If a photograph is like a time capsule, a tribute that one pays in the present to the future, then before you is a capsule within a capsule. Standing, as if on the balcony of a first-floor apartment: a mother, her husband, and their two daughters, presiding over a small gathering. The woman’s eyes are cast downward; the white of her blouse draws a neat line to its scintillating twin, the hat of a young girl, the object of her gaze. Her husband looks ahead—at the lens, at the timeless viewer, unmoored in a particular present yet free to instantiate him or herself in one, in order to view. Four figures, below, look on with him. Some happening to the side has caught most of the other gazes, except two. The other woman in white also stares at the young girl, and, toward the right- hand side, a woman appears as if she is looking beyond the gathering, perhaps trying to envision a navigable passage between the group and the train.
This is a train. This is September 16, 1938, Vienna Central Station. And this is a family. The man to the far right is the brother of the woman with the downcast eyes. The man to the far left is the brother of her husband, whose hand grips the top of the window frame and whose armpit forms an alcove over his daughter’s head, the kind of space-making gesture that comes naturally to a parent. They are on a journey—North, as the sign below indicates—a journey which will take them out of Austria, annexed six months earlier by the Nazis, and toward Hamburg, where they will board a boat to take them far away. Their family, those on the ground, have decided to stay. This is the last photograph they’ll all take together. The three young girls in the photo look distractedly to the side, to what is not captured. Each of them has hold of something: the window’s edge, some object or garment close to their chests.
They are separated by space and also by time. The girl below will be lost to those above for many war-stricken years. The old gentleman beside her, the father of the dark, bowtied husband in the window, will shortly be killed at Auschwitz. In fact, everyone down below—except the girl, the woman standing second from the right, and the man to the far left—would be dead by 1945. Those above are called back by the black depth behind them, into which they will soon recede. Like the Voyager spacecraft, they will soon shoot down the long track and into the future, for the future.
“Why did one leave? That is an impossible question,” the woman in the window would later write. “Note,” she continues, “not a question which is impossible to answer, but an impossible question. We will not leave. Or, leave what? Time is not locked to place, or not always. It has been cut loose. Sometimes, in order to keep up with time, in order to stay with it, you must run after it. If from under your feet you watch the world evacuate from itself, can you rightly say you haven’t moved at all, haven’t left?”
The rule that a family should grow across generations is here inverted. The two young girls in this window will become the bottleneck through which the promise of these ghosts must one day pass if it is not to evaporate for good. One of those girls, the one who grips the window and directs her gaze somewhere beyond the frame, is Eva. She is my grandmother.
In his essay “Berlin Childhood around 1900,” Walter Benjamin devotes a portion of his attention to the loggias which lined the inside of Berlin’s many courtyards. He writes, “Later, from the perspective of the railroad embankment, I rediscovered the courtyards. When, on sultry summer afternoons, I gazed down on them from my compartment, the summer appeared to have parted from the landscape and locked itself in those courtyards.” Before his eyes, Benjamin sees a commonplace structure, a particular geometry whose unique configuration allows it to capture, maintain, and breathe life into that quivering, ephemeral, substanceless substance which has since past—summer. This, it seems to me, is a vision of history. The historian finds himself not only in the process of selection, but also of arrangement. He does not recreate the past, but rather arrays its delicate fragments, in the echo of an echo of Stonehenge, in such a way as to trap the right light, or to make the wind that winds through it whistle. And it is this wind, and this light, this ephemeral illumination of a constellation of meaning, this substance that is not proper to the historian’s arrangement, but which could not be called forth without it, that constitutes the coming-into-being of history.
A few years ago, I visited the niece of one of the women in this photograph. I received from her a large stack of photographs, letters, and miscellaneous documents belonging to the woman in the window—Anna Sternschuss, my great-grandmother—and her brother Max, on the far right. Among these papers was the letter, quoted above, which Anna wrote to Max and his wife at some point after the moment captured by this photograph. Since my visit, I have slowly approached the task of going through these documents, translating them, and doing the constructive or reconstructive work that, it seemed to me, one’s family history demands. In going through Anna’s documents and calling forth a life—a life that is not my own and yet is the absolute prerequisite to my own—I do not aim to reconstruct some historical truth or reality as it pertains to my family. I look instead, as Benjamin did, for that brief bit of summer that, from time to time and in just the right spot, grazes the landscape of the present.
What is it that we can hope to capture, to make still, when putting a history together?
