Holocaust tragedy: ‘What I found was much more than I could have expected’

Holocaust tragedy: ‘What I found was much more than I could have expected’

Esther Safran Foer holding a picture of her family

Esther Safran Foer had been denied information about her past her entire life (Image: Esther Safran Foer)

History is about the end of something. Memory is about the beginning of something. Memory is personal. It is about stories and select experiences. History is broader and more objective. 

“How will I know who these people are?” my oldest grandchild Sadie asked me one day, while we were sitting in my home office, which overflows with photographs, documents and maps, some neatly organised in labelled boxes and others in piles around the room. 

Sadie was right. I haven’t bothered to identify the people in these photographs because I know who they are, but she and her sister and cousins won’t know.

In those crammed boxes in my office are most of what exists about my family’s past.

The photos are all that remain of long-dead relatives with no direct descendants to tell their stories or even remember their names. 

My parents, Ethel Bronstein and Louis Safran, were the only members of their large extended families to survive the Holocaust. My mother spent the war on the run.

I don’t know how my father survived, although we know he was hidden by a Christian family for at least some part of it.

Parents, grandparents, siblings, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles and cousins were all murdered. I can’t bring myself to use the euphemism “perished”. 

Ethel Bronstein and Louis Safran

Esther’s parents, Ethel Bronstein and Louis Safran on their wedding day (Image: Esther Safran Foer)

To know me you would think I am a happy woman with an easy smile – which I am. But at the same time, my joy is tempered by the shadows of the past.

Piecing together the fragments of my family story has been a lifelong pursuit.

My childhood was filled with silences that were punctuated by occasional shocking disclosures. I understood there was a lot that I didn’t know. My parents were reluctant to talk and I learned to manoeuvre around difficult subjects. 

Periodically I would try to fill in gaps of our story with a few seemingly nonthreatening questions, particularly about my father’s experience during the war.

He died when I was eight and he had been an enigma, a mercurial figure that all conversation danced around, even in my own head.

One day, when I was in my forties, my mother took a sip of the instant coffee that she loved and casually mentioned that my father had been in a ghetto with his wife and daughter. 

He’d been on a work detail when they were both murdered by the Nazis. 

Absolutely stunned, I blurted out, “He had a wife and daughter? How can you be telling me now, for the first time, that my father had another family, that he had another child?”

There was another secret I would learn about even later: my father had committed suicide. 

I had grown up surrounded by ghosts – haunted by relatives that no one ever spoke about and by stories that no one would share.

Now there was a new ghost I hadn’t even known about – my own sister. I pressed my mother to learn more, but she made it clear the conversation was over.

I’m not sure how much she even knew – I suspected she and my father didn’t speak much of the past, even to one another. Life was about moving forward. 

I didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of a search that would define the next phase of my life.

Family photo from Esther's archives

Esther asserts that finding out her family history has been a lifelong pursuit (Image: Esther Safran Foer)

Determined to learn more, I scoured online Holocaust databases for a birth or death record of my sister, to no avail. I hired researchers in Ukraine.

I even hired a former FBI forensic photography agent to analyse photographs. My searches came up empty.

I talked to everyone I could think of to see what they knew and I got the same response: “There were so many people killed, so many babies, how can we remember all of the names?” 

Of the person closest to me killed in the Holocaust, my half-sibling, I had not one detail – not a name, not a picture, not one piece of a memory.

Here was a child, one among at least six million Jews, one of almost 1.5 million children who were murdered during the Holocaust, and there was no way to remember that this child had even lived. 

How do you remember someone whose life has left no trace? 

The search took me to places that allowed me to more deeply understand the Holocaust and how it continued to reverberate long past the liberation and into future generations.

It was ultimately a search that took me to places inside myself. 

Children can bring down walls and open doors for their parents.

Our middle son Jonathan’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, is based on a journey to Europe before his final year of college. He was in search of a topic for his senior thesis and I urged him to visit the shtetl Trochenbrod in Ukraine where I thought my father had come from.

Before he left for Europe that summer of 1998, I gave Jonathan 40 copies of a tattered picture of four people – Louis, an older man and two women – the people who my mother thought had hidden him for some part of the war.

The hope was that Jonathan might find the family that hid my father. 

Family photo from Esther's archives

Esther didn’t know that her father had another family before the Holocaust (Image: Esther Safran Foer)

We later learnt I had sent Jonathan to the wrong shtetl. He found nothing.

Lacking facts, he spent the rest of the summer writing a work of fiction based very loosely upon the few details we knew of our family history.

Reactions to the novel from around the world opened doors that filled in many of my life’s most important memory gaps as fiction mysteriously generated fact. 

In Jonathan’s novel, the self-declared hero, also Jonathan Safran Foer, is in pursuit of a character named Augustine, who is thought to have hidden the fictional Jonathan’s grandfather.

It is fiction layered on possible fact layered with more fiction. 

It’s a dazzling, playful Rubik cube of a book that spins on its head our family history and leaves even me a tad confused. 

The release of the book and the film that followed sparked new interest in the cluster of shtetls our family came from and opened the door for new information from a variety of sources.

Esther Safran Foer'S family now

Esther Safran Foer’s son journeyed to Ukraine to try and uncover the truth (Image: Esther Safran Foer)

My own obsession grew accordingly. I began gathering information from recently released documents and picking up clues from ageing witnesses in Brazil and Israel. 

There was only so much I could do from afar. Like the character in Jonathan’s novel, I armed myself with maps and photographs and eventually, with my oldest son, Frank, boarded a Lufthansa flight to Ukraine in 2009. 

I set out to find the family that had hidden my father during the war and to learn what I could about the sibling I had never known and the father, who survived the Holocaust through cleverness and resilience, and who then killed himself when his second family, in America, was so young. 

I also set out to understand myself better and let my ancestors know I haven’t forgotten them. That we are still here. 

What I found was so much more than I could have expected. I was able to fill a hole in my life.

I was able to put the story together, a detective story of love and resilience, so that my grandchildren and their grandchildren will know where they came from. 

I Want You To Know We Are Still Here: My Family, The Holocaust And My Search For Truth by Esther Safran Foer (£16.99, HQ) is out now. See Express Bookshop on page 69. 

Published at Sat, 02 May 2020 23:01:00 +0000