Jan 2006 Journal

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Making a New Life: Holocaust survivors and photographs

Some years ago I was wandering around a junk shop in Ontario when I was brought up with a start by a tray of old photographs. They were nineteenth-century portraits of ladies in full-length dresses with bustles and hats with gentlemen in suits with a variety of then fashionable headgear and children dressed like dolls. A label encouraged customers to 'Create your own ancestors!' I was shocked. What were they doing? These were real people with real identities. How dare they mislead and distort the truth. As time has passed, another response has enveloped me. There were so many displaced people in this country, uprooted from their place of birth, from their own families, from their own heritage. The appeal was to something deeper within the human psyche. The need to be part of a family, to feel part of a continuum, to have a past and a future. Was there really something wrong in people creating a myth to sustain them in a foreign land?

Now, this thought has come full circle with the experience of Holocaust survivors. There are at least two levels on which photographs can be treated. One is identified by Marianne Hirsch (Family Frames, Photography, Narrative and Postmemory, 1997, pp. 252-56), by which the conventional nature of family photographs enables the viewer to relate to the individual images in displays. She uses the example of the Tower of Faces in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, in which numerous photographs of a Lithuanian shtetl collected by a child survivor are mounted. She hears people saying all around her 'Look, look, look, we have a picture just like that in our album.'

This identification transcends ethnic identity and family history. It is at this level that unclaimed images might be fastened on to in an attempt to claim a mythical past. As Hirsch says, 'Like all family albums, the tower preserves and creates memory: it is a site of remembrance and commemoration. At a different level and with the knowledge that the town was destroyed by a mobile killing unit in September 1941 the viewer is forced to confront the images anew with a sense of anger and disbelief.'

This other level on which they are treated is as evidence of life before and after the Holocaust. For two Belsen survivors, writing to their newly discovered surviving sister in England in 1945, Anita and Renate Lasker pleaded: ' ... we are longing for one thing. Please send us some photographs: of you and your husband - and if it's possible of our parents and of home' (Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Inherit the Truth 1939-1945, 1996). Photographs gave them back an identity but also enabled them to locate themselves in a life beyond.

Photographs accurately identified provide evidence of real lives altered by the experience of the Holocaust. Embedded in life histories, they enrich the record. As post-memory, they identify families, individuals, homes, homelands as a lasting record of Nazi crimes.

The Making a New Life Project is directed towards encouraging survivors in Yorkshire to allow access to treasured photographs of their lives. For some, it has become more rather than less painful to look at them. For others, the loss of photographs is seen as one of the most painful aspects of their experiences. Arek Hersch feels this acutely yet is comforted by the fact that it is only when looking at his grandchild that he can recall what his mother looked like. Where photographs survive they serve to aid the memory to recall past events and family gatherings. For some survivors, they recall the activities of their fathers as active photographers in the 1930s. Julius Guggenheimer, father of Lorle Michaelis, was president of his local photographic society in Memmingen, Bavaria, and she treasures his studies of light and shade in the monastery of Ottobüren and his photographs of the family and her beloved nurse, Maria.

One of Iby Knill's family stories revolves around her father's efforts to take a photograph at the zoo, involving a camera, tripod, cloak and flashlight and a startled elephant!

Our efforts have been towards preserving the images linked to the survivors, as far as possible accurately identified and dated. The time will come, as it is does for us all, when albums inherited from parents or relations include images that we have never seen before of people and views with no labels, unidentified, lost in an irretrievable past. We may fantasise about them but we will never know who or where they were. How much more valuable for posterity will it be to have these images intimately connected with the survivors their lives and their reality clearly identified and located? Who can then invent another past for them?

This is the fourth article in the series.
Brett Harrison

previous article:The AJR Journal sixty years on
next article:'Making a Difference': Holocaust Memorial Day, January 2006