I have set out, as a historian, in search of the grandparents I never had. Because their lives were over long before mine began, Matès and Idesa Jablonka are at once close relatives and perfect strangers. They were faceless victims of the great twentieth-century tragedies: Stalinism, World War II, and the annihilation of European Jewry.
I have no grandparents on my father’s side, and that’s how it has always been. There are Constant and Annette, of course, my father’s guardians, but it’s not the same thing. There are also my maternal grandparents, who managed to survive the war with yellow stars pinned to their chests. In June 1981, when I was going on 8 years old, I wrote a letter to say how much I loved them. My writing was awkward and unpolished, full of spelling mistakes and dotted with little hearts at the end of each sentence. At the bottom of the stationery was a baby elephant wearing a black beret, skipping through a jungle of giant flowers. Here is what I wrote:
You can be sure that when you are dead, I’ll be thinking of you sadly for the rest of my life. Even when life is over for me too, my own children will know about you. And even their children will know about you when I am in my grave. For me, you’ll be my gods, my beloved gods who will watch over me and nobody else. I will be thinking: my gods are my shield, whether I am in heaven or hell.
What was I told—or not told—that would have inspired me to pen such a testament at the age of seven and a half? Was it my historian’s calling or a child’s resigned response to the crushing duty of remembrance, as one link in the chain of departed souls, to keep our heritage alive? For I can now see more clearly that these childish promises were addressed not so much to my maternal grandparents as to the ones who had been forever absent. My father’s parents were dead, had always been dead. They were my guardian gods, they would bless and keep me, even after I had joined them in that other place. It can be reassuring to anchor oneself in primal scenes and foundational traumas, but in my case, there was never any moment of revelation: no one ever sat me down to tell me the “terrible truth.” Their murder had always been familiar: there are family truths just like there are family secrets.
The little boy grew up, and did not grow up. I am 38 today, married with children of my own. I am the temporal projection of these souls long gone, but I wonder whether I have the strength to carry them forward. Could I not nourish their lives with mine, rather than endlessly dying their death? But what did Matès and Idesa Jablonka leave behind, except their two orphaned children, a handful of letters and a passport? It would be sheer madness to attempt to recover the lives of two strangers, with so little to go on! Even still alive, they were already invisible; history pounded them into dust.
These ashes of an era are not enclosed in some family mausoleum; they are suspended in the air, wafting on the breeze, moistened by sea mists, powdering our rooftops, stinging our eyes and assuming the guise of a flower petal, a comet or a dragonfly, anything light and fleeting. These anonymous souls belong not to me but to us all. Before they are erased forever, I felt it urgent to recover their traces, the footprints they left on life, the involuntary evidence of their time on earth.
Hence my research began, conceived at once as a family biography, an act of justice and an extension of my work as a historian. It is a birthing, the opposite of a murder investigation, and it led me quite naturally to their birthplace.