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Journalist: Kleptocrats' 'Ill-Gotten Fortunes' Are Being Parked In U.S. Real Estate

Atlantic journalist Franklin Foer says American real estate became a "giant magnet" for Russia's kleptocratic fortunes after lobbyists pushed to allow anonymous shell companies to buy properties.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Franklin Foer has been writing about the Mueller investigation and connections between Donald Trump, his campaign and Russia for The Atlantic magazine, where he's a national correspondent. And for his latest article, titled "Russian-Style Kleptocracy Is Infiltrating America," he writes about how wealth plundered by Russian oligarchs is being parked in real estate in American cities, including in Trump properties. Foer is nominated for a National Magazine Award for his article about Paul Manafort titled "American Hustler." Manafort is Trump's former campaign chair, whose associates have included Oleg Deripaska - a Russian oligarch - and Konstantin Kilimnik, who, according to the FBI, has ties to a Russian intelligence agency.

In August, Manafort was convicted of five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud and one count of failure to disclose a foreign bank account. In September, Manafort pleaded guilty to witness tampering and conspiracy related to a lobbying and money laundering scheme. And he agreed to cooperate with Mueller. He'll be sentenced for those two crimes on March 13, and for the eight financial crimes, at a later date. Mueller has said Manafort violated his plea deal. Last week, there was a closed-door hearing to determine whether Manafort had intentionally lied to investigators. As we go to broadcast, the judge is expected to file a status report later today under seal.

Franklin Foer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your National Magazine Award nomination. So let's talk about your latest piece, "Russian-Style Kleptocracy Is Infiltrating America." So what do you mean when you say kleptocracy? And when you say that Russian-style kleptocracy is infiltrating America, do you mean we're getting the money of the kleptocrats who are hiding their money here or that America is becoming like a kleptocracy?

FRANKLIN FOER: All of the above. So there are an enormous number of fortunes in this world - some of the largest fortunes in this world - that have been amassed through outright theft. We live in this age of smash and grab. And so in the case of Russia, you have all of these fortunes that begin with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And so in the dying days of the Soviet empire, the KGB took billions of dollars, and they hustled them offshore into foreign banks. And then over the course of that decade, you had the privatization of the vast Russian economy. And the privatization process was done in a cronyistic (ph) fashion, where businesses were acquired at cut-rate prices through connections.

And so what I mean by kleptocracy - and this is not just a Russian problem - is that we have these ill-gotten fortunes, and these fortunes can't be kept in the country where they're obtained. They need to be taken to another place because the people who've amassed those fortunes don't want them eventually expropriated when there's a change of regime. They would like to take them to places where there's rule of law, where they can build interest on their fortunes. And so they tend to take them outside of the developing world and place them in Western Europe or in the United States, often through shell companies and a network of offshore havens. And that's another one of their goals - is to avoid having to pay tax on the money that they've amassed. And in the 1990s, we're undergoing this process of globalization where world finance is interconnected in new ways. And with a click, you can move a fortune from one country to another.

GROSS: So let me just stop you here and say, so while the U.S. is applauding, like - you know, Soviet communism is over. The Soviet empire is over and, like, democracy is coming to Russia. This is such a wonderful thing. What's actually happening is that the kleptocracy is forming. People who are now the oligarchs have taken a lot of what had been government money, putting it into their own accounts and then storing the money, like, offshore. Is that an accurate description?

FOER: Yeah, that's completely correct. And as you suggest, we could - we were telling ourselves a story about what was happening in the world. And there was this really triumphalist sense that the arc of history was bending towards our forms of government; that liberalism, capitalism, democracy were taking hold in the world. And we told ourselves that story, and we didn't look too hard at what was actually happening on the ground. We saw criminals and organized crime and rogue profiteers. And we assumed that they were outliers. And that was a mistake because, in point of fact, in a place like Russia, they weren't the outliers. They were the state.

GROSS: So where does the U.S. come in? So now you have these leaders in Russia who have taken money that shouldn't rightly belong to them. It should belong to the government, to the people. So you know, these are the people who became the oligarchs - right? - is kind of...

