Zibby Owens: I had the privilege of interviewing Esther Safran Foer during the quarantine. She is the author of the beautiful memoir called I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir, which is all about her family and her attempt to record so much that she found. Esther was the CEO of Sixth & I, a center for arts, ideas, and religion. She currently lives in Washington DC with her husband Bert. They are the parents of Franklin, Jonathan, and Joshua, and the grandparents of six. You might recognize her son’s names, Jonathan Safran Foer and Joshua Safran Foer, who are both accomplished, amazing authors in their own right. She is the mom of all three of those boys and wrote this beautiful book. We had such a nice chat during quarantine. I hope you enjoy it and get as much out of it as I did.

Welcome, Esther. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Esther Safran Foer: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I’m so honored to talk to you because I feel like, and maybe this is wrong, but having read your memoir, I feel like now I know you, so now I can dig deeper on some of the things that you talked about that I’m even more interested in knowing.

Esther: Great. Great.

Zibby: Your book is called, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir, which I also thought was sort of an interesting title because it’s so much told from your point of view now. I know it’s about what happened in the past. Tell listeners what your memoir is about and what inspired you to write it.

Esther: I was inspired to deal with my past, to come to terms with my family’s history for myself, but also to preserve their names, which don’t exist anywhere, these people who were killed, to bring at least their names, to record their lives, the fact that they lived. I also did it very much for my family. I am blessed with a wonderful life and have three sons, six grandchildren. I knew that if I didn’t record these stories, they would be lost. I want my children and my grandchildren and their grandchildren to know where they came from. I hope they will lead amazing lives, but they should know what the past of their family was like.

Zibby: It’s part of a bigger story too. It’s not just your family, but it’s really all families need to know this and not forget. I think that’s what makes this so unique. It’s almost like you’re writing a registrar of lost souls and this is your ode to them. It’s so important to do and really amazing.

Esther: The title, I want you to know, We’re Still Here, I hope reflects the pulse of life, that we are a family that suffered the unbearable, the unthinkable in our past, but we’re alive today. We’re thriving. New generations are born, and they’ll remember.

Zibby: In your book you mentioned that on the outside people might see you as this warm smiling woman, but looking at you they wouldn’t know that you have this dark past that you continually wrestle with. Can you talk more about that?

Esther: I was born with this history of this dark past, of this Holocaust past. Somehow, I was also blessed with an optimistic personality. Somehow, I managed to mingle those two. I think the optimism, the resilience, the strength is something in my DNA that came from my mother who was the ultimate survivor. I would be in one of the happiest moments holding a grandchild just overjoyed. Then suddenly, I would think, oh, my god, if we were in the ghetto and he was screaming, what would happen? I’ll have these flashbacks, but I’ll come right back to the happiness of the moment.

Zibby: Wow. Your mother’s story is unbelievable, the way she and a girlfriend walked from basically New York to California, the distance, with one and a half pairs of shoes. It’s just unbelievable, the amount of strength and resilience, and hers is just one of a zillion stories you hear like this. It’s hard to believe as we’re all in quarantine now upset that we can’t go to a restaurant.

Esther: It has so resonated for me right now because I remember — my mother, by the way, was an optimistic, happy person. I think that’s what helped her survive. She was always looking ahead. She wasn’t saying, oh, my god, this is the worst thing and I’ll never make it. She was always imagining that she would make it. She had a cabinet in her kitchen that was stocked with so much sugar and flour and canned vegetables that she could survive any catastrophe. That’s who she was. She was ready to survive, always ready to survive. As a little girl, I remember sitting with her in the grass outside of our apartment and searching for four-leaf clovers. I thought, wow, that’s really odd that that’s what we were doing. She would always tell me that she survived because of luck and intuition. I don’t think it’s just luck. She was looking for luck. She wasn’t waiting for it. She was always looking for it. Somehow, she managed to go forward with that.

Zibby: That’s something that you just can’t teach. Don’t you think? I feel like that’s something that’s just a part of someone’s personality, that perseverance and that optimism. What do you think?

Esther: I totally believe that. I look at my six grandchildren who are still all quite young, and one of them looks like her. From the moment she was a year or two old, we understood that she was really savvy and that she was a survivor. It’s not really a joke, but we’d say, if there’s another Holocaust, she’ll make it. That’s a weird thing to say about a child, but we meant it in the best and most positive way.

Zibby: I think about your story and the stories of so many. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Holocaust. Not to sound overly dramatic about the current pandemic, but with everybody inside I think about how challenging this is on so many levels. The fact that we’re just here to protect ourselves but we’re not hiding, we’re not also telling our kids that they can’t speak or we’ll discovered, I just can’t imagine now what it would be like to be not only quarantined, but not be able to move or speak or all of that, oh, my gosh. I think about it a lot.

