While attempting to clean up what I laughing call my office I knocked a box off a shelf – out tumble all the family photos I had found when I closed up my mother’s house. The photos I had promised myself I would scan and catalogue while there were still people around who could remember those faces and places. A well-intentioned task still not begun 10 years later.
That and a New York Times article about a photograph exhibition at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York had me turning to a bookshelf to find an incredible book Laurent bought me when we lived in Warsaw: And I Still See Their Faces.*
Compiled by Golda Tencer, a Polish Jew, it is filled with ordinary family photos of the 3.3 million-strong Jewish community that existed in Poland before the Second World War: photos of people at weddings, funerals and celebrations, in classrooms, at work, play and prayer – the marvelous and the mundane. Of themselves none of the photos are extraordinary except that most of those people did not survive the War and that over 90% of the pictures were sent to Tencer by gentiles, many of them Poles.
As affecting as the photos are the notations on them and the accompanying letters explain who these people are and how the sender came upon their pictures. Often they reveal prejudice against Jews except those who happened to be their friends and neighbors. (I was reminded of my own upbringing in Orange Protestant Toronto where all Catholics were bad except the Polish family next door who were among our best friends.) But more often they simply reveal decent people for whom those photos bring back happier days.
Of one couple in a photograph a correspondent wrote to Tencer:
They had three children – Zosia, Monika and Liba. My parents were invited to the confirmation ceremony of one of them, although they practiced a different religion. And this photograph might have been given to my parents at the hard moment of farewell – for them to remember their friendship. I am sending it to you, thus certifying that a Mr. and Mrs. Rajch once existed and lived happily in Kalisz.
*I was not able to locate this book on any of the bookstore sites but the link goes to a beautifully produced website that includes a good number of the photos and texts. Sadly I was not able to find Mr. and Mrs. Rajch.