FOER: Correct.

GROSS: Right. So they're storing their money offshore when possible. Where does the U.S. come in?

FOER: The United States is the most desired destination for that money. Our banks, our real estate markets are places where money is safe, where it can grow quickly. And so it's the place that they want to keep their loot. And the United States during the 1990s was somewhat oblivious to what was happening. There was this scandal where the Bank of New York was found to have held $4 billion from Russian mafiosos.

And when that money was exposed in The New York Times and when there was a prosecution in that case, it really created this eye-opening moment where we started to look around and to say, hey, wait a second. All this money that's flowing into this country from the former Soviet Union - where exactly is that coming from? And it produced this moment, which was after 9/11 - the U.S. Patriot Act, which we know for the surveillance capabilities that it gave the National Security State, also contained a section where it introduced incredibly rigorous regulation of the banking sector to try to prevent this sort of money laundering from occurring.

GROSS: But there was a loophole in it. And this loophole - I was so glad you wrote about this. This loophole explained a lot to me. So why don't you describe what the loophole was.

FOER: So with the Patriot Act, we focused on the banking sector, and the banking lobbyists were really upset about what we did. And we - the Congress kind of shoved it down, despite that opposition. But if there's a force in the Congress that may be even more powerful than the bankers, it's the real estate industry because banking exists concentrated in a couple cities, but real estate exists in every single House district. And so the real estate industry was able to create this gaping loophole in the Patriot Act where you could bring money into this country, and real estate agents didn't have to report that to the authorities. And so we closed off banking and then opened up the real estate sector to become this giant magnet for kleptocratic fortunes.

GROSS: And that explains a lot of things because so many kleptocrats or oligarchs - whatever you want to call them - have parked their money in American real estate and even in Trump properties. Give us a sense of how much Russian money is invested in Trump properties.

FOER: So in 2017, Reuters did this survey of Trump Organization properties in Florida. And what they found was that of the about 2,000 units in those developments, a third of the units in his properties were sold to anonymous corporate vehicles where we're unable to trace who actually owns the property.

GROSS: So there might be Russians in those properties.

FOER: Yeah. There's a journalist who jokes Vladimir Putin could own those properties, and we wouldn't know.

GROSS: So financially for, say, Russians parking their money in pricey real estate in the U.S., the Russians don't have to pay taxes in Russia. If they want to, they can remain kind of anonymous in terms of the ownership of the properties, especially if it's going through a shell company. But does that hurt the U.S. economy in any way?

FOER: It hurts the U.S. economy in that it artificially inflates real estate values and makes cities more unlivable for regular people because their rents end up getting dragged up by the top end. So economically, that's, I think, pretty much the sum of the damage.

But I think that the costs that we pay is one of - that's deeper and harder to detect, which is that as we construct the system, there are an enormous number of Americans who become complicit with it - that for a Russian to buy a building in a Trump property requires the Trump Organization to be essentially complicit. It requires lawyers and real estate agents to become complicit. And oftentimes, it requires whole states to become complicit. So we have places like Delaware and Nevada that are the primary locales where foreigners can anonymously register shell companies. And so those states make a whole lot of money in the course of abetting this activity.

GROSS: When you use the word complicit, it implies there's some kind of, like, crime going on.

FOER: So there is no crime that's actually happening. It's a perfectly legal system. And when I use the word complicity, I think I'm using it in the sense of moral complicity. And I do that intentionally because one of the real risks - and this was something that the founders of the republic were acutely attuned to - is that when American citizens become the handmaidens of corrupt activity, our own behavior starts to change. Our own sense of what's acceptable is degraded.

And that was the nightmare. That was the thing that kept James Madison and the Founders up late at night, was the sense that gifts from abroad, that foreign bad practices, would somehow taint, corrupt, spread, like a pathogen to this country.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Franklin Foer. And his latest article in The Atlantic is titled "Russian-Style Kleptocracy Is Infiltrating America." His article in The Atlantic about Paul Manafort from last year, titled "American Hustler," is a finalist for a 2019 National Magazine Award. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Franklin Foer, a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His latest article is called "Russian-Style Kleptocracy Is Infiltrating America." He's written extensively about Paul Manafort and the Mueller investigation. And his article about Paul Manafort from last year, "American Hustler," is nominated as a finalist for a National Magazine Award.

