memories — traumatic fragments of events — defy narrative reconstruction.” Foer’s disjointed memoir, with its abrupt time shifts and obsessive recitation of the names of the dead, seems to exemplify that dictum.
I WANT YOU TO KNOW WE’RE STILL HERE: A Post-Holocaust Memoir
By Esther Safran Foer
Tim Duggan Books, 240 pp., $27
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.