‘I can’t change the past, but I can keep their names alive’

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‘I can’t change the past, but I can keep their names alive’

Mathilde Frot speaks to author Esther Safran Foer about discovering her Holocaust survivor father had another family before the war

Esther Safran Foer, pictured, is the author of a new memoir "I Want You To Know We’re Still Here"
Esther Safran Foer, pictured, is the author of a new memoir "I Want You To Know We’re Still Here"

When Esther Safran Foer’s home was broken into a few years ago, her computers and jewellery were taken, her family were left “hysterical” and as police swooped on the property, the incident grew into a “frightening kind of thing” – but Esther herself remained remarkably calm.

For while she had suffered the loss of material possessions, Esther recognised the real thing of value – stories about her parents, who had experienced and survived the Holocaust – could never be taken away from her. 

“In the midst of that, I thought ‘I’ve got to write their stories. That’s what I really need to pass on, not things’,” says Esther, now a grandmother-of-six and author of a new post-Holocaust memoir, I Want You To Know We’re Still Here.  

In her debut book, the author describes her near-obsessive pursuit to piece together fragments of information about her late parents Ethel Bronstein and Louis Safran, the only members of their families to survive the Shoah.

Esther, who lives in Washington DC, is something of a hoarder, as she describes in the book, and she displays on her mantle an assortment of glass jars, each preserving a memory: rubble from the Warsaw Ghetto, soil from her mother’s shtetl.

To add to her collection, she carries Ziploc bags with her, a habit depicted in her son Jonathan’s best-selling novel Everything is Illuminated, a best-selling fictionalised account of the Safran Foer family history, which was adapted into a 2005 film starring Elijah Wood.

“Sometimes I feel so silly as people watch me and I’m digging into the dirt and putting things into a little Ziploc bag, but I don’t care. It’s what I’m taking back with me,” she says. 

Esther Safran Foer seated between her parents Ethel Bronstein and Louis Safran at a family event

Esther, who spent nearly the first three years of her life in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany before arriving in the US in 1949, grew up surrounded by unsaid traumas.

Her mother, who spent the war on the run, fled as far as Uzbekistan, working on farms and in factories.

Her father, an enigmatic figure whose life before the US was shrouded in mystery, had committed suicide when Esther was just eight.

But she subsequently discovered that he had a wife and daughter back in the Ukraine, who were murdered by the Nazis. 

I Want You To Know We’re Still Here by Esther Safran Foer is published by HQ, HarperCollins and out now in hardback, ebook and audiobook.

The discovery, which came in her 40s after she confronted her mother for answers, reignited a lifelong quest to understand her father’s early life.

“I went home. I looked on all the databases. I had a sister, whose name had never been known and didn’t exist. At a minimum I could put Baby Safran into the Yad Vashem database,” she says.

Esther’s indefatigable investigations involved over the years spending hours poring over Holocaust databases, recruiting researchers in the Ukraine and even hiring a former FBI agent to analyse family photographs.

They finally found a lead in Trachenbord, Ukraine, her late father’s hometown, where she journeyed back to in 2009 with her journalist son Frank, in an effort to track down the people who hid her father during the war.

What she found during her travels was life-affirming. “I was so lucky that I took that trip in 2009, because so many of the people I talked to who were able to give me information are now gone,” she adds.

Writing the book was a therapeutic process, she says. “It was an important process to deal with things that I’d never dealt with.”

Ethel Bronstein and Louis Safran

 “Probably like every other Jew, I’ve read so many Holocaust memoirs, and this was going to be another Holocaust memoir,” she says. “But it came out of the writing that this was not just a story about the past. It’s about the future. 

“There’s nothing I can do to change the past. I can cry about it. I can be enormously sad that I never had grandparents or aunts or uncles or first cousins. What I can do in this book is put their names down and at least their descendants will know that they lived,” she adds. 

Esther’s mother died two months before her writing deadline.

“She was almost 99-years-old. I didn’t know what was going to happen. But in the time between her death in December, and the time I finished the book in February, I was able to open up about things that I couldn’t while she was alive.

But, she adds: “I think she’d be happy [with the book]. She’d be proud.”

I Want You To Know We’re Still Here by Esther Safran Foer is published by Harper Collins, priced £20 (hardback) and is available now in hardback, ebook and audiobook.

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