So let's talk about some news from last week pertaining to the Mueller investigation. And this is from a closed-door hearing last week that a partial transcript was released from. And the hearing was about whether Paul Manafort had broken his plea agreement by lying or misleading the special counsel's team of prosecutors, and the prosecutors are trying to explain why some of the information that Manafort had misled them about was actually key to the larger Mueller investigation. So what was that information that Manafort had misled them about that's key to the investigation?

FOER: So they allege that Manafort misled prosecutors about five specific things. A chunk of them are related to his relationship with his Ukrainian translator, a guy called Konstantin Kilimnik. Kilimnik is someone whose name started to appear kind of elliptically in Mueller filings. But as we've gotten deeper into the case, he has been named specifically.

And Mueller's always said that he's somebody who had active ties to Russian intelligence, and that's consistent with parts of Kilimnik's biography. Kilimnik, as I said, was Ukrainian. And in the dying days of the Soviet Union, he was trained by Russian military intelligence, the GRU, to become a translator. And it's often said that once you join GRU, you never quite leave it. And so all throughout his career, there were jokes that were made by his colleagues about his background in Russian intelligence.

And he is just somebody who's inseparable from Paul Manafort. He was described as Manafort's Manafort, that when Manafort would go into a meeting, he didn't speak the language in either Russia or Ukraine, and so he needed Kilimnik by his side. And as Manafort's fortunes in Ukraine started to collapse after the revolution in 2014, his entire operation became Kilimnik.

And they were just intimates. Kilimnik has said that they would text one another not just about business things, but if - about women and about highly personal matters. And so what Mueller's team seems to be alleging is that Manafort doesn't want to cop to having this intimate relationship with Kilimnik and that he's gone out of his way to lie about his relationship with him.

GROSS: Now, the fact that prosecutors said that Manafort lying about his relationship with Kilimnik is central to the Mueller investigation has led a lot of people to speculate which part of that is central to the investigation. And perhaps the key to that has to do with Manafort and Kilimnik communicating repeatedly about a peace plan for Ukraine, in other words, a way to lift the sanctions that the U.S. put on Russia after Russia invaded Crimea and Ukraine.

FOER: So that's one of the key strands here, is that Kilimnik has aspirations for bringing back their old client, Viktor Yanukovych, to rule in the eastern part of Ukraine, which is now essentially Russian-occupied. They want a peace plan to be part of a broader negotiation between the United States and Russia that would bring sanctions relief because the sanctions were kicked in because of the Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. What the Mueller people point to specifically is an August 2 meeting at a place in New York, a cigar room called the Havana Club (ph). And they specifically point to that meeting as being central to the investigation. Now, we know a couple of things about this meeting.

Number one, this was a place where they discussed polling information that Manafort and his other alter ego, Rick Gates, would give to Kilimnik to pass on to Ukrainian oligarchs and potentially others. We know from emails that my colleague Julia Ioffe and I obtained that in the lead-up to this meeting, Manafort and Kilimnik were discussing how they could use this meeting to try to heal a good relationship that they had with the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who'd been a client of Manafort's and a business partner and who accused Manafort of stealing tens of millions of dollars from them.

So these emails that are exchanged between Manafort and Kilimnik in the spring and summer of 2016 where Manafort's telling Kilimnik, hey, make sure you get these press clips about me to Deripaska so he can see essentially how valuable I am; hey, Kilimnik, is there a way we can use this to quote, unquote, "get whole" with Deripaska - and when we go to this meeting that happens at the Havana Club, there's an email that's exchanged a couple days before that where Kilimnik describes Deripaska in very ornate language as, the largest jar of black caviar you've ever received and says that he has interesting information to pass on.

GROSS: So we don't know the details about what was communicated between Manafort, Kilimnik and Deripaska, but it is possible - and this is speculation - that it was the opening to discussing a deal - right? - where - like, what could Manafort promise to Deripaska that would make Deripaska whole other than Manafort just paying Deripaska what he owed him?

