I've always had a fascination with black and white photos. Maybe it began with the ones that my mother kept in an old gilded box called Schrafft's Luxuro Chocolates. As a kid I'd periodically pull out the box and examine the people in the photographs and question my mother about them. They were pictures of my mother with her siblings in Poland before the war. I could see the wooden house that she had lived in. There was one of a Sunday afternoon spent on the sunny bank of the River San with her sisters, all wearing pretty print dresses. There was my grandmother sitting in a garden wearing an apron, her hair pulled back in a bun and a rare photo of my grandfather during the German occupation of Poland with the Nazi swastika stamped on it that was sent to her after the war. I had never been to Poland. I had never met any of the people who were in those photographs, but the photographs connected me and made them real for me.
When I was researching my last book ,Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany 1939-1945, I felt I understood when I read that the women of Poland, forced to leave their homes and family and could only take a few personal items with them, chose to take a photograph of the people they loved. Sometimes I think that if there was a major catastrophe, a fire, or a bombing, that box of old photographs of my mother's family would be the only thing I would try to save. I've learned that a photograph can be a very powerful thing. It really can provide emotional comfort. It can offer details and information and most importantly, it stops time. You can go to that time and place and be there with the people or the action in the photograph long after the image was taken, study it and learn from it. The power of it is amazing.
I felt that power when I was at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland researching photographs for the book. One of the hardest things about writing history, especially events in another time, in another country is that you have no visuals in your brain for the time, the events or the place you're researching to help you better understand, to know, to see. I wanted to find photographs that would show me of what it was like to be a Polish forced laborer in Nazi Germany.
In the end it was my husband who found the above photograph in the folders he was looking through. When he showed it to me, honestly, the strength of that image, the power it had on me made me push back my chair and stand up so abruptly it caught the attention of the staff behind the desk.
This is was what T/Sgt. Rickard of the U.S Signal Corps with the 1st U.S Army saw on April 13, 1945 near Meggen, Germany: Polish civilian forced laborers, including their children, behind barbed wire. There's a low rough looking, wooden barrack behind them. There is some kind of rough sketch on the barrack wall. Caricature of a German? The children are young, one, I think, not of an age to walk. The mother looks tired? Unhappy? She does not look toward the camera. In contrast, the dad's smile is ear to ear, maybe an automatic response to a camera, maybe overjoyed to see American troops. Their gehenna, as the Polish people called their experience as forced laborers, their hell, is over. But mostly I notice that the barbed wire fence is so very high and the people behind it, prisoners. With the click of the camera, Sgt. Rickard stopped time, took me to 1945 and helped me to see.
Thank you Photographs and Prints Division at National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.