Jablonka, Ivan. “A History of the Grandparents I Never Had”, Stanford University Press, 2016.
Finding His Past
Ivan Jablonka’s grandparents’ lives died long before he was born. Matès and Idesa Jablonka were his family and they were perfect strangers to him. When he decided to uncover their history, he had little information to work with. All that they left behind were two young children, a handful of letters, and a passport. They had been persecuted as communists in Poland, as refugees in France, and then as Jews under the Vichy regime and their short lives were lived. As a historian, Jablonka had to step back from his family and then to totally immerse himself in it. There the conflicts of scholarly research and personal commitment, between established facts and the passion of the person recording them, between history and the art of storytelling.
Jablonka traveled to three continents and met the few survivors of his grandparents’ era that were still alive as well as their descendants, and some of his far removed cousins. He investigated twenty different archives and as he researched, he thought about his own family and his responsibilities to it. He owed this to his father, the orphaned son, and to his own children and “the family wounds they all inherited”.
There is little about the Holocaust that has not been said. Historians and survivors have tried very hard to re-create what happened so others would know about it. In the past, Jablonka had written several scholarly works about orphaned children in France. Now he writes about a single orphaned child—his father, Marcel, who was born in 1940 to Matès and Idesa Jablonka who died in Auschwitz.
Because of his determination Jablonka did exhaustive research and met with three different generations of people. He not only found all of the primary sources that he could but he also went through all of the secondary sources that were available.
Jablonka’s research took him to Parczew, the town where his grandparents were natives and he snows how Nazis and murdered more than 6,000 Jewish inhabitants and then how the pogrom that followed in 1946 emptied the town of Jews. What we are reminded of all thorough the book is that he is a historian who has to deal with his own emotions and thoughts since he is writing about his family. He gives no judgment even when he meets people who are the counterparts of his own grandparents and are still dealing with the horrors that they had to endure.
In studying the Yizkor Bukh — a compilation of personal accounts left by Parczew’s Jews, he finds clues about his grandparents that lead him to police reports and conversations with far removed family members and he slowly pieces together their lives. He learns that they were Communists and that were dissatisfied with their religion and their government.
Because of his grandfather’s Marxist faith, he responded to the injustices of society and, in fact, he and his wife went to jail in 1934 for denouncing police and government brutality. When they were released three years later, anti-Semitic violence was so prominent and dangerous that they left Poland. There was no way to get to America and since they were avid anti-Zionists they were unwilling to go to Palestine. They managed to get to France where thousands of Polish Jews had done the same. Having no papers or work, the Jablonkas, who now had two young children, they worked very hard to survive.
In 1940, however, the Germans invaded France and Mates joined the French Foreign Legion and fought in western France at the Battle of Soissons. From this point on the Jablonkas lived from arrest to arrest and they were ultimately incarcerated at Drancy camp and then sent to Auschwitz with 1000 other French Jews. Unable to find an exact date for his grandparents’ death, Ivan Jablonka assumes that his grandmother was gassed upon arrival. The two children were saved but you will have to read the book to get that part of the story.
This is not an easy book to read. Not only is it emotional, the stories are complicated but fascinating. You feel the grandson’s love for the grandparents he never knew. It is documented history that is beautifully written and, at times, heartbreaking. We learn new and important facts about family and history and get a story told by a wonderful storyteller. Jablonka combines historical investigation with personal meditation to give us yet another look at the Holocaust that forever remains something of an enigma in the world today.