FOER: So one other part of the story that needs to be mentioned is that Deripaska over the course of the last 10 years has really needed to get back into Vladimir Putin's favor because after having been Putin's favorite oligarch, Putin needed to bail out Deripaska in the middle of the financial crisis. And there was a famous scene where Putin goes to Deripaska's aluminum smelter, writes him the check. Deripaska signs an agreement. And in order to humiliate Deripaska in front of the cameras, Putin asks for his pen back. And so you can see how somebody like Deripaska has an interest in serving the regime.

So we don't know what happened. There are all these ellipses. You read the transcripts that we're talking about from this hearing, and they're maddeningly filled with redactions. And so just when you get to the part where you're like, oh, my gosh, I'm going to finally figure this darn thing out, names are blacked out. Sentences are blacked out. Paragraphs are blacked out. So we can only guess.

I mean, it seems like a peace plan - if that was on the table - would be incredibly important to Putin because Ukraine is the center of their whole geostrategic worldview, and consolidating gains in the east of Ukraine and in Crimea are things that are hugely important to them. The rollback of sanctions is a massive goal of Russian foreign policy. So if there was anything promised on that front, it would be incredibly important to the Russians.

But the truth is - is that for all that we keep advancing in our knowledge of this, the advances are very, very incremental. And that's why we take something like this transcript, and we parse every single exchange. And we hang on every single redaction. And the bloggers online who take the blacked-out names, and they figure out, you know, how many characters have been blacked out and what names would correspond to that length of characters. But there's a lot of guesswork right now.

GROSS: My guess is Franklin Foer, a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His latest article is titled "Russian-Style Kleptocracy Is Infiltrating America." After we take a short break, we'll talk about a parallel investigation that the Southern District of New York is now doing into the flow of money to three powerful law and lobbying firms that Manafort had recruited seven years ago to help the image of Viktor Yanukovych, who was the Russian-backed president of Ukraine. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Franklin Foer, a national correspondent for The Atlantic who's been writing about the Mueller investigation and connections between Trump, his campaign and Russia. And Foer's latest article, titled "Russian-Style Kleptocracy Is Infiltrating America," he writes about how wealth plundered by Russian oligarchs is being parked in real estate in American cities, including in Trump properties.

Foer is nominated for a National Magazine Award for his article about Paul Manafort titled "American Hustler." Manafort is Trump's former campaign chair, whose associates have included Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch, and Konstantin Kilimnik, who according to the FBI has ties to a Russian intelligence agency. Manafort has been convicted on eight counts related to his financial dealings, and he's pleaded guilty to witness tampering and conspiracy related to a lobbying and money laundering scheme. And he agreed to cooperate with Mueller.

One of the parallel investigations that the Southern District of New York is now investigating is the flow of money to three powerful law and lobbying firms, firms that Manafort had recruited seven years ago to help the image of Viktor Yanukovych, who was the Russian-backed president of Ukraine. And you had written about this last year in your Manafort article, the one that's nominated for a National Magazine Award. And these three firms are Mercury Public Affairs, the Podesta Group and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom. So why is this an important story that there was a flow of money to these firms that Manafort had recruited?

FOER: So one of the dangers of dealing with kleptocracy is that it lowers moral standards. And we're in this era where competition in the marketplace for law, public affairs is seen as so cutthroat that you have these really prestigious firms - real pillars of the establishment - taking on clients, working with people who they probably wouldn't have worked with 20 years ago, 30 years ago. But it's just become the accepted norm. And in the case of these clients, in the case of something like Skadden Arps, we can see that there's standards that have just - that have slipped, that there are practices that they're engaged in where they - even from the little that we've seen from their internal correspondence, it seems like they knew better than to make some of the arguments that they were making on behalf of Manafort's Ukrainian clients, yet they went ahead with it.

