Esther Safran Foer’s family history, as related in I Want You to Know We’re Still Here, is mostly a mystery. There is a very good reason for this. Like so many other people of European Jewish ancestry, most of Esther’s family in Trochenbrod and its neighboring villages in Ukraine were killed during the Holocaust. Her own parents, Leibel and Etel, were so traumatized by their experiences that they only rarely spoke about what they went through. But Esther has a few clues, from her mother’s reluctantly told stories and from a trove of family photographs. After her son had great success with his book Everything is Illuminated, Esther began to seriously track down everyone she could find who might be able to give her more information about her parents and her lost family members.
Esther reveals early in I Want You to Know We’re Still Here that she has three birthdays. The confusion is a result of all the paperwork her parents filled out (more or less truthfully) to relocate from Łodz, Poland; to a displaced persons camp outside of Berlin, Germany; to New York, in the United States. Esther’s parents had managed to survive the destruction of Trochenbrod and the other nearby villages and met, by chance, in Poland, after the war. Continuing acts of anti-Semitic violence led them to join the hundreds of thousands of survivors in the DP camps; the idea was to emigrate and start over outside of Europe. Decades later, after years of research, Esther travels back to where Trochenbrod was, to find the mass graves where her family members were buried, and to say kaddish for them.
I Want You to Know We’re Still Here is a meandering memoir. Esther wanders back and forth through her own history and what she knows about her parents’ histories. (To be blunt, there are some repetitive sentences that could’ve been cut. We only need to be told all the names of Trochenbrod once.) It was interesting to see the stories of the Safrans and others start to take shape as Esther collected more information. Esther seems to collect cousins the way she picks up rocks, soil, and plant souvenirs of the places she visits on her research trips and her pilgrimage to Trochenbrod. I lost track of all the connections, to be honest, but I had to marvel at the way that all of these survivors are related to each other and how much they can remember about people and places from before the Holocaust.
It’s very satisfying that Esther manages to resolve the biggest mysteries about her family history. Overall, the ending, that describes Esther’s trip with another son to Trochenbrod, is very cathartic. I was so happy that Esther was able to learn so much, in spite of the devastation visited upon her family and the Jews of Europe. The realization that Etel and Leibel Safran had so many descendants to carry on their names and memories made me tear up. I Want You to Know We’re Still Here is not a perfect book (it needed more editing and structure), but I enjoyed it a great deal because it tells a story that I don’t often see in Holocaust memoirs. This is not just a story about survival. It’s a story about a family that survived and thrived in spite of all that the Nazis threw at them.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.