The family photos of my early childhood were the substitute for my extended family of real people. There was no photo album . . . just a blue leather purse about the size of a small notebook. It was piped in white around the edges, and it was always kept in a drawer in the dining room buffet. I don’t remember when my mother told me who all those people were, but I knew they were the aunts and uncles and grandparents we had to leave behind when we escaped Vienna and the Nazis in 1939.
There were pictures of my parents and other relatives wearing old-fashioned bathing suits, and everyone was lounging by the water and smiling into the camera. Other photos showed them hiking in the Vienna Woods, looking very fit and happy.
There were professional photos of very elegant women, posing seductively for the camera. They looked so exotic to me. I knew their names and how they were related to me, but I had no actual memory of them. I would often take the photos out of the blue purse and arrange them, like trading cards, on the dining room table.
This was my ghost family; the people I was supposed to grow up being around. Many did not survive the Holocaust, and those who did were scattered all over the world. Still, these pictures were my treasures, and I took great comfort in them. It gave me a sense of belonging to something that I never felt: being an alien in the country where I was living. The people in the photographs were my people.
It is no wonder that, since age ten, I have always owned at least one camera, and I have usually captured on film every family event that was special to us. Today, sixty years later, all my children have boxes of family pictures. When we get together, we often look at them and relive some of those great moments. We all love these photos, and the huge difference between these pictures and the ones that were in the blue purse is that our present photos are of people who are still alive and well, and in our lives. They are not ghost family photos any more.