And so you have the Southern District investigating the ways in which this kleptocracy - this involvement with kleptocrats resulted in violations of the Foreign Agent Registration Act, the ways in which these companies may have subjected themselves to complicity in money laundering. And I think it's actually a really important moment for our collective public morality to have these companies be brought to task, to have - somebody like Greg Craig, who was Barack Obama's White House counsel, has had to resign from his law firm because of his involvement in this scandal. And I think it's actually quite important that you have somebody like that pay a real price.

And we've seen reports from elsewhere in Washington that firms are much more sensitive to the Foreign Agent Registration Act, that there are clients who they would've kind of tried to sneak through loopholes before and not registered. And now there's greater compliance with those laws. And so I'm not going to be naive and call this a revolution. But the only way we can improve the culture of our institutions, the culture of Washington is to have these kinds of firm enforcement actions taken.

GROSS: Paul Manafort is scheduled to be sentenced March 13th. What are you going to be looking for on that day?

FOER: Well, I'm - you know, I think that there's a lot that's telegraphed in this last hearing, where the judge in that case - Amy Berman Jackson - says that there are incidents of alleged lying that the prosecutors have brought up that she finds to be troubling. And so I think she's already laid out her cards. And I think that he's going to probably get nailed for a couple of these breaches of his plea agreements. And it's really - this Manafort saga has kind of drawn out now for a very long time. It was - you know, as soon as he left the campaign in August of 2016, it was pretty clear to the world that he was in deep in something and was - he was in so deep that even the Trump campaign couldn't abide his presence.

And so he - when he gets sentenced, it's the closing of the story. And at the tail end of this proceedings, Manafort's lawyers tried to make the case to Judge Jackson that their client is basically deteriorated, that - the reason that he lied, they said, is that he's lost control over some of his mental faculties. He's had to be wheeled into court in - because he's suffering from gout. And so it's really - this guy who was once the king of Washington is finally and ultimately going to meet his fate, which is jail - prison.

GROSS: Do you think there's the chance that President Trump would actually pardon Manafort? And do you think that Manafort is thinking that's a possibility?

FOER: Manafort seems to pretty clearly be thinking that's a possibility. That's what Mueller's team is asserting - you know, nakedly asserting. There's no question that that's what they're alleging he's been doing. And so you can't really rule anything out with Trump. We've already seen the ways in which he's wielded the pardon as a political tool. So I think it's unlikely because of the - I think it's unlikely because I think it would just spin him even deeper into this scandal, and it's not entirely clear the ways in which Manafort could potentially even implicate Trump. If he did pardon him, it would be incredibly telling because it would mean that there's something that he existentially fears in - with Manafort turning against him.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Franklin Foer, a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His latest piece is called "Russian-Style Kleptocracy Is Infiltrating America." He's written extensively about the Mueller investigation and about Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chair, and Manafort's connections to Ukraine and Russia. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Franklin Foer, a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His latest piece is called "Russian-Style Kleptocracy Is Infiltrating America." He's written extensively about the Mueller investigation and about Trump's former campaign chief Paul Manafort and Manafort's connections to Ukraine and Russia. What are the questions you would most like to see answered about Trump connections to Russia?

FOER: I have been staring at this thing since the spring of 2016, and I still can't tell you what happened. The number of questions that I have is actually fairly voluminous. And I'm always surprised when I sit down and I read something like that closed-door transcript, and there's so much that I learn, you know, despite having studied this really closely.

And there's something in - called the curiosity gap, where you see it in headlines, in clickbait headlines where they say, you won't believe what will happen next, and in order to try to get you - to induce you to clicking on a headline. And I feel like, right now, the nation is kind of sitting in the middle of this giant curiosity gap where the possibilities of the scandal are still fairly boundless.

We - the worst-case scenarios could still be true. On the other hand, you know, maybe we have kind of worked ourselves up into a frenzy. Maybe we're seeing things. We're seeing shadows. Maybe whatever happened is a lot more innocuous than the worst-case scenarios suggest. And it's just this state of suspended animation that we're living in. And I know I, for one, can't wait till we just know. (Laughter) I just want to know.

GROSS: So you've been covering Russian connections to Trump since the spring of 2016, which is pretty early in the game. This is during the campaign. What got you on to the story, and what was the first part of the story that you wrote about?