Esther: I think about that too. I think, here I am complaining because I’m living in isolation in a big house with a garden. What am I complaining about? There were people who were hidden underground and couldn’t even see sunlight and couldn’t, as you say, move or breathe or certainly couldn’t say a word until it got dark and they could come out from hiding. We are pretty blessed. I think that’s important to remember.

Zibby: When I read your book, I was like, well, she’s going to understand why I’m thinking about the Holocaust all the time these days even though it sounds too dramatic.

Esther: You got it.

Zibby: Thank you.

Esther: We have to think about the life of not just the what happened, but where we are today. I hope that comes through in the book, the optimism, the forward-looking, that we’re still here. We have to live our life remembering but looking forward.

Zibby: There was one passage in particular that really stayed with me when your mother gets back to her old village after her amazing journey and finds out everything is gone. A neighbor offers her dinner which includes some pork. She says no to the meat. Somebody says to her, “That meat might have saved your life.” She said, “But if you don’t believe in anything, then what is worth saving anyway?” I got the quote wrong, I think, but that’s the point.

Esther: No, you got it right. She happened to believe in that. Whatever it is you believe in, how important it is to believe in something to make life worthwhile.

Zibby: I think some of the issues your book raises which a lot of people are wrestling with now is what is the meaning of it all? Is it about our families? It seems like that’s so important right now, is who you’re with and your closest loved one. What is the point of it all when everything else is taken away? I feel like there’s so many parallels.

Esther: Exactly.

Zibby: I have to ask also, you mentioned before you have three sons and six grandchildren, but you don’t just have three sons. As you talk about in your book, two of your sons are unbelievable writers, and your son Frank as well, but Jonathan Safran Foer who’s written Everything is Illuminated which has become a film and that the film ended up mixing fact and memory and creating more facts even though it was fiction, and Joshua who wrote Moonlighting with Einstein which I also had read. How did you raise such writers? Did you have any tricks? You’re obviously a beautiful writer, as your book exhibits, clearly. Did it just come naturally? Are all your sons just interested in writing and reading? Is it something you actively fostered?

Esther: The answer’s no. I get that question a lot. We weren’t raising writers. I won’t tell you which, but one of them was a very late reader. I hope that what we raised were kids who care about the world. Writing is their vehicle. They each write in different areas. They don’t just all write — Frank is the historian. He works for The Atlantic. He’s written about politics and history. Jonathan is mostly a novelist, but he’s also of late been writing about being a vegetarian, about how we can save the world by eating less meat. Josh, of course, has written about science and memory. We never particularly encouraged writing. We did encourage conversations at our dinner table. They could be anything. The kids could pick anything they wanted to talk about, but they were prepared to talk about it. Some of them were pretty uncomfortable conversations for a mother, but we let them happen. I don’t think we raised writers. We raised kids who watched TV and ate junk food. I hope that’s encouraging for everybody.

Zibby: That makes me feel so much better. Thank you.

Esther: I was a working mother. You came home and you put together whatever you could put together. I hope we raised them to care about what matters. The writing kind of came later.

Zibby: It’s interesting because in your book you talk so much about memory and history and fact and fiction. Then your sons are now writing about some of the same things. It’s like you’ve transmitted down the things that are so on your mind to them and everybody just keeps hacking away and exploring this secret in your house. I loved the visual in your book about how you keep baggies of pieces of memory from everywhere you go, and you have jars and anything of history around you, and this quest for more information. Were you always like that? From a young age, have you always just been interested in finding out more about your past?

Esther: Yes, I think so, maybe because so much of it was unknown, maybe because I grew up with no grandmothers, with no aunts and uncles, no first cousins. People around me that I went to school with had all of those things. I was always digging. Maybe it was because my parents wouldn’t talk about it. You always want to know what they won’t tell you. I was always digging. I’m still digging. My memory jars, as they are, which look a little like an art installation in my living room, include jars that have dirt from mass graves but also from beautiful times. My seven-year-old grandson brought me back a baggy of sand from a trip to Greece because I don’t have that and he wanted to share his memory with me. A lot of them are really beautiful happy memories. When one of our sons got married, I decorated the plate. You know the tradition of breaking a plate. The two mothers break a plate. It’s a family commitment to the couple, to the marriage. After we broke the plate, I thought, oh, that’ll be perfect in a jar. It’s a beautiful memory every time I look at it.

Zibby: Aw, that’s amazing. Have you always liked writing yourself? Did you always think you were going to write this book? Did this come as a surprise?

Esther: Absolutely not. I never thought of myself as a writer. In fact, I used to have my husband edit everything to make sure it was okay. The book didn’t come out of a love of writing. It came out of a feeling that I needed to tell this story. A number of years ago, five, six years ago, our house was broken into. I had heirlooms that had been handed down to me. I had a great-aunt who was like my grandmother. She gave me some of her jewelry. When the police came, they said, “You’re not hysterical. What’s going on?” as they’re doing fingerprints. I thought about it. I thought, these are just things. Yes, I can pass them down, but more important is telling the stories because that will last. I think it was then that I said I’m not going to replace this stuff, but I’m going to tell the stories of the people who passed it on to me, and that that was the important piece. I didn’t think it would be a book. I just started writing. I would really encourage people to do that too. It doesn’t have to be a book. It doesn’t have to be all words. It could be pictures. Preserving these stories for future generations and the process of doing it for yourself is so important. It was really cathartic for me. I came out of the process a different person than I went into it.

