She began to speak, and as she described her aunts on their hands and knees, scrubbing the now-rotting steps leading to the second floor, it seemed that her persona altered, transformed by the kind of fleeting memory that leaves before it fully arrives. Suddenly she was grasping for words. With no vegetation in sight and just a few cracked tiles covered by the sooty evidence of where the coal was stored, the courtyard felt like a haunted place. Above us the sky had turned a milky white, suffusing the space with a silent glow.
As she stood bravely in that battered and crumbling enclosure my mother removed her glasses, her emotions welling up inside. We were alone in her reverie, me with my camera as a shield and she with her half-buried past pushing itself out, trying to break through. It seemed no one would find us here; no one could disturb the stillness.
When I look at these photos of her, visibly shaken in that dismal place, I imagine her as a girl of three, naïvely unaware of the cataclysmic events stretching out before her, playing and whispering and secure in her tiny universe. Undoubtedly that world had spun in a slower way, filled with promise and sweet noise.
When my mother returned to Europe in 1947, first to see my father in Paris, then to visit Zawiercie, she placed a new stone on her aunt Zosia’s grave. Forty-six years later I photographed her in that cemetery, clutching a few flowers and gesturing toward where she remembered Zosia’s resting place to be. She had arrived at this moment so certain of the grave’s location that instinct propelled her movements, and where the bottom of her dress blends with the undergrowth she seems to float, melting in the background and creating an almost audible rustling. But time and memory betrayed my mother in that place, and our efforts to find the grave went unrewarded.
Though we visited on a sunny day, with the light glaring hard above the canopy of trees, the glow inside the cemetery was soft, the light barely trespassing its boundaries. Ivy flooded the ground, poised to soon engulf the land and overwhelm any visual link to the past. Once proud tombstones testifying to centuries of Jewish life and death were now at the mercy of the whims of nature, like the pitch and yaw of tiny boats in a raging sea.
” On our way to Zawiercie we had stopped in Sosnowiecz to see Mania Orbachowa, a friend of my mother’s from before the war. Her apartment overlooked a busy street with railroad tracks in the distance where trains carried coal across Upper Silesia, the region in southwest Poland encompassing Cracow, Zawiercie, and Auschwitz. Mania lived alone with her memories and had assumed that we would stay with her, even preparing her own bed for us to sleep in. But we declined to inconvenience her, choosing instead to stay in a tired Communist-era hotel with a casino I was barred from entering because I wore blue jeans.
In the fading light of that day I photographed Mania’s bed, the tired covers turned back so carefully. The dull wallpaper in her bedroom was torn and dry glue showed at the seams. It felt as if the clock of her life had stopped, our visit a silent gray dream from the past. My mother and her friend sat together and spoke loudly, their words punctuated by muffled wails and tears. I wandered around quietly in the other rooms of the apartment, looking through my camera while trying to understand the emotions I was hearing, feelings spoken in the language I had heard as a child but was now so distant from.”