Book Review: I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: a Post-Holocaust Memoir

If the author’s name sounds familiar, it should. Esther Safran Foer’s son, Jonathan, is the author of the best-selling novel, Everything is Illuminated, a fictionalized story of the pre-Holocaust shtetl called Trochenbrod and his travels to Ukraine to search for the woman who saved his grandfather’s life. I

In I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: a Post-Holocaust Memoir (Tim Duggan Books), Esther Safran Foer, formerly CEO of a D. C. - based arts organization, continues what had been for her son an unfruitful search. 

Trochenbrod, her parents’ hometown, had been turned into a ghetto in 1941, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and all but a few of the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Both of Esther’s parents escaped; they were the only family members to have survived.

Like many survivors, Esther’s parents felt their past was too unspeakable to share with their children, but she was a curious child, and her questioning about her family’s history in Ukraine intensified as she grew older. One day, she was startled when her mother casually mentioned that her husband, Esther’s father, had been married before. His first wife and a daughter had perished in the Holocaust. 

Esther then knew she had a mission. Who was this woman? Who was her half-sibling? Without even a name to go on, she embarked on a quest for the truth that would ultimately lead her to Trochenbrod. 

In possession of only a black and white photo of her father and the family who hid him plus a hand drawn map, she immersed herself in genealogy websites and hired a researcher in Ukraine. She desperately wanted answers, including the identity of the family of Righteous Gentiles who had saved her father. “I feel a great responsibility to keep the past alive,” she wrote. 

Accompanied by her son, Frank, a journalist and historian, Esther traveled to the area in 2009 to walk in the footsteps of her ancestors, a poignant journey into the past. Standing at the site of the mass grave in which many of her relatives were buried, they were able to honor the memories of all the victims. 

“In Trochenbrod,” she writes, referring to an artist’s project to find mezuzahs on doorposts of once Jewish homes in Poland, “there are no houses left, there was no indentation in a doorpost for a casting. The artists instead found the oldest tree, a tree that is burned on the inside, but it is still alive. This spoke to me. For much of my adult life I have been haunted by the presence of absence. I gave a cast made from the tree to each of my children, and one hangs on a doorpost in my house.”

Esther found answers, and with them, solace. She met the descendants of the couple who had hidden her father during the war and learned the name of her father’s murdered wife and child.  Back home from her journey, she visited her father’s grave. “I needed to tell my father about the trip that I had walked in his footsteps on the dirt roads that weave through Trochenbrod and Lysche, that I saw the pear tree in his backyard,” she wrote. “I wanted him to know that I sat in a house now located on the same plot where his once stood, where he lived with his family, and that I came to understand, at least a little, why life was so hard for him. That I had said Kaddish for the life, and the people, he had lost. That I had mourned the things he had never spoken of to me.”

Esther sums up her quest as follows: “I set out to learn about my father. I set out to know about my sister. I set out to let my ancestors know that I haven’t forgotten them. That we are still here.”

Her journey for truth, interwoven with tender anecdotes about her nuclear family members, makes this an absorbing personal and unforgettable read. The birth of a new grandson comes at the conclusion, signifying that life is precious and filled with promise. There could be no greater legacy.