Review of I Want You To Know We’re Still Here by Esther Safan Foer

It has been quite a while since my last post and there have been so many monumental things going on in the world.  The genealogy library is closed, but I am here answering the phone and emails.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am a reader, the pandemic hasn’t changed how much or how little I read.  However, it has altered what I read–well, somewhat as I go through phases.  Anyway, this post is about a book I read just a few days ago.  I am still processing it and probably will for a while.  It is a nonfiction account of Esther Safran Foer’s search into her family’s background.  Now, I don’t usually write reviews, but this book is important to this blog and for so many other reasons.  Not only is it a valuable contribution to the history of the Holocaust, but it also details the various struggles Ms. Foer had with investigating her own history–starting with her birthday.

On the very first page, she stated:  “Piecing together the fragments of my family story has been a lifelong pursuit.  I am the offspring of Holocaust survivors, which, by definition, means there is a tragic and complicated history.”  Ms. Foer went through many of the same tribulations genealogists run up against–family secrets and family silences.  As she explained, she was in her forties when she decided to do some digging into her father’s history.  It was a conversation with her mother which led her to, as she described it, the second phase of her life. She discovered that her deceased father, who had committed suicide when the author was eight, had had a wife and daughter who had died during the war.

So, not only is there a family secret, it is one wrapped up in an area of the world bound and determined to keep those secrets.  Ms. Foer went through Holocaust sites and talked to experts.  Her son Jonathan Foer wrote Everything is Illuminated which was a fictional account of Trochenbrod Poland, now in Ukraine.  She ran up against every wall trying to find this missing wife and sister that she had known nothing about.  All her brick walls that genealogists run up against were compounded by the fact that Trochenbrod no longer exists.  Also, historically the whole area was very fluid as it changed from Russia to Poland, to Ukraine, to German hands many times.  However, by 1942,  the Germans occupied Trochenbrod and executed its citizens–among them were Ms. Foer’s half-sister and her mother.  Her father had escaped because he had been on a work detail in a different town.

This is a hard story to read.  Not many genealogists have this kind of secret in their lives.  However, that was just part of the story.  Most importantly, it is about discovering roots and family and learning to live with memory and history.  This is a beautifully written book.  It is not a long book, but I did pause quite a few times to just think and reflect on what she was uncovering. The themes of memory and history are very important in this book.  For those of you interested in history, it is an invaluable book.  For the genealogists, Ms. Foer utilized all the available resources that genealogists are currently employing–23 and Me, Ancestry DNA, etc.  Most importantly, it opened up for Ms. Foer, her family, and for the rest of us a glimpse into a vanished world.