One of the things Philippe Sands clearly remembers from his grandparents’ Paris apartment — a rather sombre, silent place — is the lack of family photographs. There’s a single, framed, unsmiling wedding photo, and that’s all. There is no mood of bittersweet nostalgia, there are no nods to memory or history. Where did his grandparents come from? How did they end up as these people, whom he knew only towards the end of their lives? Retrieving that history, that deliberately unremembered story, is the beginning of Sands’s task in this remarkable book.
Generically speaking, the story is familiar enough. Leon Buchholtz — Sands’s grandfather — was born in what was then Lemberg, in the very heart of Europe. As the first world war began to take its toll on the family, young Leon and his surviving family moved west (like so many others), to Vienna. He married Rita, their marriage witnessed by her brother, Wilhelm, a dentist. Leon ran a liquor store. Then came the Anschluss; some Jews left, some remained. Leon was one of those who left. But his wife and their infant daughter — Sands’s mother — stayed behind. Why? Rita would only leave on 9 November 1939, the day before the borders closed. Sands’s two maternal great-grandmothers were soon on a train east, to Theresienstadt.
Eventually Leon and Rita settled in Paris, where he was involved with the French Resistance, sending packages to the camps and ghettos in German-occupied Poland. Among the documents Sands examined in his research were the postal receipts for these dispatches. For the rest of his life, Leon would keep a great deal of evidence — some of which ended up with Sands’s mother, Ruth, and another trove in a plastic shopping bag with his aunt Annie — but he did not speak of this time.