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Family Photographs

Oliver Sears

Famly Photographs

RTE1, July February 24, 2019

There is a photograph of my mother, aged about two and a half, sitting in an ornate frame on the table in the hallway of her apartment. Chubby little hands clasped together, an oversized white bow in her hair and a puppy-eyed look of contentment on her face. How many times have similar moments been captured on film since the invention of photography, to be framed, magnetised to a fridge door or slipped into a family album? A snapshot of innocence, the infant darling, incalculably precious and vulnerable. But my mother's photograph comes with a three word caption that attaches a gravity to the little girl's circumstances that no child should experience. ' In the Ghetto' is what I see every time I pass that photograph. And, living with the knowledge that this small child, the person who brought me into this world, was incarcerated and destined to die in a gas chamber for the simple crime of being Jewish, has shaped my attitude to and philosophy of living in my world far beyond my own understanding.


Two black and white photographs of my grandfather recall a privileged, carefree life that could not have possibly foreseen the horror to come. A group shot of family and friends in front of his country residence, outside the city of Łódź, has Pawel standing at one end, smartly dressed and in charge; the bearing of a man with the self confidence only inherited wealth lends. And here he is, blurred and somewhat hard to make out, but definitely kissing my grandmother. A remarkably intimate photograph given the times and amplified in meaning, knowing he was murdered soon after, at the beginning of the war.


The false wartime identity papers that my grandmother purchased show a passport sized photograph of her with blond hair staring straight ahead. A new and necessary look to heighten her Aryan credentials, along with her acquired, nondescript Polish name and unlikely declared profession of ‘typist’. How to measure the fear and desperation in those eyes, hiding from a regime programmed to turn you, your family and your culture into ash. A postwar passport shows mother and daughter in 1946 with all the correct information, both connected and disconnected to each other. Identities known to everyone but no longer understood by themselves. 


My grandmother’s second husband, a Jewish dentist, also from Poland but who had been on a dental conference in London when war broke out, was stranded and never saw another family member again. They married in 1947 and he adopted my mother. Here they are, dancing. She is eight and this is the first time she has experienced having a father. Is this what it would have looked like had his pregnant wife survived, back in Poland? In another we have the answer. He is dancing with my grandmother and they hold each other with a bond that weeps for all time. These relationships are forged foremost out of loss, not love, although a deep love grew over time between husband and wife and father and adopted daughter.


My mother's account of early childhood confirms how resilient children are; how innate curiosity and the need to learn and grow overcome the most adverse predicament. But we also learn about her mother, Krisia’s resolute determination to keep her child alive, somehow. Little Monika, her only link to her slain husband. Her only reason to go on. And my mother's fragmented memory tells us of Pola, a trusted family domestic, who brings her up as her Catholic daughter concealing her identity and loving her like any mother. How telling that the love of these two women has more impact on her formative years than the memory of hunger, fear and countless other wartime privations. How the bond of maternal love allows a child enough security not only to survive but to grow emotionally, to play, laugh and experience joy even within this historical context is both inspiring and comforting to me.


I try to present my mother's early life as a good news story, both to myself and to those who come to learn about it. My mother, after all, is a survivor, the Nazis are long vanquished and I, for whom a great deal of effort was expounded in order that I never be born, exist. The scale of events that we collectively call the Holocaust can only be successfully communicated by the recounting of individual stories. I hope that my mother's compelling story of survival will inform those of us who have mercifully never known it, exactly where discrimination can lead and what a state of war means. No one should know such fear.


Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. Today I remember them all.

Oliver Sears

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