Reconstructing a Child’s Life During the Holocaust

A History of the Grandparents I Never Had
By Ivan Jablonka
Stanford University Press, 352 pages, $30

Perhaps no moment in modern history has been written about as much as the Shoah. Historians and memoirists, in particular, have striven to re-create or retell this event. While the two genres are distinct, the dividing line between them — objectivity lying to one side, subjectivity to the other — is often breached. In the best of cases, such as Saul Friedlander’s “When Memory Comes,” this brackish confluence makes for brilliance.

To this select company we must now add Ivan Jablonka’s “A History of the Grandparents I Never Had.” The author of several scholarly works on the fate of orphaned children in modern France, Jablonka turns his attention in this luminous and lacerating book to a single childhood — his father’s. It turns out that Marcel Jablonka, born in 1940, was also an orphaned child. His parents, Matès and Idesa Jablonka, died in Auschwitz.

How does one reconstruct past lives that left few traces in their wake? In part, by sheer determination: Jablonka trawls through archives, treks across continents and traverses generations to learn about his grandparents. In part, as well, by immense scholarship: Jablonka masters not just archival sources, but also the vast secondary literature on the Holocaust. But these traits are not enough: One also needs a fierce moral imagination in order to cast light where shadows long ruled.

Jablonka reveals this gift on nearly every page of his book. He does so, first, as a historian who plumbs the sources for these particular pasts. Visiting his grandparents’ native town of Parczew, Jablonka describes the Nazi Aktions that swept up and murdered more than 6,000 Jewish inhabitants, followed by the 1946 pogrom that rid Parczew of its few remaining Jews. He surveys, in short, a corner to the vast tableau of European Jewry’s destruction.

But he also writes as a memoirist who plumbs his own thoughts and emotions. Walking past what once was the synagogue and is now a resale shop, Jablonka sits down at a nearby park. Gazing at old Poles who are “staring into space with their toothless grins,” he weighs whether they were “perhaps present at these [Aktions], or may have participated in the 1946 pogrom when they were in high school.” Though we expect a reflexive judgment, Jablonka resists this urge. These elderly men and women, he realizes, “are only shadows of their former selves [and] somehow my ancestors’ counterparts, fleeing silhouettes wandering through the halls of time.” Yet, as his thoughts turn to the trendiness of Jewish culture in Poland, ambivalence overwhelms Jablonka: “How can I care about their tourist-friendly Judaism, all this folk dancing on mass graves? What if I were to return to our synagogue and drive out the merchants from the temple?”

He doesn’t, of course. Nor does he, however, retreat to a sentimental view of Jewish life in Parczew before the war. As he pores over the Yizkor Bukh — a compilation of personal accounts left by Parczew’s Jews — he is struck by how one of his distant relatives, Israel Jablonka, ordered hundreds of books from all over Poland “Such learning!” a friend exclaims. But Jablonka once again resists, recalling the community’s darker side, the “yoke of religious taboos and absurd superstitions, life in a tiny, stultifying society where gossip, mutual surveillance and mediocrity were accepted as the will of the Almighty.”

This same society, however, shaped two remarkable individuals: Matès and Idesa Jablonka. With clues he gleans from the Yizkor Bukh, police reports and conversations with far-flung family members, Jablonka slowly pieces together their lives. The Jablonkas — Matès, an impoverished saddler, and Idesa — were Communists, equally at odds with their Jewish heritage and their national government. But were not these young Communists, Jablonka wonders, as “studious and doctrinaire, uncompromising and orthodox” in their new faith as the talmudic students they scorned?

His grandfather’s Marxist faith, however, made him act upon his outrage at society’s injustices. One such act — hanging red banners denouncing police and government brutality — landed the young couple in jail in 1934. Released three years later, at a moment when anti-Semitic violence had become commonplace, they decided to leave Poland. Unable to travel to America and, as anti-Zionists, unwilling to go to Palestine, they slipped across borders to France. They were not alone, of course: Tens of thousands of Polish Jews followed the same itinerary. Was there not, after all, the Yiddish saying “As happy as God in France”?

Come the war, if God was still happy, it wasn’t in France. Without papers or work, and with thick accents and Jewish identities, the Jablonkas, now with two young children — the author’s father and aunt — scrambled to survive. Thanks to a colleague, the grandson discovered the so-called “Moscow archive” — a vast trove of police documents from Paris — taken first by the Germans, then the Russians, and finally returned to France. From the depths of 2.5 million documents, flotsam from the lives of Matès and Idesa Jablonka surface.

Arrested in 1939 — when France was still a republic — his grandfather was hauled off to the infamous Fresnes prison outside Paris. When he found his grandfather’s name on the prison register, Jablonka exclaimed: “I believe I became a historian so that one day I could make this discovery.” Suddenly, the distinction between personal histories and history collapsed. Those who wield power and those who submit, the “faceless masses whose names rust away at the base of some war monument or in some out of the way cemetery” are one and the same. Holding the police blotter in his hands, Jablonka felt “an indescribable sense of relief.”

Released from prison several weeks later, Matès Jablonka joined the Foreign Legion. Though he fought bravely in 1940, his efforts neither stopped the Nazi invasion nor secured him French citizenship. Three years later, in early 1943, French gendarmes arrested the Jablonkas. With the connivance of gentile neighbors, the two children were hidden from the police and spirited out of Paris. Like a paleontologist who, with a handful of bones, extrapolates to a full skeleton, Jablonka reconstructed this period with what little evidence he had at hand. Subject to a “moral contract,” he will use only deductions and hypotheses where the documents end. This method, however, is the use of moral imagination by other means. On his grandmother’s Drancy file, he read “M.O.E.” — the acronym for “Married, no children.” In order to save her children — Jablonka’s father and aunt — his grandmother denied their existence. Here, Jablonka grasped, was “both the miracle of his [father’s] survival and the wound that would remain forever unhealed.”

The final stretch, from Drancy to Auschwitz, overwhelmed even Jablonka’s admirable effort at remembrance and reconstruction. Trying to conceive his grandparents’ final fate, his imagination reached an end as unforgiving as Auschwitz: “I am left empty-handed. I know nothing of their deaths, and precious little about their lives.” Yet this little is precious. Though Matès and Idesa Jablonka were murdered because they were Jews, their grandson knows “they spent their lives trying to escape this [identity] in order to embrace universal values.” His quest, reaching an end, releases not just for him, but also for his grandparents. They were, he knows, “two beings meant, irreducibly and beyond all measure, to live.”

At the end of this account, we are, unlike its author, not empty-handed, but heart-filled. Irreducibly and beyond all measure, this book is both a moving meditation on the limits of historical knowledge and a stunning testament to those who nevertheless challenge those limits.

Robert Zaretsky is the author most recently of ‘Boswell’s Enlightenment.’

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