Why memory matters: ‘I Want You to Know We’re Still Here’ by Esther Safran Foer
April 13, 2020
This book’s subtitle is My family, the Holocaust and my search for truth. It is about momentous events in history (WWII, Nazi-occupied Europe and the Holocaust) but also about one family, their stories, and memory – the role it plays in defining us as individuals, as families and as a people. On the very first page the author sets the scene:
I am the offspring of Holocaust survivors, which, by definition, means there is a tragic and complicated history.
I want you to know we’re still here p3
The title refers to her stated aim in writing the book: to let her ancestors know that they were not forgotten and that the family lives on. Later, she writes, How I wished they could see all the good that came later: the births, bar mitzvahs, the graduations and weddings, the great- and great-great grandchildren. (p179) A lovely moment comes at the end of the book, when at a gathering of the now large extended family living in America, one of her grandchildren quips Take that, Hitler! (p223)
In the pages of this thought-provoking exploration of what it means to survive, to make decisions about whether to walk away from the past, to learn about it or to silence it, the author traces her own personal experiences. She knew that her parents had memories too terrible to commit to words (p8), she’d seen photos of long-dead relatives who had no direct descendants to tell their stories, and she embarked on the complicated path to tracing her father’s life. This involved meeting and speaking to many people who had knowledge of or a connection with her extended family, her parents, grandparents and others. She travelled to Ukraine to visit the site of the village that had once stood in the countryside and was populated by many Jewish families, but later destroyed after the Jewish residents were murdered. Poignantly she was able to track down and finally meet family and descendants of the man who had hidden her father from the Nazis and thus saved his life.
There is so much to think about in this book. The author’s personal experiences and reflections are moving. They also touch on issues that resonated with me, an Australian reader with no direct connection with the events described. Reading about the theory of ‘postmemory’ first introduced by an American woman called Marianne Hirsch, I was prompted to consider the experiences of indigenous Australians since European invasion and colonisation. For example:
The idea is that traumatic memories live on from one generation to the next, even if the later generation was not there to experience these events directly…the stories one grows up with are transmitted so affectively that they seem to constitute memories in their own right…these inherited memories – traumatic fragments of events – defy narrative reconstruction.
I want you to know we’re still here p23
This description is also true of the inter-generational trauma experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, from the numerous deaths by disease, the theft of land, the massacres, the policies of forced removal from livelihoods and families, and the incarcerations visited upon indigenous Australians during these years. (There are many indigenous authors who have published works of fiction and non fiction that explore some of the ways postmemory might well be a concept relevant to the Australian situation, including Melissa Lukashenko, (my review of Too Much Lip here) Tara June Winch (The Yield), Tony Birch (The White Girl), Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu), and Archie Roach (Tell Me Why), among many others.)
There are some terrible events described in this book, including murders of men, women and children, mass graves, the theft of clothing and valuables from those killed, other atrocities committed by the Nazis or those who did their bidding. There are also moments of light, love and honourable behaviour, including this reflection:
From a Jewish perspective, action is what counts. You do the right thing. The feelings come later.
I want you to know we’re still here p222
For me, that’s a sentiment impossible to argue against.
I Want You to Know We’re Still Here will be published in Australia by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins, on 20 April 2020. Thanks to the publisher for the advance copy to read and review.