FOER: So it was actually Paul Manafort. So when Manafort came on to the campaign in April 2016, I was intrigued by his relationship to various Ukrainian oligarchs. And my grandmother, who recently passed away, came from western Ukraine. And so I'd been very interested in the politics of that country. And after the revolution in 2014, I went to Ukraine. And I caught glimpses and heard whispers about this character Paul Manafort, whose name I remembered from having written about Washington lobbying and Washington conservatives. And so it always intrigued me.

And so once I started to dig in to Manafort's relationship to these Ukrainian oligarchs - and it was happening in the shadow of Trump saying just breathtaking things about Vladimir Putin. And so I was already kind of going down that train of thought. And so I was wondering, why is Trump so slavish in his devotion to Vladimir Putin? Why is he talking about him in such fawning sorts of ways? And I began to study Trump's business relationships in Russia. And once you just started looking, there was a lot to be found.

You looked at the other advisers who were being attracted to Donald Trump. I hadn't even heard about George Papadopoulos at that stage. But it was clear that Flynn had gone to Russia, that you had Manafort, that there were other characters who were gravitating to the Trump campaign who had these histories of business dealings in Russia and who had close relationships to oligarchs who were close to Putin. And so it just didn't smell right.

GROSS: It must kill you to have clues about things but not have the answers.

FOER: It really - sometimes it feels - it almost physically hurts to kind of live in this state where, you know, you think you're seeing something, and it's terrible if it's true, but you don't know if it's true. And there's - there starts to be this point where there are limits to what journalism can accomplish in filling in the gaps. And Robert Mueller, with all of the powers of - investigative powers of the state, is pretty much the only person who can get us towards those answers. And there's some chance that even Robert Mueller may not be able to fill in all of the gaps.

GROSS: Are you expecting to get a lot of answers from the Mueller report? I've heard various things about how much we really will learn, how much he will reveal outside of just the indictments that he issues.

FOER: Right. And we can't even be sure that we'll - what version of the final Mueller report we'll be permitted to see by the Justice Department. But I think that it'll - I think he'll - it - I think in the raw version of the Mueller report, I think he's probably going to be able to get us much, much closer to whatever the ultimate truth is of this story.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Franklin Foer, national correspondent for The Atlantic. And his latest article is called "Russian-Style Kleptocracy Is Infiltrating America." He's written about Paul Manafort and the Mueller investigation. And his article about Manafort from last year, "American Hustler," is a finalist for a 2019 National Magazine Award. We're going to take a short break. Then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Franklin Foer, a national correspondent for The Atlantic. And he's written extensively about the Mueller investigation and about Paul Manafort and his connections to Ukraine and Russia. His latest piece, Foer's latest piece, is titled "Russian-Style Kleptocracy Is Infiltrating America."

So the way that you first got on to this story of possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia was that your grandmother was from Ukraine. And Russia had invaded Ukraine. The president of Ukraine was a Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych who Paul Manafort had represented. That was his - one of his doorways into Ukraine and part of his major connections to Russia. So your grandmother died in December. You wrote a beautiful tribute to her in The Atlantic. She survived World War II - your family is Jewish. She survived World War II by hiding and by walking. Like, give us a sense of how far she walked to try to evade the Nazis.

FOER: So my grandmother was a teenager, and she'd been a communist. And she knew that - she just had this intuition - she always described it as an intuition - that life was about to get miserable for herself. And so as the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazis, were starting to pour into her shtetl. She decided to run with a couple of her friends. And she went to her sister, and her sister took off her shoes and handed her her shoes and said, you're going to need these. And she went into her house - and she doesn't even know - she could never explain why. But she grabbed a heavy winter jacket, even though it was the spring, and a pair of scissors, and she just started to move east. And she became adept at hiding potatoes in her skirt. And she just kept going.

And I think that she logged almost 2,500 miles of walking and ended up in an armaments factory in Kazakhstan and then a collective farm in Uzbekistan and then made her way back to her town at the end of the war and found out that her entire family had been murdered. There was nothing to return home to.

