Episode 39: Esther Safran Foer: We're Still Here (Transcript)

Episode 39: Esther Safran Foer: We're Still Here

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Nahanni Rous: Hi, this is Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. In challenging times, there is a lot we can learn from past generations who have endured crises and trauma, and with that in mind, we share this episode. Every family has hidden stories… but some are more deeply hidden than others.  Esther Safran Foer’s parents both survived the Holocaust, but most of their relatives were killed. Like many survivors, Esther’s parents rarely spoke about their experiences… which left her with a lot of unanswered questions.

Esther Safran Foer: I have a birth certificate that was sworn to, three years after I was born, Uh, that says I was born in Ziegenhain, Germany in a DP camp September 8th, 1946. And I wasn't. I wasn't born on that day. I wasn't born in that city, and I wasn't born in that country.

Nahanni: Esther’s parents falsified her birth certificate. They had limited options. If they claimed she was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1946, they’d have a chance to get a visa to the United States. She was actually born in Lodz, Poland, just after her parents survived the war, and met and married. Esther and her family did make it to the United States when she was very young, and settled in Washington, DC. Esther spent most of her professional life in public relations. Later, she became the executive director of Sixth & I, a historic synagogue in downtown Washington, which she turned into a hub for creative Jewish life. She also serves on the board of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Esther has spent much of her life piecing together the truth of her family story. Her new memoir, I Want You To Know We’re Still Here, chronicles this lifelong search. Jewish Women’s Archive director Judith Rosenbaum recently talked with Esther about the book, and what it’s like for Esther to become a keeper and teller of her family’s history.

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Esther: My life was full of these mysteries that I really couldn't talk about or ask about for fear of inflicting pain on my mother who had been through so much. 

Judith Rosenbaum: So you knew that there was some way that you weren't supposed to ask. That was clear. 

Esther: It was very clear. It was very clear. I, my mother, it was about protecting my mother and she was protecting my brother and I. uh, they were painful things that she just didn't want to share with us. She wanted to put that pain behind her. And my mother, who was an eternal optimist, was always about moving forward. 

Judith: Did you feel like there were particular expectations on you to kind of be happy and joyful and the good girl and all of that?

Esther: Absolutely. Absolutely. I always understood, and I think it's probably fairly common with children of Holocaust survivors that you have to bring joy to your parents. You have to be the good kid. And in the same way that she was protecting me, I couldn't do anything bad. I, I couldn't inflict any pain and additional suffering on her. So yeah, I mean, I think I knew from the get-go that my job was to bring joy to a family where even though I was carrying the names of my two murdered grandmothers.

Judith: Right. That's a very heavy legacy to bear. And then there were also pieces of the story that you didn't know about and didn't learn about really until your forties? 

Esther: Right. Um, well, as you'll read in the book, my father committed suicide when I was eight. I don't think my mother ever told me what happened. I mean, it was, it was almost like he disappeared and that was it. And we're moving forward. Uh, and then in my forties, she casually mentioned that my father had a wife and a daughter, and here I was 40 years old, the mother of three sons. And she was telling me that I had a sister that I had my own half sister who was killed and she didn't know anything about her. She didn't know a name. She didn't know the name of my father's wife. It was, that was then, and this is now, and I think like lots of Holocaust survivors, when they met, uh, my mother said they never talked about the past. It was again about building the future, moving forward and burying that past. 

Judith: So you get this new piece of information, but it actually opens up so many more. It reveals so many more holes of information that you then had to pursue.

Esther: Right. Right. Um, and the thing that really opened the door, and it's often been said that children opened doors for their parents, uh, that our middle son, Jonathan, when he was at Princeton, he was a major in philosophy and minor in creative writing, and he had to do a senior thesis. And he knew that he wanted to spend the summer in Prague. 

And I suggested he could actually, once he was in Prague, go into Ukraine and try to find the family that we knew hid by father for some part of the war. We didn't know for how long. It could have been days, it could have been years, and that, that might be a good senior thesis.

And in a way he was doing what I wanted to do, but somehow couldn't allow myself to do. At that point, it was easier for me to encourage him to do it.

