Review: A History of the Grandparents I Never Had

Search inspires but does not go far enough


By Ivan Jablonka
Stanford University Press, £24.99

I longed to adore this book, with its rave reviews on the back cover, its material researching grandparents whom Jablonka had never known and who perished in the Holocaust, its insights into pre-war Parczew and post-war Polish antisemitism. But it did not quite captivate me - perhaps because of the translation, perhaps because its discursive style makes for hard reading.

Jablonka's grandparents were Mates and Idesa, from Parczew in Poland, a place with a large Jewish community. Jablonka describes shtetl life there in some detail, but most touching of all is when he records being shown the official Parczew memorial: "To the memory of the Polish and Soviet Partisans, 1942-1944." No mention of the Jews!

From a traditional, Orthodox background, amid considerable poverty, both grandparents became Communists - not unusual among Jews of the period. Mates was obviously charismatic, an orator, and a hard-line Marxist. Idesa was a great beauty, as recorded by her sisters-in-law decades later, and quite a catch for short, plain Mates.

He was imprisoned for two-and-a-half years for plotting against the regime, before they eventually made their way to France in 1937. Jablonka asks, rhetorically: "Why did Mates leave Poland? By that I mean why in 1937, not before or after?" He continues: "The obvious answer is that life had become unliveable…"

Really? It was hard, undoubtedly, and antisemitism was rife. He was a Communist, not always popular with Jews or Poles. It must have been difficult to live the life he wanted, but that is not the same as life being unliveable. Life was unliveable after the Nazi invasion of Poland, not in 1937.

In Paris, Mates and Idesa reconnected with many of their old friends who had also left, but how militant they were remains unclear. The history here derives from Ivan Jablonka's intuition - that they would have settled down and foregone a high-profile connection with the party. But he does not know; there are no records.

They were finally arrested in 1943, leaving their two children to be hidden by the Courtoux family, non-Jews all-too-well aware of what they were taking on. The parents were taken to Drancy. The rest is predictable. Yet what I had hoped for - a sense of these people's lives, their passions - has gone missing.

There is much conjecture, alongside a great deal of abstract love expressed for people the author never knew. There is local colour in detailed descriptions of buildings, towns and streets.

But, despite all this, Ivan Jablonka's grandparents remain unknown to me as people, coming into focus only briefly, when surviving family around the world paint bits of the picture. There could and should have been so much more.

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