Family pictures

  • January 3, 2010
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My grandmother, Frieda Kahn Westerfeld (age 8), and her three brothers in 1906. She was killed in Camp Biaski in Lublin, Poland in 1941 at the age of 43.

For descendants of the Holocaust, family history is one of the great losses. Most of us have few photos, documents or objects from the family’s past. We have no storyline of history. We feel an acute sense of discontinuity, dislocation — a lack of identity.

Imagine my delight this morning when I opened an email from my mother’s cousin and discovered this image. Kenny Kahn (who was known as Carl in Germany) wrote that his father is the eldest in the picture.

Photographs are the most tangible link to the past. It’s not surprising that the first item families save from a house fire are family photo albums. Pictures illicit memories, maybe even more than letters. We can identify who we are through what we see.

But for my mother, pictures were much more complicated. As I wrote in Motherland, “Pictures spark memory, but for my mother, the past was not a place to find refuge; it was a place from which she was a refugee. She was safe so long as her memory didn’t drop in like an unwelcome visitor. Pictures and relics only extended the invitation.”

For me, the few pictures my mother had of her German childhood “offered a thrilling if sketchy tour of her place, a moment in which to glimpse her people.” My people.

Yes, now I see … there is a resemblance between my grandmother and me.

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