Judith: Right. You could kind of send him as your Emissary. 

Esther: He was my Emissary and uh... Mission wasn't exactly accomplished. Uh, he came back, without much information, But then he wrote this amazing novel. And the result of the publication of that novel was that people started to come out of the woodwork and say, I can't believe he wrote this about our beautiful village. That wasn't true. This is what really happened. Here are the real facts. And it led me on another journey of starting to meet people and interview them and put together new pieces of the puzzle that ultimately enabled me to go to Ukraine eleven years after he did and find the, put the puzzle together. 

Judith: One of the things that interested me you really saw yourself as sort of a hinge generation, that you were the link through which your mother's story was passed to your sons who were, who would then be the storytellers. So what has it been like, and what has it meant to you to become the storyteller here for the first time to kind of own this story as your story and not just the story of other people that you're telling. And then also to own your own role as the person who puts the story together. And how did it also change your, you know, how you see yourself and your role in your family?

Esther: I don't even know how to put it into words, but it has changed me. Um, well, and of course, during the process, my mother died. She died just before I had to turn the book in. 

And I had essentially written everything because I knew she was dying and I didn't know what would happen and what the timeframe would look like, but I was able to open myself up dramatically between the time that she died, really, the month and a half I had to turn the book in. I was able to reorganize it and to pull things out of myself, maybe that I couldn't say in front of her.

Judith: Did you talk to her about the book? 

Esther: She lived with us for the last three and a half years of her life. 

Esther: Um. She knew I was writing a book, but at that point in her life, and she was almost 99, um, you know, she knew that people in our family wrote books. 

Judith: It's just what you do.

Esther: It’s what we do. So I would try to talk to her. Um.  When she moved from her apartment to our house, I knew that she had documents and she would only periodically give me things, uh, sparingly. I would go into her house and I'd suddenly find something new in a drawer. And I know she left it for me to find, she did everything with a lot of intentionality. And when she was moving, uh, the last visit, I said, we're coming to clean out the apartment, and we were doing things. And then I said, well, I know you have a box of letters and I want it. I want to know where it is. And she said, Oh, I don't know. And I said, I, you know, my mother knew she, her mind was great. And so I said, well, let's just sit down on the bed and you think about it, but we're not gonna move until we find it. And we sat there and we sat there and finally she said, on the top shelf of the closet, on the right. And in it, I found, um, so many things that were revealing about her, and also about my family. And I knew that she had my father's suicide notes. She wouldn't have thrown them out, and they were there, labeled with the date. Everything was in envelopes, carefully labeled. It was something that most of my life I wanted to find and I knew existed. 

Judith: It's such an image of two strong women just trying to wait each other out. 

Esther: And that was exactly what it was. I write in the book that in many ways we were, now my mother's gone, but we were four generations of memory keepers and story tellers. And I'm watching my grandchildren take that on. My oldest granddaughter, Sadie, when she was about ten, she was in my home office where everything is packed up in boxes and there are lots of pictures and they're not labeled because I know who they are. And she looked at me and she said, grandma, how will I know who these people are.  And I realized I had to tell her. 

Judith: One of the things I remember being in your house is you have this whole line of jars, your memory jars.

Esther: Right. Maybe the first jars were when I went to Ukraine and I thought, what do you bring back from a place like this? And I brought back dirt from each of the mass graves where my family was. And I didn't quite know what to do with them, but I labeled them and they're now in identical jars. They're almost an art installation. Uh, and then I started traveling and I thought, well, this is all I need to bring back. It's a piece… it's a piece of the place that I was.  And then ultimately, when my mother died, um, the night before her funeral, I remembered the jar I had of dirt from where her family was buried. And I took that to the cemetery and buried it with her. 

Judith: There were so many moments like that in this book where if this were a novel, I would say there were some pieces that were almost too on the nose, like you couldn't believe it was real. Right? You know, the timing of your mother's death sort of bringing closure to the book was like that, but also there was, there were so many stories. There's one I remember of the pear tree in the shtetl that everything else burned and the pear tree survived and continued to bear fruit, and it's like, you know, the metaphor is too perfect.

