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The Whole Spiel

Ukrainian Connections

by Esther Safran Foer, Author and Capital Jewish Museum Board Member
April 6, 2022

Ukraine, where my family lived for generations and where most of them were murdered, is in its fight for survival.  These past weeks I have been glued to our TVs watching history’s sad drama playout in real time.

For me this is personal. My mother and father were born here, so were my grandparents and great-grandparents. It was where I went in 2009 to seek out the missing pieces of my family story. It is where I learned more details of their lives; it is where I learned about the half-sister whose very name I didn’t know. It is where I had the opportunity to come to terms with the tragedy and understand the strength of the human struggle for survival.

There is considerable research on how the trauma of Holocaust survivors impact their children and even grandchildren. And, much of that is true. We know how our parents struggled to survive and it may haunt us, but I have also learned, particularly from the remarkable example of my mother, what it means not only to be a survivor but to find values in a life of resilience.

Book cover for Foer's "I Want You to Know We're Still Here" and features a black and white photo of a smiling young woman holding a young child.

About 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, numbers almost impossible to absorb. But it is the personal stories, knowing what happened to actual, warm blooded individuals that makes history real. It is why I ultimately needed to write a book about my journey to Ukraine.

It was on my own trip to Ukraine that I finally came face to face with the tragedy and strength of my family history. I wanted to find the Christian family that had hid my father during the Holocaust at risk to their lives. And, I wanted to breathe the air and walk the roads that my parents and ancestors had walked.

My ancestors were murdered in Eastern Europe by Nazi Einsatzgruppen – German mobile killing squads. Of the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust, between 1.5 and 2 million were killed by the Einsatzgruppen, in what is often called “Holocaust by Bullets.” Gas chambers came later.

My great-grandfather was one of the first people in his community to be killed by the Nazis while he was praying in the synagogue. Nazi’s locked the synagogue doors from the outside torching the synagogue and everyone inside. In the month’s ahead my parent’s entire family — parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, and my half-sister were also murdered.

My mother had escaped death by continually moving east, ahead of the Nazis. I’ll come back to this part of her story. When she returned home toward the end of the war, she met my father shortly after he came out of hiding. They married and spent several years trying to get out of the graveyard of Europe.

I knew nothing about how my father’s life was spared. Only as an adult, I found out, almost by accident, that Nazis murdered his first wife and daughter, and how he escaped by the pure accident of timing.

Finally, in 2009 my oldest son, Frank, and I drove to the village where my father and his family had lived – where my nameless half-sister had been murdered. We used our one piece of forensic evidence, a photograph of my father and the family that hid him, to identify the house of the man who had taken my father in, after my father’s family and all the other Jews in village was murdered.

In that house, I met two generations of the Ukrainian family that saved my father’s life, and without whom neither Frank nor I would have ever appeared on this earth. After some sharing of our stories, an old woman named Anna emerged from a near-by house, her head wrapped in a scarf, walking awkwardly with a knotty cane. She went close to Frank and ran her fingers over his eye brows – and remarked that they were just like his grandfather’s. And then she pointed to the field across the road and said my father had played ball with his daughter, right there. My sister had long dark hair, she said. This is the first time I’d ever heard anyone talk about my sister – much less tell what she looked like. Then Anna gave me a piece of information I thought I would never have. She looked and me and said — “your sister’s name was Asya.”

Asya is buried in a mass grave in a village in Ukraine. I will never know my sister. But her memory now lives on. I put her information into the Yad Vashem data base of Holocaust victims. I say kaddish, a prayer for the dead, for her. And, today I have a beautiful 4 year old granddaughter who will proudly tell you that her name is “Bea Asya Foer.” Asya’s memory lives on now in another human being.

History, which we thought dead and buried in unmarked graves in Europe, suddenly reached out and wrapped its arms around me. And, it is wrapping its arms around me now as I watch another invasion of Ukraine and the recent bombing of Babi Yar, the sight of one of the largest mass killings where over 30,000 Jews had been murdered in just two days. Have we learned nothing?

But I want to tell you another family story, a story that has become the foundational tale of my family’s existence. It is a story of survivorship, resilience, and hope.

As my teenager mother, Ethel, watched the Nazi’s parachuting into her small town, without apparent forethought, she made the decision to flee. She went back to her house, grabbing a pair of scissors, a change of clothes and her winter coat – despite that fact it was a warm day in June. She never even said goodbye to her mother – something that haunted my mother the remainder of her life.

A recurring question from her children and grandchildren was, why did she leave and what made her decide to take of all things the coat and scissors? Her answer was always the same — luck and intuition – and indeed it was. But it was more. It was strength and courage.

Her younger sister Pesha ran after her and handed her own shoes, in case she needed an extra pair. Pesha told Ethel she was lucky to be leaving. Pesha at 16 years was murdered soon after, as was every other member of my mother’s family.

In the 3 years after fleeing her home, my mother mostly walked through Poland and through Russia – all the way to Uzbekistan, sometimes getting a ride — and then when it seemed relatively safe, she made her way back again, hoping to find someone in her family alive. Her body could barely sustain the 2,600 mile trip – the distance from New York to California. She watched many others die along the way. Her legs would swell and sores covered her body, sometimes requiring help to dress from the girlfriend who fled with her. She nourished herself with stolen potatoes, expertly hidden in the lining of her pants. She worked in rice patties in Asia and always tried to save a few grains for the days when she had no food.

My mother, under 5 feet tall, later turned her American basement into a well-stocked bunker filled with enough bags of flour, sugar and boxes of Rice Krispies to withstand any catastrophe. Her life is a testament to cunning, courage, and contingency. She told us about tragedy, but taught us about the ability to be a resilient survivor. She imparted these qualities into her children, grandchildren and even her great-grandchildren.

My mother had a wonderful laugh – her drive to survive the Holocaust was an expression of her instinct to survive even more tragedy after the war with my father’s death by suicide shortly after we came to the US. Her presence was full of life – filling used coffee tins with her famous sugar cookies for each of her grandchildren. Collecting quarters to send to her grandchildren in college for their anticipated laundry.

She was a Holocaust survivor who taught me to understand that if something isn’t a matter of life or death you can figure out how to deal with it.

Even at the end, at almost 99 when her body withered, she was still the grateful survivor. She thanked us for every sip of water and every stroke of her hair. The only regret that I ever heard was that she never said goodbye to her mother. Perhaps this is one reason why I named my post-Holocaust memoir, I Want You to Know We Are Still Here.

As a postscript, during the past weeks I have had an on-going email conversation with the great granddaughter of the Ukrainian man who saved my father. For several nights she was emailing from a subway shelter in Kyiv, and she is now in a village with her family. I am telling her that if worse comes to worst, she can stay with my family. It is only appropriate. She, too, will need to be a resilient survivor.

Foer was the CEO of Sixth & I, a center for arts, ideas, and religion. She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, Bert. She is the author of I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A post-Holocaust Memoir.