Zibby: Really? How did you feel once you finished?

Esther: I felt at peace, kind of liberated by those ghosts. The ghosts will always be with me, but not in the same way. I put them on paper. I recorded their names. I felt that we could share our space in a different way.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like there has been so much pressure on you as the soul survivor on so many sides to keep this alive. How do you go about as a middle schooler and have a great day when inside you don’t even know what happened to your father and he’s right there? It’s hard to make that work.

Esther: Yes, but somehow you do. Somehow with a mother like my mother who was like, “It’s a new day. Let’s get up and get going. This is what we have to do,” somehow, you do. You do it with love and optimism and the support of a lot of people.

Zibby: Again, not to minimize your family’s just absolutely tragic experience in the Holocaust, but even now with everybody afraid for their lives in part and this pandemic sweeping the world, all you can do is focus on now. I think that’s what everybody’s coming back to and is basically what your mother has been saying all along. All you can do is wake up and live another day the best that you can. There’s nothing you can really do, right?

Esther: Exactly. I hope that my book won’t be a book that people look at as a story of tragedy. I hope they’ll look at it as a story of strength and of life going on and what the future might hold and redemption.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to suggest it was only tragic.

Esther: No, I didn’t suggest you did, but some people do. They look at it, oh, it’s another Holocaust memoir. That’s not what I intended. It’s not what I hope will come out of it when people read it.

Zibby: No, it’s inspiring. It’s really inspiring. I loved it. I thought it was absolutely fantastic. I promise I don’t say that to everybody, so I really mean it.

Esther: Thank you.

Zibby: Now that you’ve wrestled with these ghosts and put them in their place so to speak, do you find yourself more open to other projects? What would you like to do next? How do you see the next couple years of your life looking? What’s on your to-do list?

Esther: I feel much more open about everything since I put myself out there. I really had to deal with all of my vulnerabilities to just get out there and to talk about my past. I never talked about my father’s suicide. I didn’t talk about it within our family. It wasn’t something my family knew, my husband or my children, until after Jonathan wrote Everything is Illuminated and people started talking about it. It’s almost like I’ve gone through several years of analysis, but it was self-analysis. It was just such a great process. So what’s next? I don’t know. I’m trying to figure that out right now. I spent yesterday sorting through old pictures realizing that I have all these — I talk about this in the book — all these pictures. I know who these people are, but my family doesn’t necessarily know who they are. I’m looking forward to spending time nurturing my grandchildren, of course as soon as I can get out of my house. There will be another project. I’m just not sure what it’s going to be. Somebody suggested turning this into a book for teens, but I’m not sure that’s what I’ll do. It will be something. Stay tuned. I don’t know. I’m open to ideas.

Zibby: Maybe a movie. Maybe a documentary. You could show all the pictures. I could just see somebody filming you sitting there showing the pictures of Pesha. I feel like you should do that. It would be another way to mark the gravestones in a way.

Esther: Yes, that’s a good idea. It’s a great idea.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors, not only as an author yourself, but as a mother to fantastic authors?

Esther: With children, my best advice is praise the good. They all come out different. You’re the mother of four. I’m the mother of three. They each come out as their own person. Find what they do well and encourage that. To other writers, just dig in and try in. I didn’t think I could do this. I didn’t think it would be a book. I had the encouragement of other people, and it came together. I think you just have to sit down and do it. I remember when Jonathan who had been accepted to medical school, every Jewish mother’s dream, said, “You know, I think I want to be a writer.” Really? A doctor or a writer? My husband and I understood that we had to support him, that we had to believe in him and believe in his dream whether it worked or it didn’t. That’s what I think you have to do with children. Find what they’re great at and support them. And try to close your eyes to the rest of it.

Zibby: Just one thing in parting. People talk a lot about not just the people, but some of the creative output that has been lost as a result of the Holocaust, the scientific discoveries, the books, the art, all the things that could have been that never got into the world because everybody was murdered. When I think about your family and the creativity in just you and your sons and all that was lost, it just is such a loss, not just for your family, but really all of society to imagine what could have been. It’s almost difficult to conceptualize the magnitude of the loss.

Esther: Right. What we have to do now is do it. Build on the past and move forward. Remember the past but build the future.

Zibby: Keep on keeping on.

Esther: Keep on keeping on.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on my podcast and talking about your book and for taking the time to memorialize these people that you cared about that you didn’t even know that really tells the story that is so important for so many people to hear. Thank you on many levels.

Esther: Thank you so much for doing this.

Zibby: My pleasure. Thank you.

Esther: Bye.