Esther: You know, you have to look for meaning. I think there's meaning everywhere and you have to look for it. And I'm somebody who looks for it. And that pear tree, here I was standing with the Ukrainian descendants of the family that hid my father in this tiny village that doesn't, that has a dirt road with puddles in it. And I'm thinking, I've got to take leaves from this pear tree. This is what I have to bring back. And I'm ripping the leaves off the pear tree. And I'm sure they're thinking, who is this crazy American. But I'm not coming back, I want those leaves. And that was my memory of that place. 

Judith: Yeah. Let's talk a little bit about this question of sort of writing and memory and you know, fiction and memoir. So you mentioned your son, Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Everything is Illuminated, in which, you know, a young man also named Jonathan Safran Foer goes in search of his grandfather's village and the family that saved him from the Nazis. So in some ways, your book sort of lives in this relationship with his fictional rendering of your search for Trochenbrod. So how did you think about that as you were writing this book in terms of like the relationship between fact and fiction or the relationship between history and imagination? And, you know, did you feel like you were in dialogue in that way? Were you, or were you just sort of putting, trying to put together the pieces of the story in a, in a, in your own kind of factual way?

Esther: It's an interesting question about fiction because when he came back and wrote that book, he gave me back Trochenbrod and he gave me back a piece of my father, even though it wasn't real. And that's meaningful. And it's because the facts aren't all there, the feelings were, the emotions were there. Um, for me, he of course, opened the door to finding reality, but he gave me so much in writing that book, besides my ability to find the true story. In, in the writing of this, um, I came across what is probably not a curious fact, but was to me, that Jews are described as a people of memory, not history.  How important it is to have those individual stories. That memory is in the Bible hundreds of times: Remember, remember, remember. And are those stories all exactly right? Probably not. Did I get everything exactly right? Probably not. But I have captured the story, the emotion, the feeling, and captured it for future generations.

Judith: Yeah. I mean, it reminds me of, I forget who said that, just because something didn't happen doesn't mean it's not true.  And, you know, it's a heavy, heavy story. Obviously it's a story with a lot of loss and a lot of destruction, a lot of things that are almost unspeakable. 

Esther: Right.

Judith: But there's also a lot of humor and a lot of love. And ultimately it's really a very optimistic story, do you see it that way? Did you set out to write it that way? Does that just come through? Cause you're an optimistic person? 

Esther: I did. It's not the way I set out to write it, but it's the way the story evolved. Uh, it's, it is who I am. Uh, and that was a gift that mostly my mother gave me. Um. Yeah. When we went to Ukraine, I had met somebody who had made a similar trip and he had written a book and he said, at the end of my trip, I put the book down on the ground and my driver said, why are you doing that? It's going to just blow away. And he said, I wanted to leave something of myself there. And so I started thinking about that and I thought, well, I want to leave something of myself too. And what I decided to leave, we do a family Rosh Hashanah card, which I am really proud of, and it's of our growing family. And the first year we did it, probably we had one son, and now we have six grandchildren and they're all there.

Judith: There's nothing more optimistic than that. 

Esther: There's nothing more optimistic. And so I thought, well, this is what I'm going to leave behind. I'm going to walk to the mass graves of my grandmothers who didn't know that anybody from their family survived and be able to say, here we are. Yep. We're still here.

Judith: And you have these moments in the book of just every, all the places where you deposit them and then people finding them. 

Esther: Well, so it was, so, first of all, you don't have to borrow a fork from the hotel to figure out how to dig, how to dig these, uh, dig up the dirt and try to stuff it in. It was sort of like going to the wailing wall and, and stuffing your prayer into it. Uh, and then two years later, I got two different emails from, from people, Ukrainians, who were our tour guides and drivers, who found it. One person found it and then put it into plastic so it would be preserved. This is two years after we'd been there through Ukrainian winters and snow and rain. And then I got another picture from somebody who sent it-- now in the plastic. It's so, yes, we are still there. 

Judith: It's a great symbol of the resilience of your family. And, um, and I, and I love that the Ukrainian tour guide was putting it in plastic cause it also like speaks to the role that they play and all of this as well. 

