'I was told my sister had died in the Holocaust - but no-one alive even knew her name'

Visited by ghosts: Esther Safran Foer with a photo of her father (top left) and the family who hid him - Esther Safran Foer
Visited by ghosts: Esther Safran Foer with a photo of her father (top left) and the family who hid him - Esther Safran Foer

Esther Safran Foer solves the family mysteries at the heart of her son Jonathan's novel in a superb memoir, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here

The joke in the title of Jonathan Safran Foer’s award-ladened debut novel Everything Is Illuminated was that everything was, in fact, fabricated. The book’s central character, Alex, a Ukrainian translator with a tenuous grasp of English, was made up, as was his bad-tempered grandfather, who drove a fictitious “Jonathan Safran Foer” on a journey to find a woman who had saved Jonathan’s Jewish grandfather from the Nazis.

The rambunctious history of the grandfather’s shtetl, which took up at least a third of the novel, was also imagined. As, sadly, was the existence of the Ukrainian duo’s flatulent dog, Sammy Davis Jr, Jr. The real Safran Foer had been to Ukraine, and he had hoped to discover the identity of a family who had hidden his grandfather from the Nazis. But his investigation had come to naught. When he finally arrived at the place where the shtetl, Trochenbrod, had once stood, he found nothing – not a wall, not a paving stone, no sign whatsoever that the former Jewish town had ever existed. And so he filled the void with invention.

Now, in a powerful new memoir written by Safran Foer’s mother, Esther, we discover that the novelist’s fiction did, in the end, help to produce fact. I Want You to Know We’re Still Here is the real story of Esther’s father, Louis, which she pieced together after a flood of phone calls, emails and letters from readers about Trochenbrod in the weeks and months after Everything Is Illuminated was published in 2002 (the name of the town was one of the few things Jonathan didn’t make up in the novel). It is also the story of Esther’s mother, who came from Kolki, a town 15 miles north of Trochenbrod, and of the thousands of Jews from the area who were marched out of their homes, taken to open pits and shot by Einsatzgruppen – Germany’s mobile killing squads.

Everything Is Illuminated was the catalyst, but Esther, the family’s self-appointed archivist, would probably have written this book anyway. In a clear, direct style very different to her son’s tricksy prose, she describes how ghosts visited her “from the shtetls in Ukraine” long before Jonathan became a writer and how she always longed to know more than her mother, Ethel, was willing to tell her about her father, who committed suicide in 1954 when she was eight. Not only was there the mystery of the family who had hidden him during the war – the name of which her mother swore she didn’t know; there was also the revelation, casually dropped into a conversation when Esther was in her early 40s, that he had had a wife and daughter before Ethel and that they had both been murdered by the Nazis.

This news – that she had lost a sister in the war – drove Esther to hire researchers in Ukraine and even employ an FBI agent to analyse photographs, but to no avail. “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,” she writes. “Here was a child, 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 who has left no trace?”

A 1947 reunion of Trochenbrod survivors, taken at the Foehrenwalf displaced-persons camp - Esther Safran Foer
A 1947 reunion of Trochenbrod survivors, taken at the Foehrenwalf displaced-persons camp - Esther Safran Foer

For years, this sister was represented by a question mark on the Safran Foer family tree. But, in 2007, after retiring from her career as a public affairs consultant in Washington DC, Esther had time to pursue the new leads thrown up by Everything Is Illuminated, which had gained even more attention thanks to a 2005 film adaptation.

There had, she discovered, been a group of “Trochenbroders”, in addition to her father, who had escaped the massacre of the town’s Jews, fleeing into the forest and taking up partisan actions against the Nazis, or, in the case of one young girl, forging identity papers and working as a housemaid for a German. Some of them were still alive and had fond memories of her father Louis, or “Leibel” as they knew him. He was a “chevra man”, a person who could make friends or do business with anyone. “If Leibel were here, he could even make friends with [this] table,” says one elderly survivor whom Esther meets in Israel.

It may be a mission founded in tragedy, but there is something exhilarating about the way Esther brings her father, and the other denizens of Trochenbrod, back from the dead in this second half of the book. As well as “Liebel from Lysche” (a suburb of Trochenbrod), we hear about “Belly Button” Itzy, who was a government-appointed rabbi, Leib “the big one” and Leib “the small one”, Itzy “with the nose”, Helchick the butcher, Ephraim “who cries in the synagogue”, Pinchas the carpenter, Yankel the blacksmith, Chava the midwife, Ydel “the dumb one” and on and on. A vanished shtetl “where the living quarters and the stables for the horses and cattle were sometimes one and the same, and where the chickens were kept behind the stove, and the potatoes under the bed”, is reconstructed before our eyes.

When Esther eventually follows in her son’s footsteps and visits Ukraine, it is not just to find the family who hid her father or to discover the name of her murdered sister. It is to tell all the victims, whose mass graves are marked by a series of memorial stones, that they have not been forgotten, that their descendants “are still here”, that they lived on as Jews.

Esther does not shy away from the horrifying details of the “Holocaust by bullets” – the way, for example, that one mass grave moved for days because there were still victims alive, beneath the earth. But, her book, overridingly and wonderfully, turns out to be more a hymn to life than a requiem for the dead.