My grandparents came from the hardscrabble villages of Lithuania, Romania, Poland and Russia. Like millions of other immigrants at the turn of the century, they left their families to start a new life in the Golden Land. Along with their traditions, they brought a few precious photographs, inscribed on the front with the name of the photographer who took them. Inscribed on the back, in a careful Yiddish hand, the identity of each person photographed, along with an exhortation not to forget those left behind. One inscription says: “Tell us everything; what you are doing, what you are earning. Don’t forget to write to Grandma.” Some of the writing is faded and lost to time; but the message is still clear: Remember us.
My grandparents left the only culture they knew, and set off to assimilate into the foreign culture of a new world. They went to school at night, learned English, and earned meager wages. They used their few spare pennies to invest in their own camera. Unlike the photographic portraits they brought from Eastern Europe, where subjects had to sit motionless and wait out long exposure times, my grandparents’ photographs captured spontaneous moments. They documented the absolute ordinariness of their own lives: Cooling off on the rooftop of a New York tenement, pushing a stroller down the streets of Brooklyn, posing in front of the modest store they ran. No longer would a photographer in Vilna or Bucharest direct and interpret their family; they instead would capture their own moments and preserve their own memories.
These photographs are my patrimony, and I treasure them. They’re a link to people I didn’t know but whose courage and determination insured that I’d have a better life than they did. The photographs are an un-curated time capsule, allowing me to know people intimately who I never had a chance to meet. I am indebted to my grandparents for having the foresight to so thoroughly document their lives. I am repaying this debt by capturing the absolute ordinariness of the lives of my family members: holiday dinners, reunions with cousins not often seen, an occasional wedding. I take my job as family archivist seriously; creating, indexing, sorting and backing up image files.
I believe in the power of these photographs. I believe they are a critical link between generations, and not just ornaments that we frame or paste into a scrapbook. Like the portraits schlepped by my ancestors in a serpentine path across Europe to America more than a hundred years ago, the subject of each photograph in its own way says, “Remember me.”
I want to.
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