Old Photographs Bring Memories to Life

19 Aug

My siblings and I recently spent a weekend together cleaning the attic, basement and garage of a house in the Catskills that our family has owned for well over 50 years.   And although our parents made an effort to clean out some of our grandparents’ items when they inherited it, it still was quite full.

It has been a process. This was our final weekend of cleaning. My brother with some help from his son and a friend, had already moved out the old metal bungalow furniture and moved in furniture from our parent’s apartment.

We had cleaned out clothing and personal items. We had moved out some items that we wanted in our respective homes. But now it was time to get rid of the stuff that had just collected and decayed over time.

My brother ordered a 20-cubit yard dumpster that he demanded be filled by the end of the weekend. My sister and I thought he was crazy. There was no way we would have that much junk. We were wrong. And it was, amazingly, filled. The house is now in order. Clean, organized and ready for us to use it. We had a feeling of accomplishment by the time we were done.

Two of my nieces were there as well. And the four women, my sister and my nieces and I did the heavy emotional work, we went through thousands upon thousands of photos. We sorted them for each family. We made piles for our cousins. There were some we just discarded and put into the dumpster. And then we put together the ones we all wanted for me to take home and scan into my computer, for I am the family archivist. I will make digital copies and send them out to everyone.

Front Great grandpa USA Visa

The treasures we found included our great grandfather’s passport and 1936 visa to come to the USA from Poland. Our grandparents worked diligently to get the paper work accomplished to bring him and my great aunt to the USA. It saved their lives. My Mom would tell the story of going to Ellis Island with my grandparents to get them when they arrived from Poland.

Years later, when my children were little, we went with my parents to Ellis Island. My Mom asked, “Where are all the cages?” The main room was a large empty space. But on the wall were photos of what the room looked like in the days it was in use. And the metal bars between lines of people could have looked like cages to a child. We think that is what she saw.

In the bags and albums, we found photos of people in Europe from before the Shoah. And wondered how many of them perished? We found photos of our great aunt Tova and our great grandmother Chava. Photos we had never seen before. Our great grandmother is young in this photo. My brother and niece have her mouth. We know they both perished, along with many other family members.

Photos of our parents taken in Hudson County Park, North Bergen, NJ, in the 1960s were also a rare find. They were dressed up, obviously ready to go out somewhere. Mom even had white gloves on… white gloves and a sort of ‘mini’ skirt: an interesting combination; a transition between two generations, two styles of dress. There are no full skirts here.

We found pictures of our aunts and uncles from both sides of our family, grandparents, great aunts and uncles; photos of us and our cousins when we were little. They were wonderful finds. We even found three photos taken during the Woodstock weekend in 1969. We thought all of them had been lost years ago when my Dad tried to mail them to me and the envelope broke while in route.

My nieces loved one photo in particular, of my brother, sister and I when we were in our teens. We hate it. But the girls wanted to keep it as ‘blackmail.’

We found wonderful documents: the list from our parent’s wedding; some of Dad’s school papers, and his army paper, a telegram he sent his parents from the army. One of his school papers said he was in the choir in high school. We all laughed, Dad could not carry a tune!

Grandma Thelma graduation from night school she is second in middle row

A favorite was group photo of our Grandma with the other students, when she graduated from night school, after immigrating to the USA in the 1920s.

The attic held a bonanza of information! We actually thought we had found it all because previous cleanings we had found 8mm movies that my brother had turned into DVDs and other photos that I had used to make a book of family history.

But the most amazing find was a photo album of my grandmother from before her marriage. There was one young woman in many of the photos with Grandma. We were sure it was her best friend and cousin, Katie. But there were no names written on any photo. It was so frustrating. But then we found a more recent photo with my grandparents and another couple. In this one the woman was identified. And yes it was Katie. My sister and I were so excited!! When we compared her face to the young women in the photos we knew that we had discovered and identified our lost relative.

There are many photos in the album that were taken in Europe. On the back many are inscribed to my loving cousin, Tova, in Yiddish and in German. I think they are photos given to her before she left Poland for the United States in 1922.

I have that album with me now. I am going to try to match some of the unnamed people with photos that we have where people are identified. I have already found photos of my grandmother’s siblings.

It is a puzzle, and I am determined to make as many matches as possible because these old photographs bring my grandparents’ and parents’ memories back to life.

 

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