Before the war, few families in our town in Poland owned a camera. Photographs were taken, if at all, at professional studios, with intricate preparations on special occasions. My mother carefully and lovingly kept our family pictures in an elaborately decorated wooden box. These pictures were viewed only on special occasions, usually in honor of some distinguished visitor to our household. And sometimes, when I was sick, my mother would take out the wooden box, our "kasetka," and our photographic journey would begin.
During the war, which my family survived by running and hiding from the Nazis, the "kasetka" and pre-war pictures were lost along with everything else. Few pictures were taken of our family in the years immediately following the war; there were more important things to do than pose for photographs.
When I completed high school at the age of 18 - an unusual achievement for someone who missed many years of schooling during the war - my father bought a Russian camera for me. The camera was an extravagant gift, purchased on the black market. Its trade name was "Zorka." There were many buttons and settings for distance and light, but no instructions. It was not surprising that, after a few unsuccessful attempts to master the camera, it malfunctioned. Still, it provided an attractive adornment for a young girl's shoulder.
Years later, when I had settled in New York and enrolled for a course of studies at Columbia University, I selected one class on audiovisuals. I bought a camera, an old-fashioned monster by today's standards, with many buttons and a complicated set of instructions. When the class ended, I left most of the family picture-taking to my husband. Years later, when cameras became automatic and simple to use, and produced clear pictures with little effort on my part, I became addicted to photography. I took pictures of my family and friends on vacations, while visiting and at parties. Recently, my grandchildren have become my favorite subjects. I have filled many albums.
Last summer, I prepared my luggage for a European vacation. I carefully packed my camera and many rolls of film. During our trip, my husband and I decided to take a little detour from our organized tour so that I could visit a cousin with whom I shared a childhood and many good and not-so-good memories. The beautiful, precocious, only child of an affluent family, he was younger than I, and he survived the war, but at a price. Separated from his family at the age of 7 or 8, he was hidden by a decent gentile family. He lived in a hole for 3 years, and stopped growing as a result of inhuman conditions and lack of proper nourishment and daylight. After the war, he reunited with his family. Yet, he remained a dwarf. His parents consulted many specialists and finally found a physician in Sweden who could stimulate his growth. Later, in poor health and without a profession, my cousin wandered to a foreign country where he married a good woman of another ethnic, religious and cultural background. Although he is now a man of 60 years, my cousin is still scarred emotionally and physically. Our meetings are rare, but emotional.
On this visit, I received a warm reception from my cousin and his wife. In the evening, after many "do you remember him ?"s and "remember when ?,"s and showing off my recent family photographs, I mentioned that I had no pictures of any of our family and friends lost in the war. His wife left the room and returned, handing me a box filled with loose photographs. This was my cousin's "kasetka," somehow saved by his mother. I pored over the pictures and the faces of people from the past. The photographs transported me to another time and place, evoking cherished memories, many long forgotten. It was like watching an old, much-loved movie. Although the people had been dead for 50 years, their faces came to life before me. I saw Edward Nowak, a 3-year-old boy, and his older sister, Irene. Their upturned noses and fair complexions refuted the Nazi stereotype of the Jew. I remembered spending many afternoons playing with them. But I also remembered the scary story of their deaths. Their parents, running out of hiding places, hid them temporarily in a commercial stove, where they perished. The children were 5 and 9 when they died; their parents were killed shortly thereafter.
My grandparents' house in Drohobycz.
When the evening was over, my cousin's wife offered the pictures to me, to keep. My cousin did not object, and I gratefully accepted. At night, in my hotel room, I spent a sleepless night, haunted by ghosts from my childhood. Again, I looked through the photographs and remembered family gatherings, suppers, birthday parties. Most of our friends and family were attractive, slim and fair, with blue eyes and light hair. I never realized how beautiful they were. I thought of the Nazi propaganda depicting Jews as hunchbacked, bowlegged monsters with long noses and huge ears. What a contrast! Again, I went over the faces of this extinct generation. I weeded out a few pictures of people not familiar to me. I heard their laughter, the laughter of young people at parties, skiing, playing tennis. But these memories were imaginary; I did not know the people. At the same time, I realized that there was no one left to admire or enjoy the pictures, and no one left to remember the people. I arranged them carefully into a package and put it in my suitcase.
We proceeded with our organized tour. Somehow, for the rest of the tour, I did not enjoy taking pictures. A day or two later, my camera broke. I promised myself that I would replace it as soon as I returned to the United States. Yet, when I returned from the trip, I began to wonder if there is really any point in taking and saving photographs. Who are the pictures for? Who will look at them in years to come?
Almost a year has passed since my trip, and I have not replaced my camera. And I do not miss it. I have a box filled with beautiful pictures taken long ago. I do not know what to do with them. Does anyone want these beautiful pictures? Pictures, pictures anyone?