And you would think that somebody with that kind of biography, who lived with so much pain and so much trauma, would become defined by that pain and trauma. But one of the miracles of my grandmother - maybe one of the miracles of human nature - is that when you're subjected to something like that, sometimes you just become more of your true self. And as her grandson, I was able to experience her true joy at having children and grandchildren and the ways in which she was able to just milk life for the little pleasures of the Hershey's Kiss or going to a college graduation or giving a kiss to a grandchild that was - where she would apply this incredible pressure to your cheek and make this sucking sound. That's just going to stay with me forever.

GROSS: How old were you when you found out what she had endured during World War II?

FOER: I was in about fifth grade. So the Holocaust was something that was never spoken in my mother's - when my mother was a child. There were all these secrets. There were all of these traumas that were kept hidden from children. But in the 19 - early 1980s things started to change pretty quickly with the Holocaust. Meryl Streep was in a miniseries about the Holocaust. There was a convention of survivors in Washington, D.C. And it almost legitimated and liberated survivors to tell their story. And my grandmother became this superhero to us, where all these traumas in her head were constructed into a narrative of survival and then redemption.

GROSS: Did it frighten you to hear these stories?

FOER: It didn't really because - well, you know, there's this field of epigenetics, which is about the ways in which experiences can be passed down and the ways in which trauma can be handed down from generation to generation. There were nightmares that I had as a child. But even, so there was a way in which - because she was so joyous and happy, I wasn't able to - it didn't wallop me in in the way that you think it might.

But there were other secrets. I mean, one of the things - my grandmother was - when she was buried, for the first time, my family discussed in public how her first husband had committed suicide. My grandfather committed suicide in 1954 when he came here. And why was that kept a secret? I think that the protective layers that we coat around ourselves and around our family and the ways in which we try to protect them from the harshest truths mean that sometimes - you think you're staring in the face of total darkness, but there's darkness beyond the darkness that you can't grasp.

GROSS: When you wrote your remembrance of your grandmother after she died, you mentioned in the piece that the backdrop for this was the massacre in the synagogue in Pittsburgh. And I think for a lot of people who are the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, the Holocaust seemed kind of in the distance - you know, growing up safely in the United States. And I wonder what those two - what the collision of those two things - your grandmother's death after surviving the Holocaust and the massacre at the synagogue in Pittsburgh - what the collision of the two brought out in you.

FOER: So one of the privileges and burdens of being my grandmother's grandchild was this feeling of always being connected to the history of the Jewish people into this master narrative of suffering and redemption. And so much about my grandmother's life was about bearing witness to history's worst, to anti-Semitism. And there was - in her life story, there was this sense of triumph that here she was, living in this country where she not only managed to survive, but she entered this environment of pluralism and diversity. It was kind of an American Zion. It was a place where Jews could achieve and feel safe. And at the same moment that she's on the cusp of death and it feels like this chapter is closing and - that I felt like I was losing my witness, my - the person who kept alive the memory of the Holocaust.

At that same moment, we see this surge of anti-Semitism that's encapsulated in the massacre in Pittsburgh. And I did conflate the two. They were part of the way that I experienced the last part of that year. And my grandmother hadn't quite died when the Tree of Life massacre occurred, but I kept - it - but she was lying in her deathbed. And she was kind of coming in and out of consciousness. And of course, nobody told her about what had happened. But in my head, I kept imagining how horrible it would've been for her to know that fact, and it would've been even harder for her than it was for the rest of us.

GROSS: Well, I'm sorry for your loss.

FOER: Thank you.

GROSS: Franklin Foer, thank you so much for talking with us. And congratulations again on your nomination for a National Magazine Award.

FOER: Thank you.

GROSS: Franklin Foer is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His latest article is titled "Russian-Style Kleptocracy Is Infiltrating America." His article "American Hustler" about Paul Manafort is nominated for a 2019 National Magazine Award.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: A tempestuous younger male with an aggressive streak.

GROSS: The BBC series "Dynasties" follows five groups of animals for up to two years, revealing their social relationships, kinship, affection and sometimes deadly power struggles. We'll hear from executive producer Michael Gunton. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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