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I Want You to Know We're Still Here by Esther Safran Foer - Review

Saturday, October 1, 2022

I picked this book up at High Peak Bookstore in the Peak District when I visited at the beginning of July with my friend Lucinda. I love that place - the books are plentiful and cheap. I only left with two books this time which is very restrained for me! I noticed this because of the name Safran Foer - I of course know Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote the book Everything Is Illuminated, which is sort of based on the Holocause experiences of his mother's family. I have seen the film, but it was either just before or just after my dad's suicide in 2008 so it's got caught up in the trauma of that, especially because it features a suicide, so I've never rewatched it. It turns out that this details is directly from Esther's life - her dad took his own life when she was just eight years old. I really related to that, obviously, and the gaps left behind.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Esther was born in Poland in 1946; her parents both survived the Holocaust and met and got married. They then lived in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany for several years, trying to find any of their relatives that had also survived, and were eventually sponsored to immigrate to the United States when Esther was little. There, her younger brother Julian was born. Her dad ran grocery stores, but had just been duped on the purchase of a new one at the time he died. Esther understands that he was traumatised by his experiences during the war and that this likely led to his decision to take his own life - but understanding this doesn't mean she truly feels it, and so on. She begins a search for what happened to her dad. This theme of trauma is one that I also saw in Maus, which I recently read and reviewed. 

It's interesting because quite a bit of the book focusses on the family's experiences post war. I have read a lot of Holocaust literature (I was a Theology student for my undergrad degree and was lucky enough to be taught Judaism by a Jewish lecturer who was a convert but then discovered she had Jewish heritage, which is quite cool. I was at York St John and York has a very dark anti Semitic history, which was also interesting to learn... I digress, though...) but have rarely read as much about what happened immediately post war. It's quite easy as a Gentile to think, well the war was over, the Nazis defeated, so of course everything was fine for Jews in Europe! But of course that wasn't the case! Anti Semitism was still rife, and remains so even today. Plus entire families, entire communities, so many people had just been murdered, had been wiped out, that people didn't have anywhere to go back TO. Esther's mother, Ethel, returned to her shtetl, Trochenbrod, in 1944, to find all the houses razed to the ground by the Soviets after all the (Jewish) inhabitants had been murdered by the Nazis. When Ethel had lived there, the village had been in Eastern Poland, but thanks to border shifts, the place is now in Western Ukraine - hence the setting of Everything Is Illuminated. As time went on and people began to understand the true horrors of the Holocaust, there was a determined effort to record the names of the dead, and to find the sites of mass burial graves, like where the inhabitants of Trochenbrod had been killed inthe massacre there. Esther understands the important of memory and history and how history is memory and memory is history, something which I think we all understand but which I think Jewish people definitely have a long tradition of anyway, and definitely in the light of the Holocaust. 

Esther makes an emotional trip to Ukraine with her son Frank towards the end of the book. By that time she has connected with people from all over the world, people who knew her parents, who knew the shtetl, and who have all contributed to completing the picture of Esther's ancestors and family. Her mother doesn't like to speak much about the war, which is of course her right, and which makes perfect sense also. But Esther wants to know the name of her half sister because then she can be recorded, and remembered.

I found this a really emotional book, especially the ending, and also so interesting. The focus on the family's post war experiences really helped round out that period in history for me. I am giving this five out of five and recommend it thoroughly. 

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