If we are not careful, the photograph of the Sternschuss family at the train station risks being implanted with significance. When the historian is rather like the real estate speculator, every artifact is evaluated as a plot of land, a site with “potential,” upon which she can erect a definite structure of meaning. We have an idea, an existing narrative, of what 1938 was in Austria. We feel the tug of temptation, the itching desire to overlay our categories: the poor souls below are among “six million,” the lone four above, in the perfect quantitative reduction they represent, are counted among the “survivors.” The survivors will be invited to synagogues and pro-Israel institutions and the lobbies of tree-planting funds to say prayers for the former. The survivors will stand before the congregation as the Rabbi intones, more or less: “Here is Eva Libman, née Sternschuss, and she is a survivor, though not a survivor like Ernst over there, whom we might say is in a rather different category of survival. He was in Auschwitz.” Gasps from the audience.
If we are not careful, we will say that the image of the train signifies the branching moment of survival, that if you look closely at its negative, you will see Hitler and all the rest. This is the fatal error that comes with the stultification of our historical arrangements; this is the error of trapping the past in the cage of its future. Yet this moment, frozen like a fly in amber by the photograph, cannot be penetrated nor accessed as it was. How to stop speaking to our artifacts, to stop breaking the shell for the sake of the nut, and instead to let them speak to and through us: that is the challenge.
“Dock kiss, 1925.” This is what’s written on the back of the photograph above. Anna sits between the legs of a man named Eugene, the same man pictured in the window of the train. His eyes are fixed on hers, perhaps on the bridge of her nose. She is so close to him that he goes cross-eyed trying to fix his gaze. Their cheekbones meet, and their mouths hover together within the space of an inch, the way that mouths which have kissed before, the one knowing the cracks and contours of the other, are wont to do. Anna looks on at something beyond the frame, or maybe at the crest of Eugene’s cheek. He embraces her with all four limbs, with the entirety of his body, holding her shoulder with his left hand saddling her hip with his left leg. Their heads are dry, and yet the dock is covered with the watermark that footprints make on old wood. Perhaps they’ve gone in already and are being dried off by the sun, which imperfectly streaks the surface of the water behind them. Or maybe they’re waiting to warm up before taking the plunge, and Eugene will soon remove his dock shoes and step into frigid water.
They grab hold of their own shins, just beneath the knee, as if to keep this bodily arrangement— put together imperfectly but held at the joints by a desire that reveals itself in the slight tension of the fingers that grip and take hold—from coming apart, perhaps in time, perhaps only right there, on the dock that might cradle back and forth with the minor current of the lake beneath it.
Neither one of them seems keen on moving, and yet the posture of the embrace is taught and marked by the implicit knowledge that relaxation would be its undoing. Anna’s legs spill forward in a cross, out of the triangle of her lover’s lap. She must get up before he can, and her body gives no hints as to when that will be. The image tells us of the delicate tenderness of love, a bond that trembles into existence and always keeps its eye on its own extinction, laying just beyond the frame.
Placed beside the image of the train, the two flicker like the embers of an exhausted fire being reignited by a lung-full of air. In both, we see Eugene—Geneck, as he was affectionately called—performing the architecture of love, ensconcing Anna (on the dock) and his daughter Ada (on the train) in a certain arrangement of limbs that is neither inhibitive nor unzealous.
And yet, as we gently nudge these two moments together, it is the figure of Anna which smolders and radiates most intensely. Her eyes betray the fact that her mind wanders elsewhere. The lens and the occasion of the photograph seem not to register with her. She looks down, or beyond; her eyes track the world as it evacuates itself from beneath her feet, not only in times of war and trauma, but also in times of love, in times of summer; at all times. The world falls away like wet sand being drawn out into the rip current, the only mark of its receding force being the heels that have sunk deeper into the terrain upon which they meant only to tread.
In September 1964, Anna, sitting in her study in Montréal, will write, “The season is fading, the drudgery of work goes on. Summers here are brief and intense, and they call out their rapid descent into autumn with a single, cold day, usually in mid-August, the herald of what’s to come! It reminds me of those years in Vienna and with Geneck. Everything seemed so good and bright. And they were. But the good makes one uneasy, and makes [one] feel rather like a decadent Roman jolted out of his daydream in the bathhouse by the call of a barbarian war horn… The presentiment of the bad creeps in. You sense that there will be arguments and tears right when things couldn’t be more splendid. Autumn is already in the summer! Though by no means does one sense how bad it could all become.”
“‘Having been there’—both as a newcomer and a psychologist dedicated to the cause of uprooted people, I feel particularly obliged to write down my memories of the years mentioned above.”
This is the first sentence of an essayistic letter entitled “A Backward Glance at the 1940ties,” which Anna sent to the Rabbi of her Montréal synagogue, the Temple Emanu-El, sometime in the sixties. Spurred, it seems, by the Rabbi’s particularly edifying sermon given a few weeks prior on the issue of the cultural integration of new immigrants, the aim of the letter is to expound on this topic from her first-hand perspective.
