Often I ruminate for a long time and work on successive drafts of a piece. This one was written in part of an evening; reproduced as written.
Not so long ago, Sara found a photograph from her childhood. Looking for something else, she found, completely unexpectedly, that it fell out of a packet of papers. She was astonished and called me to see it. There had been one other childhood photograph, of Sara lying down on a beach with her sister, but this had gone missing; she found that abut a week ago. Sara had had no idea that there was any other photograph, and one reason for the contact that she had established with her sister was to seek images from her childhood. This contact had proved to be fruitless, and has ceased for the time being.
I have missed the whole first 53 years of Sara’s life, and there are only photographs and recollections to evoke her adult life. Her childhood, an unhappy one, has proved to be much more elusive. So any evidence of her earliest life has a special poignancy, assigning much to imagination. It remains uncertain, with no individual or cultural guidance, how far any of her past, as with anyone’s childhood, should now matter to me. Much of my own childhood seems irrelevant to my adult life, and to re-evoke its narrative could be to bring forward an account that neither explains my present life, nor provides a portal to an enjoyable or pleasant story. No doubt much of Sara’s distant past is of similar quality. But this photograph proved, literally, a snapshot that could take my imagination into an era long gone.
Sara did not recall the taking of the photograph, or the place in which it was taken. There is nothing unusual in that, as most photographs do not betray any provenance. But it is clearly not one that was passed round the family, celebrated, or discussed; it is simply a survivor, with no indication as to how it has survived.
There are four small children, looking, as Sara and I have agreed, like those tragic photographs of central European Jewish children that did not survive the Holocaust. What makes this so sad is the knowledge that there was tragedy ahead – Simcha, the boy on the left, was to die of cancer, and the two little girls would soon lose their mother, whom Sara regarded as her favourite adult. Judy and Annie’s mother would be succeeded by a stepmother who would isolate them from Sara and her family. The group is obviously Jewish – Simcha is wearing a skullcap and Sara a ribbon in her hair. The confidence displayed by Judy, the stocky girl at the back, and her little sister Annie, in front, suggest that this was a photograph taken by their father, and probably in an environment familiar to them.
Simcha, on the left, is holding Annie’s hand, and Annie, a very pretty child, has her head slightly on one side. Much more uncertain, and holding noone’s hand, is Sara, the figure on the right. Her face is partly in shade because of the light, but it seems to convey an element of wariness. It is almost as though she knows what would lie ahead, and it is certainly the case that she knew what lay behind her and what would probably be there in the near future.
She is a serious figure, displaying an isolation from the world that, I feel, underlies her present integrity. She lacks a smile, even for the camera. Her father had made it clear that the children of holocaust survivors should rarely laugh or smile, and should always be serious. The seriousness that Sara featured was not all derived from her father’s public view; much more derived from his private, dark self.
What is my reaction to this photograph, the only one that has survived from 50 years ago? At first I was curious, to finally see what Sara’s lost brother and cousins looked like, and I was delighted that Sara had, at last, an image of her childhood and especially her beloved brother. But, enlarging the image of her, and looking much more closely at it, I was struck by powerful emotional responses, even a sense of grief. Some part of me wishes that I could have known Sara then, been able to reassure her that the nightmares would not go on for ever, to hold that child and tell her that, one day, she would be safe. And indeed, that she would be more than just cared about, that she would be loved, deeply loved, and loved for herself. It might be possible to analyse and rationalise such feelings in an intellectual fashion, but I do not think that this would be appropriate here. Writing tonight, this is a time for emotion, not analysis.