WHEN Esther Safran Foer told her Holocaust survivor mother, Ethel, that she had organised a trip to Ukraine, her reaction was to be as expected.
After all, it was the country where the families of her mother and father were murdered in the Holocaust.
Esther and her eldest son, Franklin, planned to travel to Ukraine in an effort to track down the people who hid her father, Louis Safran, during the Shoah.
“The hardest thing was calling my mother, even though I knew I had to tell her where I was going because I could not just disappear for 10 days,” Esther told me from her home in Washington DC.
“When I told her, she screamed into the phone, ‘how could you do this to me? How could you leave me?’.
“In her mind, everyone had left her and now I was leaving her, too.
“It was the worst thing in the world for her; her daughter going back to the place where the worst things in the world happened.
“It was even worse when I told her I was taking Frank.”
Esther and her son made the journey in 2009, aiming to locate Trachenbrod, the shtetl her father came from, as well as trying to discover more about her father’s first wife and daughter, who were murdered in the Holocaust.
Esther’s search for any information about her parents’ lives led her to writing I Want You To Know We Are Still Here: My Family, The Holocaust And My Search For Truth (HQ, £20).
The 73-year-old was born in Lodz, Poland, and raised in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany until she moved with her parents to America when she was two.
Growing up with her brother Julian, the family’s first language at home was Yiddish.
“I once asked my mother why didn’t she teach us Polish, Russian or Ukrainian, which were all languages she spoke, but the unifying language in the DP camp was Yiddish,” Esther recalled.
During the Second World War, her mother, who was born in Kolki, in present-day Poland, fled as far as Uzbekistan, working on farms and in factories.
Her father, whose life “back home” was shrouded in mystery, committed suicide when Esther was just eight.
It was not uncommon for survivors, even years later, to be woken in the night having endured nightmares over what they went through.
“I always believed it was those nightmares that drove him to his end,” Esther said.
“My mother used to say she could see visions of her mother or sister, but if she had nightmares she kept them to herself — she was always about moving forward.”
The horrors her parents endured also affected Esther, too, even to this day.
“I am blessed with a fairly optimistic personality, so while the ghosts have always been there, they have not ruled my life,” she explained.
“Saying that, I was with one of my six beautiful grandchildren and he was crying uncontrollably.
“I suddenly had a thought, ‘my God, if we were in hiding in the ghetto right now, how would we make him be quiet?’.”
Named by Forward magazine as one of the 50 most influential Jews in America, Esther is a former president of a public relations firm, and spent a decade as chief executive of the Sixth & I synagogue in Washington DC.
It was her retirement from the latter which led to her penning the book, as well as her being conscious of her mother’s advanced years.
“I knew there were family stories, pieces, that I had to put together and, if they were to be preserved, then it was up to me,” mother-of-three Esther continued.
“It was about preserving the past for the sake of the future.
“It is also about bearing witness for those who had no other witnesses.
“We know that six million Jews were murdered, but it was probably more.
“Saying that, I didn’t want the book to be just about tragedy — as the title states, we are still here and our family has grown and thrived in the United States.
“You do see the tragedy, but you also see the hope and resilience, from which we have gained strength.”
Esther had her Eureka moment when her middle son, Jonathan, was assigned his senior project in high school.
Knowing some of her parents’ background, she suggested interviewing her mother about her life before she emigrated to America.
That planted the seed for what became Jonathan’s bestselling book Everything Is Illuminated, which was published in 2002.
Three years later, it was adapted into a film of the same name, starring Elijah Wood.
“Everything Is Illuminated was my idea, but I didn’t have the courage to write it myself,” Esther recalled.
“Jonathan was going to spend a summer in Prague when he was at university, so I suggested that he went to Ukraine to try and find the family which hid his grandfather.
“I gave him 40 copies of a tattered picture of four people, who were my father, an older man and two women.
“They were the people my mother thought had hidden my father for part of the war.”
Jonathan returned empty-handed, although he did go on to write the critically-acclaimed book.
It was even more of an incentive for Esther, who is married to lawyer Albert Foer, to dig further into her family’s background.
She poured over Holocaust databases, recruited researchers in Ukraine — and even hired a former FBI agent to analyse family photographs.
It led to Esther visiting Ukraine in 2009, where she and Franklin met a group of people whose relatives had lived in Trachenbrod.
She had spoken with Father Patrick Desbois, a French Roman Catholic priest who is the founder of Yahad-In-Unum, an organisation dedicated to locating the sites of mass graves of Jews in the former Soviet Union.
“I wanted to get a sense of how I should approach what felt like a pilgrimage,” Esther said.
“He told me to see people in Ukraine more than once, as they were more likely to remember things the second time around.
“He said that he travelled with a bodyguard, but I felt that would be off putting.”
As for I Want You To Know We Are Still Here, what sets it apart, she explained, is that it does not solely concentrate on the past, as it also describes hopes for the future.
“One person who read it told me that it made them cry, but also laugh out loud,” Esther continued.
“One of the moments I found funny was when we were heading through Trachenbrod in horse-drawn carriages.
“We were among descendants and survivors from America and Israel and, as we drove through a deserted forest, one of them suddenly unfurled a huge Israeli flag.
“Meanwhile, in mine and Frank’s wagon, a young Ukrainian girl unfurled a Ukrainian flag.
“We were horrified that we ended up in the wagon with that particular flag!”
As thorough as Esther, who is also mother to Joshua, was in her research, she knows that she will never find every missing piece in her family’s jigsaw.
“I enjoyed putting the pieces I did find together and I did find a lot more than I ever expected,” she added.
Esther’s mother died in December, 2018, at the age of 98 — and it was only then that she started to write I Want You To Know We Are Still Here.
“I never knew quite how I was going to put it together,” Esther said.
“I would leave drafts of things I had written, but she never had the concentration to read it.
“The day after I had the conversation with her about going to Ukraine, she called me and said, ‘I want you to understand where my fears are coming from’.
“I understood that.”
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