Daughters of Holocaust survivors uncover old stories in new memoirs

Jews place a premium on remembering, and particularly so when it comes to the Holocaust. But how can we recall what we never learned? Two outstanding new memoirs by daughters of Holocaust survivors focus on uncovering the stories of tragedy and survival that were not passed down to them.

Esther Safran Foer, the author of “I Want You To Know We’re Still Here,” was born in 1946 to two survivors from western Ukraine who had lost their entire families to the Nazis and their accomplices. After spending several years in a displaced persons camp, the family immigrated to the United States. But when Esther was 8, her father committed suicide — an act she ascribes to the continuing pain of what he had endured.

Her mother’s avoidance of discussing Esther’s father was part of the “general silence in my family about the past.” It was not until Esther was in her 40s that she learned that her father had been married prior to World War II, and that both his wife and child — Esther’s half-sister — had been killed.

Stunned by this revelation, she would begin to pursue genealogical research with a vengeance.

This desire for knowledge helped inspire her son, Jonathan Safran Foer, to travel to Ukraine, as part of a college senior thesis project, to search for the story behind a photograph of someone who had likely saved his grandfather. That trip would form the basis of his 2002 bestselling novel “Everything Is Illuminated.”

While Jonathan’s excursion led to a memorable work of fiction, it did not answer the family’s questions about its past. Eventually, Esther decided to make her own trip to her parents’ former world, along with another son, Frank. A key stop was her father’s shtetl of Trochenbrod, recorded in “Everything Is Illuminated” — an entirely Jewish town that was destroyed with such intention that it is today a field that contains virtually no trace of having been inhabited by 5,000 residents a century ago.

The journey took Esther not only to places but to people who might be able to locate the Ukrainian Christians who had sheltered her father and help her learn the identity of her murdered half-sister. Her discoveries might not have been possible if she had waited another decade to undertake her search.

The book testifies to the amount of determination and work — including document research, DNA testing, pursuing distant relatives and visiting places around the globe — that can go into recovering a family history, and it is daunting. And yet the result is profoundly healing.

This is equally palpable in Ariana Neumann’s “When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains.”

Hans Neumann was a successful industrialist in Venezuela. His daughter Ariana, born in Caracas in 1971, had little conception of her father’s early life in Czechoslovakia, of which he did not speak, nor had she reason to think he was not Catholic.

I tricked them. I lived.

On a 1991 visit to Prague, Ariana was perusing the listing in the city’s Pinkas Synagogue of the more than 77,000 Czech Jews killed in the Holocaust and came upon her father’s name and birthdate. Where the date of death should have been, there was simply a question mark. Realizing that the man presumed dead was her father, she called him. He chuckled before remarking, “I tricked them. I lived.”

Even after Ariana’s discovery, Hans never opened up about his early life to his daughter, insisting that the past should remain in the past. But after his death in 2001, Ariana was surprised to learn that he had bequeathed to her a box filled with documents and letters that revealed the truth.

Hans had grown up in an assimilated Jewish family in Prague. After the city fell under Nazi rule in 1939, he did not report for the mandatory deportation. Rather, after considering various escape plans, he boldly devised to hide in plain sight. Using forged documents, he traveled to Berlin and worked for a paint manufacturer that was supporting the Nazi war effort — a factory in which workers greeted each other with the words “Heil Hitler.” Living in fear (and carrying cyanide just in case), he managed to survive the war, eventually leaving for Venezuela.

It is powerful to witness the author, who grew up without an inkling of this heritage, engage in an extraordinary act of reconstruction.

Some of the richness in the book’s narrative derives from an unfinished memoir that Hans had embarked on, which was included in the box Ariana inherited. Also helping tell the story are letters written by Hans’ parents which were smuggled out of Terezin (Theresienstadt) during their many months there.

One figure who shines is Zdenka, a non-Jewish woman who had married Hans’ brother Lotar. Helping the family in numerous ways, Zdenka twice managed to smuggle herself into and out of Terezin to bring her in-laws goods and encouragement (they would eventually be deported to Auschwitz, where they were killed).

Both Safran Foer and Neumann depict the experience of living in the shadow of what the former terms a “family canon of unspeak­able stories.” These experiences define a family’s identity, as does the act of suppressing them.

While it is absolutely understandable that those who endured hell would choose silence over reliving and passing down traumatic memories, it is a great blessing that these essential stories have been recovered and shared.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.