Esther: They do have a role in the story. Yeah. They're not taught the story. There's, in school, they're not taught about the Holocaust. They, they kept describing it as the problem. Uh, and that's how they saw it. But once you interact and you, it becomes a human interaction and you understand each other, then they absorb part of your story and you absorb part of theirs.

Judith: I’m thinking about what you're saying about sort of Ukrainians, not even having the language to talk about it, to talk about the Holocaust and just calling it the problem, and then what it is to write into that and to say, I'm going to, I'm going to give this language. I'm gonna shape it. I'm gonna give an, in some ways, you gave the story back to them too.

Esther. Right, right. And you know, these terrible things obviously happened to my family, to millions, literally millions of Jews, Jewish children, Jewish adults. But it also happened to Ukrainians and Poles and they lived through some difficult times, not what we lived through. But we have to remember that. 

Judith: You mentioned earlier that your mother was a big believer in luck.

Esther: Yeah.  It was always about moving forward and she was hoping to find luck. Um, I can remember sitting in the grass with her looking for four leaf clovers, uh, which I still have. I found recently I had pasted them all onto a sheet and I've just had them framed.  And, um, it's really kind of precious to have them. Was it luck or was it optimism and looking ahead and trying to find a better life? Yeah. She came, she came from a shtetl. She was superstitious.  But I think it was mostly about looking ahead and trying to find luck and making luck. And she was hoping she'd find it in these places, but mostly she was making her luck. 

Judith: I love the idea of making luck cause I think, you know, we think of luck as something that happens to you and that it's about the things that we have no control over.  But I love that your mom sort of took agency over luck. Right. And said, and I mean, she clearly was somebody who knew how to do that, but you know that the idea of kind of being able to like grab hold of luck and make it work for you as opposed to just waiting passively for it to come.

Esther: Well, I think there's a lot about this story that was grabbing onto opportunity. How is it that I met these people? How is it that I found one person after another who led me to another story? It was, I'd find a tidbit and I’d seize it. And I think that's what you need to do. 

Judith: So you said in the beginning that this story was really a search that was part of your life for decades. So what does it feel like now to have committed it to paper and be putting it out there in the world? 

Esther: Well, it's a little bit nerve wracking. Uh, you know, the idea, I've lived with this for the two and a half years that it took me to write it. Something I didn't know that I could do. And when I was done with it, I was so pleased. It gave me such a sense of inner satisfaction and peace, being able to write about things that I could never speak about most of my adult life, but now I'm putting it out into the world and I'm a little uneasy about that. Um. But very gratified that I was able to do it and how it'll be accepted almost doesn't matter at this point. I did it for myself, and mostly I did it for, I did it for my parents and my ancestors, and I did it for my grandchildren and my descendants.

Judith: Your book is just a tremendous invitation to people to ask questions and to tell stories and to, really recognize the gift that it is to families when we do. So thank you. 

Esther: Thank you. 

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Nahanni: That was Judith Rosenbaum speaking with Esther Safran Foer about her new memoir called, I Want You To Know We’re Still Here. It’s of the reads on this year’s Jewish Women’s Archive book club list.  If you’d like to be part of the club, visit jwa.org/bookclub. And speaking of family stories… do you have a story to tell, or someone whose story you'd love to capture? Download Story Aperture. That’s JWA's new mobile app that puts the power of story-collecting in your hands. Inside the app you’ll find suggestions and prompts for recording your own story, or conducting an interview. You can save stories in the app and upload directly to JWA's archives. Download from your app store, record, and share today! Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Sarah Ventre provided editing assistance. Our team also includes Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You can find Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts…. Please take a moment to review us on iTunes, and share your favorite episodes with your friends so that others can find us.  If you’d like to help us produce more episodes of Can We Talk?, please go to jwa.org/donate to make a contribution. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous.  Be well, until next time.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 39: Esther Safran Foer: We're Still Here (Transcript)." (Viewed on September 24, 2023) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-39-esther-safran-foer-were-still-here/transcript>.


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