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Author Discusses Her 'Post-Holocaust Memoir'


The beginning of a new memoir begins with a fact that may surprise many people. There's no word in Hebrew that translates precisely to the English word history. The words used instead really mean memory.

The line between history and memory is at the heart of Esther Safran Foer's new book, "I Want You To Know We're Still here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir." In it, she tries to piece together what happened to her parents before they arrived in the U.S. from Europe in 1949. Relying on people's memories, a faded photograph and historical records, Safran Foer returns to the small Ukrainian town to try to find the family that hid her father from the Nazis. And Esther Safran Foer is with us now - remotely, unfortunately. But we're glad to be together.

Welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

ESTHER SAFRAN FOER: Thank you for having me. I think this is such an important story right now. You know, it's a story about the Holocaust. It's a story about family. But it's also very much a story of resilience, of courage in the face of difficulty. And that makes it so poignant and timely right now.

MARTIN: You call this a post-Holocaust memoir. Why do you call it that?

FOER: Well, it's not just the story of the Holocaust. It's what happened after. It's certainly about tragedy, about how many members of my family were lost, whose names are only recorded in this book. But it's also about life and resilience and about the fact that our family is here, that we have six grandchildren, that the pictures in our annual family photo include more and more members every year. And that's the positive message - we are here.

MARTIN: A good part of the memoir is the story of your parents and how they both survived the Holocaust and made their way to the United States and eventually to Washington, D.C. You know, I think a lot of people who've grown up since Steven Spielberg's epic, you know, "Schindler's List," and people who've grown up knowing that there's a Holocaust Museum, that they can visit and learn about these things, will be surprised to know how little that generation spoke of those times.

You said in the book that for years, you really didn't know very much about their story. Talk about that, if you would.

FOER: Holocaust survivors - in some way, they couldn't themselves deal with the pain of what happened to them. But they also didn't want to inflict that pain on their children and their grandchildren. I spent a good bit of growing up with my mother, each protecting each other - stories that she wouldn't tell me, things I wanted to ask but I didn't dare ask for fear of this woman who had suffered so much, bringing more suffering on her.

MARTIN: You write in the book, outlasting the war didn't really mean you had survived. And that seemed to really play out in the life of your father, who took his own life when you were just 8 years old. Do you remember, when you were growing up, what did you know about him?

FOER: I think the book is really in some ways my search for him. We couldn't - in the same way that we couldn't talk about the sadness and the stories of what happened during the Holocaust, I didn't dare ask my mother about my father. And in writing this book and going back to Ukraine to see the places he lived, to hear about his first family - he had a wife and daughter before the Holocaust - that was really my way of coming to terms with my father and trying to understand who he was and why he killed himself.

Of course, I'll never really know why he killed himself. But in my mind, I'm convinced that the Holocaust really killed him.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit, if you would, about the things that you went through to piece this story together? I have to say that, you know, I was just fascinated by this. I mean, on the one hand, this is a - I mean, this story is like so many other stories of survivors. I mean, it's terrible in its details, and yet it is magnificent in the fact, as you say in the title, that you survived, and you're still here, and that the family tree survived. But the story of how you pieced all that together is crazy.

What really cracked me up, I must have to tell you, is the nicknames - is that part of the reason that this is hard to find is that a lot of the people in the small towns didn't really go by their proper names. They went by nicknames. So would you just talk a little bit about some of the things that you went through to track this story down?

FOER: Well, what I had was this tiny photo that my mother had kept that had my father and, my mother said, the people that she understood had saved him. And it was actually the very same photo that I gave our middle son, Jonathan Foer, when he went to Ukraine and ended up writing a novel, "Everything Is Illuminated." But ultimately, because he wrote that novel, and it became a best-seller and a movie, people started to come to me, and they'd go, well, that's not true. That's not what really happened.

And I kept talking to these people and saying, well, did you know my father, Louis Safran? And there were - no, they didn't because in these small towns - well, first of all, it was only recently that people in Eastern Europe in these villages had last names. But they were called by their nickname. And finally, somebody said to me, oh, you mean Labald (ph) from Liescht (ph)?

And it was those kinds of small pieces that I was - I felt like a real detective. And ultimately, as you'll see in the book, I hired an FBI agent to analyze the photographs of the people that somebody in Ukraine had sent me of the family they thought hid my father and the picture that my mother had that had survived all those years. And this FBI agent, who is one of the world's leading forensic photographic experts, said, you know, I can't tell you it's them. And he said, but I can't tell you it's not them.

And ultimately, he gave me a very important clue. He said, when you go to Ukraine, look at the clothes that people are wearing in photographs. These people didn't have huge wardrobes. And if you could find them wearing the same clothes, that'll be a good sign of identification. And he was absolutely right.

MARTIN: We've talked about the fact that for so many of your mother's generation, this was - and for you, I mean, the legacy of that was that your life was haunted, you know, by the presence of absence. Now that you've had this journey, I mean, what does it mean to you? And I do want to mention that you've had a very successful life in the United States. You've had a very distinguished career as a sort of a cultural leader in Washington, D.C. Your sons are successful writers and - in their fields. I mean, it's quite a remarkable story.

But this was missing. I mean, as I said, this - you grew up with these vast gaps. Now that you've been able to fill some of those gaps, what does this mean to you?

FOER: You know, one of my sons asked me recently - he said, well, do you think you found the truth? And I said, I don't know if I'll ever know the whole truth. But I have found what I needed. Will I continue searching? Of course.

But for years, I watched - well, I watched Jonathan take this trip to Ukraine. Our oldest son, Frank, who's a journalist, was the first one to interview my mother. I kept encouraging them to do this because I didn't have the courage to do it myself. And it was only at this point in my life that I decided I had to do it. I had to own this story. I had to share the story, and I think it's brought me a peace

MARTIN: Before we let you go, there are people around the world right now who are displaced, who are being traumatized by war, by distance, by so many other challenges. And I just wonder if you feel your story has resonance for people who are not Jewish, who don't share this particular history and memory. What do you think it might be?

FOER: I so much feel connected to them. I came here as a 2 1/2-year-old refugee. We snuck into this country under the 1948 DP Immigration Act, which was blatantly anti-Semitic, and we had to falsify documents to get here. I feel their pain. I identify with the refugees. And I hope that this will give them hope. And I hope that I can actively be involved in helping give them hope.

MARTIN: Esther Safran Foer's new book is "I Want You To Know We're Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir."

Esther Safran Foer, thank you so much for talking with us. And I wish you the very best for the upcoming holiday.

FOER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.