My grandparents were victims of the major tragedies of the first half of the 20th century.
Being a historian does not preclude one from talking about one’s family, but it does offer the use of a unique vocabulary to describe it: the language of the social sciences. My attempt at a family biography is both a private and public reflection about the fate of my family and I speak about them not as if theirs was a unique, remarkable destiny, but rather as one that traversed, and was perhaps determined, by broader social forces.
If their life was short and tragic, it is because they were manipulated by one totalitarianism and destroyed by another, under the indifferent gaze of democracies.
My father's parents were born in Poland in the early 20th century. As officials in the local Communist Party, which was illegal at the time, they were sentenced to five years in prison. On their release, they migrated to France, without a visa, and settled in Paris in the late 1930s. A few years later, they were arrested and deported to Auschwitz where they were murdered. To summarize, we can say that they spent their entire lives in hiding: first in Poland, as communists; then in France, as illegal immigrants; and finally, under the Vichy regime, as Jews. Three clandestine lives, three absences from the world, until the ultimate one: their annihilation in the context of genocide. If their life was short and tragic, it is because they were manipulated by one totalitarianism and destroyed by another, under the indifferent gaze of democracies.
My book, A History of the Grandparents I Never Had, is a reflection on the fate of my family, but it is also an essay on the writing of history. Three methodological issues are close to my heart: the use of the "I"; the need for distance and reflexivity; and the relationship between history and memory.
The first issue is the use of the "I" in a history book. The hermeneutic tradition, from Dilthey to Ricœur, stresses the importance of subjectivity in all stages of historiography: the choice of topic, the cross-checking of archives, the timeline, and the tempo of the narrative, among other concerns. The historian can also use the "I" in a more conscious way. Many works are rooted in a personal tropism: this or that historian of the countryside, of the Communist Party, of immigration, or of the Holocaust is personally involved in, or touched by, his/her object of study. In recent decades, the practice of "ego-history" has invited historians to reflect on their own journey or social origin. But to talk about one’s family as a researcher is to go one step further, I believe, in terms of intimacy.
In my work, the "I" has at least two functions. My family is central to my study; and my investigation is fully part of the narrative. In other words, I make what sociologists and anthropologists call their "field notes" visible and public. Hence the double helix structure of my narrative: A historian tells the story of his grandparents’ life and, at the same time, the story of the investigation that allowed him to reconstruct their lives. This is what I thought I would attempt: to implement this double "I" in a history book. I refused the "as if" of the impersonal narrative, of the past that speaks for itself and springs fully formed from the brain of the historian. I dream of a history in which the "I" would be the guarantee of the most objective research, not its corrupting principle. But under what conditions? For it is very clear that an excess of subjectivity would kill the research. This leads me to the second issue: the need for reflexivity.
All research requires distance. In this case, I did not have to make a great effort: the distance was imposed on me by death itself. My grandmother died at the age of 28; my grandfather at the age of 34 or 35. Since their lives ended long before mine began, and since my father was separated from them when he was barely 3 years old, Matès and Idesa Jablonka are as much my relatives as absolute strangers.
But just as I recognize this distance, I must explain how I tried to reduce it. I obeyed what I call the imperative of transparency. I chose to show everything about my work as a historian: my investigation, my hypotheses, my certainties, my hesitations, doubts, successes, and failures. This transparency seemed necessary, if only to show that the archives I have used were not a given, not a chance discovery in the attic of some country house, but the result of reasoning. As a struggle against obscurity and oblivion, the story of my grandparents’ lives are inseparable from the efforts that allowed me to find their traces in more than twenty archival repositories, in Poland and in France, and from the testimony of the many witnesses who agreed to talk to me about their parents, about immigration and the war. To take the reader behind the scenes, so to speak, into the workshop of the historian, is a way of showing that the understanding of the past is not a result, but a process, a quest—if not a conquest.
The third challenge is the relationship between history and memory. My work consists in writing a biography, even if it is a family biography, and even if it is at the edge of the genre. Biography is one of the only exercises that gives rise to a total history, a fully sociological one—individual and collective, micro-historical and global, transversal and transnational. To that extent, the biographical genre is exciting for the social historian that I am. Is it possible to follow step by step, year after year, and until death, these children, these anonymous men and women who make up most of humanity? To write the biography of an unknown person is both a temptation and a supreme challenge.
To write the biography of an unknown person is both a temptation and a supreme challenge.
But to look back on the ashes of those who have disappeared is, inextricably, a work of both history and memory. I wanted to write a micro-history of the Holocaust in which the protagonists would be alive, with their rebellions and their failures, their preoccupations and their normality, not merely "beings-doomed-for-death." By retracing the journey of my grandparents, I tried to give them back the abundance of their lives, the profusion of their freedom. Jules Michelet believed in the "resurrection of the fullness of life," and Isaac Bashevis Singer used to say that "millions of Yiddish speaking corpses would rise from their graves one day." This portrait of the historian as a necromancer does not really satisfy me. As we all know, the dead do not rise up. As a book of memory and transmission, the biography of two young people, my book is a hymn to life, but it is also, of course, a tomb, a memorial made out of paper, the cenotaph that we built for the absent.
I tried to find the most appropriate way to speak about genocide, between history and literature, by adopting an ethic that would draw at the same time from a need for accuracy, a promise to tell the truth, and a feeling of being indebted. In so doing, I attempted to go beyond what I believed to be false oppositions: science altered by the narrative, family history versus capital-H History, history threatened by memory.
I did not come to history through a sudden revelation, and it is not a taste that I have developed little by little. History came to me; it came to us; it has tossed us like pebbles on the shore. Can one ever be attached to the country that has sent one’s family to death? What happened between the incarceration of my grandfather, in 1939, for lack of papers, and my career as a French historian? What social alchemy am I the product of? My books are the public—and socially useful—answer that I give to these questions.The ties that bind me to the past—grandson of deportees, son of an orphan, French scholar—make up the threads that run through all my research. Today still, as I walk through the birch woods of Birkenau,I am the grandson of two "undesirable" people—a historical reality I promise myself never to forget.
This post was adapted from a talk delivered by Ivan Jablonka at Stanford University on the subject of his book, A History of the Grandparents I Never Had.