Off the Shelf: Family and finding a home by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

How do people determine what city or country feels like home? This question was raised by two recent memoirs: “I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir” by Esther Safran Foer (Tim Duggan Books) and “I Belong to Vienna: A Jewish Family’s Story of Exile and Return” by Anna Goldenberg (New Vessel Press). Foer, who was born in Europe to Holocaust survivors, notes how her mother – who refused ever to set foot in Ukraine once safe in the U.S. – feared for Foer’s safety when she traveled to that country in 2009. Goldenberg writes of how her Austrian grandparents, who lived through World War II, chose to return permanently to Vienna after spending time in the United States. Reading the books felt like a study in contrasts. 

The impetus for the memoirs was different for each writer. Foer is looking to uncover family history; the author was in her 40s when she learned that her father had had a previous family, a wife and daughter who perished in the Holocaust. She wants to learn about her half-sister, but it is too late to speak to her father, who committed suicide because he simply could not survive in America. Goldenberg, on the other hand, explores why her family has felt such a close connection to Vienna, even after the treatment they received during the war. She knows much more about her grandfather Hansi’s story than those of other members of the family. Hansi, who survived the war by hiding in the apartment of a family friend, wrote about his experiences, which were not typical. Since Hansi didn’t look Jewish, he was able to roam the city, including spending time in the library and attending the opera. 

Although both authors lost family to the Nazis, Foer is far more haunted by the loss. She lists family names, but wishes she could uncover more details about their lives, even as she continues to search through databases and meets people who knew them. She continues to use her maiden name, Safran, so it will not disappear – the last name Safran Foer might be familiar to readers of the books written by two of her sons, Jonathan and Joshua. Foer’s mother did not have an easy adjustment to life after the war, particularly mourning the fact that she never said goodbye to her own mother and sister. As a child, Foer felt it was her responsibility to bring her mother joy, especially after the death of her father. 

After years of research, Foer decides she needs to travel to Ukraine to see the country herself and visit the sites where her relatives lived and died. She is accompanied by her son, Franklin, a historian, who helps her to understand what she sees. It is an extremely emotional trip, particularly when she and Franklin visit the mass grave where her grandmother, great-grandmother and too many other relatives for her to count are buried. Between her research and her journey, she learns enough about her family, including her half-sister, to give her some feeling of relief and understanding. But it is being with her husband, sons and six grandchildren that gives meaning to her life and helps carry on her family’s legacy. 

While Foer concentrates on the losses her family faced, Goldenberg focuses on her family’s love of Vienna and Hansi’s connection to Josef Feldner, the man who saved his life – the man whose last name he took after the war. In fact, the author repeats her grandparents’ saga, as they both traveled to work in the U.S. and returned to Vienna. Goldenberg returned because she missed her close-knit family. For Hansi, it was a combination of several things. After experiencing prejudice first-hand in Europe, he and his wife were disturbed by the racial discrimination and segregation even black physicians experienced in the U.S. While his wife became fluent in English, Hansi never felt at home in the language. Not being able to express himself or to understand others made him extremely uncomfortable. The most important reason, though, may have been that Hansi could not desert Feldner. He knew that, while he might have finally been able to settle in the U.S., the man who was like a father to him could not. The two had become very close over the years and Feldner had been a major influence on the direction Hansi’s life took after the war. That connection could not be broken.

Goldenberg notes that when Hansi wrote of his experiences during the war, he didn’t seem frightened or unsettled during the time he was hiding. The opposite was felt by Foer’s mother, who, in her old age, was still afraid of the treatment a Jew might receive in Ukraine. The allure of Vienna seemed to override what the Germans and Austrians had done to Jews during the war. Hansi had the opportunity to know people who were willing to protect him and to separate the culture of Vienna from the people who lived there. Foer’s mother only knew fear. Ukraine was not always hospitable to Jews before the war and there was no reason for her to think that had changed. The U.S., while not perfect, offered more safety. 

Book club members and readers who enjoy seeing two sides of an issue should find it interesting to read “I Want You to Know We’re Still Here” and “I Belong to Vienna” together. The stories complement each other, while, at the same time, showing the different directions people’s lives took in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust.