I happen to be writing this on a Friday evening: for Jews, it is “Erev Yom Shi Shi, “the night before Shabbat”. I happen to know this because many years ago, before university, I worked on a kibbutz which, although secular, held fast to its ancient Friday night rituals. This memory occurs to me because I am reading I Want You to Know We’re Still Here, by Esther Safran Foer (H.Q. publishing), the account of her search for her lost Jewish relatives, killed in their shtetl in the Ukraine (as it was then known) by Nazi execution squads in 1941 and 1942.
In particular Foer, a leading activist in politics and in Jewish culture in Washington, longed to know more about her half-sister, born to her father’s first wife, who perished in this massacre along with her mother. She herself, born in Lodz in 1946 from her father’s second marriage, moved with her family to the US, only learning of this half-sister’s existence from a random comment made years later by her mother, who found speaking of the past inevitably very painful.
Foer’s memoir of her search to record the names and personalities of her Jewish relatives from both sides of her family can seem to the reader that they are trespassing on very private sorrows and concerns. Well, we are. Of all people of history the Jews are the ones who have kept their collective memory alive through the generations; I surmise this is partly because of their sense of destiny and partly because of the constant suffering, exile and pogroms they have suffered through the centuries, culminating in the Holocaust.
Foer’s title, addressed to her dead Ukrainian relatives, shows her own determination as the “offspring of Holocaust survivors”, to honour their memory and to keep it alive. One can understand her urgency when reading that the Nazi death squads ensured almost everyone died in their mass killing spree. Indeed Trochenbrod, the shtetl where her father grew up, was utterly destroyed by the Germans. Making her first visit to this area of western Ukraine in 2009, Foer is aware she is searching for places and streets that no longer exist, except in painstaking maps made for Jewish archives.
Still, she does find the descendants of the Christian family who, at great danger to themselves, hid her father and also discovers the name of her half-sister, “Asya” – “a little girl of about 5 or 6… with long black hair”, shot in a large pit in neighbouring woods along with her family and the other villagers. She believes that her own father’s suicide in 1954, like those of the novelist Primo Levi or the psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, was in part caused by the intolerable burden of past pain: “Outlasting the War didn’t necessarily mean you’d survived”, she comments.
Foer, the mother of three writer sons, one of whom, Jonathan Safran Foer, has written a best-selling novel about a fictitious Trochenbrod, admits that her wish to piece together her family’s past has been “a lifelong pursuit”, driven by the realisation that “for most of my adult life I have been haunted by the presence of absence”.
No doubt the Coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdown have caused much hardship, anxiety, even panic. Yet it still needs to be said that reading a memoir such as this, multiplied countless times in Jewish family memorials of the War, puts our current problems into an altogether deeper and more poignant perspective.