“During Eva and Ada’s first year of school here,” Anna writes, “they came home one day and began to perform a strange ritual, almost like a dance, which required the contortion of their arms into various sharp angles and the incantation of the phrases, ‘I’m a little teapot, I’m a little teapot. Here is my handle, and here is where the water comes out.’”
“I had spent much time during our voyage to Canada worrying about the girls and their ability to integrate. But such is the sweetness of children that they assimilated more quickly than I did!—so quick, in fact, that I was completely bewildered by their little dance and didn’t know what to think!”
The letter goes on to enumerate Anna’s long journey toward what she calls cultural integration. In our family, we know this journey well. She earns her PhD in psychology; each of her daughters marries; she learns French and befriends Viktor Frankl, whose work she translates for the Université de Montréal; she and Geneck buy a house in N.D.G., a middle-class neighborhood of the city; she more fully picks up English, her sixth or seventh language, and wields it confidently in many of her letters. “Although by no means immune to many of the troubles encountered by newcomers in Canada,” she adds, “I and my family were lucky to have certain educational and professional advantages, which made it a lot easier to cope with the difficulties inherent in the situation of ‘a stranger among strangers.’”
The file for the photograph above reads, “Grandpa and Granny, ‘7?” For whom is that question mark given and underlined? To whom does this artifact pass, like a clue haunted by an imprecision, an approximation, a dot to be connected, the blank in a vast archive? Did Anna, who would die in 1982, write this to herself, hoping that in her final moments she might recall how and where this piece of her puzzle falls into place? Or was it for her husband, who would live another seven years, wanting more than anything in his loneliness to spend time with his grandchildren and to see the birth of his great-grandson, my brother Max?
And yet one might take this altogether differently. Perhaps the emphasis on the question mark is not the imperative to find the answer, the right date, but rather an insistence on its fundamental ambiguity, on its being and remaining a question. Perhaps the point is not to moor this moment in time, to scan for its place in the index of a life, but rather to let the moment float free, to let it emerge osmotically through the pores of the past. How does this image shimmer, then?
The two are in the twilight of their years. Geneck sits back, smiling, his silver hair still full and combed past his ears, his paunch well-satisfied with years of plenty. His hands disappear from the frame, relaxed no longer gripping. He stares off to the side, to something or likely someone beyond the frame soliciting his merriment.
Anna sits more upright, not tense, but attentive. Her hands, too, are invisible. They are covered by the odd arrangement of apples and wine on the table before them: a rectilinear still life that summons the memento mori inherent to the photograph, to any photograph. A large magen David hangs from her neck, its weight accentuated by the acute ‘V’ that it coaxes from the thin chain on which it hangs. The scene, my grandmother’s garden, is lush and verdant, dappled with a warm light that glistens on Geneck’s forehead and kindles the faded red of Anna’s hair. They’ve been married fifty years, but the image resists our breathless catalogue of what they’ve “been through.” We are called only to look, to be drawn toward the image’s well of gravity, steep and sudden like that of a dying star: Anna.
Her gaze is turned on us, but it is only incidentally so. Her eye in these photographs is everywhere on time as it recedes into the past, beyond the dock, but also into the future, the young girl in the glowing hat. To meet her gaze we need only complete the inaccessible task of leaving the lens and placing ourselves there, in the rip current of time. The chance meeting of the lens with Anna’s almond-brown eyes marks only our perfect, circumstantial untimeliness, our view through the pipe of time and the many holes a stare can burn through it.
The day Anna died, May 9, 1982, was warm and bright. Sitting in her study, whose windows overlooked a calm, tree-lined street in N. D. G., she pulled from the typewriter the final page of her latest book, a sociological study of the cultural integration of Slavic Jews in Canada, and left it standing in the paper rail, the other two hundred or so sheets squared in a neat stack on the table. She rose, walked to the room’s threshold, announced to her husband down the hall that she was going out, and stepped outside for a stroll through the neighborhood. The streets, no doubt, glittered in the sun. Great shafts of light licked at the parks, the playgrounds, the spiral staircases that snake up the façades of many Montréal apartments. The squirrels must have raced each other up each tree as she passed. I try to picture her, to place her. What was she thinking then? Upon what did she set her pensive gaze?
When Anna returned home, she set her things aside, shuffled into her study, and sank back into her chair. She closed her eyes, and she would never open them again.
Ben Libman is a writer from Montréal. His work has appeared in The Guardian, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. He lives in the Bay Area.