This photograph is the focal point of my engagement with my family archive. Its tiny on the page just 8 by 5 cm, and shows my mother and a family friend Muriel Hamlyn, with the Altes Museum in Berlin in the background bedecked with Nazi posters. In the years that I have been looking at my grandmother’s albums, and trying to decode them, I keep on returning to this image with so many unanswered questions.
The 1938 Album
Images made to remember as their world was shaking. It all starts with one photograph, on one page, in one functional brown album. The print is tiny, sitting alongside furniture and décor images showing the German family home. My mother, Rose, aged fifteen, walks towards the camera alongside Muriel Hamlyn, an English family friend. Their pose is casual but the image is carefully framed to show that behind them the Altes Museum is adorned with a huge banner of Adolf Hitler and swastikas, giving us a visceral sense how central visual spectacle was to Fascism.
The setting is the Lustgarten (Pleasure Garden) on Berlin’s Museum Island and these banners had been positioned there for a rally where Hitler’s speech from Vienna on April 9 th 1938 (a month after Germany’s annexation of Austria) was conveyed via speakers to a huge crowd.
My grandmother, Irma Schwarz (1886-1975), was the photographer. She had studied photography at the Lette Verein College in Berlin between 1914 and 1917 but never practiced professionally. Instead, as a mother and housewife she produced numerous albums throughout the 1920s and 1930s that depict their middle class family life through the period of the Weimar Republic into the Nazi years. In these albums we have a disconcertingly idyllic portrayal of the family domestic life, with an almost obsessive gaze at my mother, through a period where encroaching Nazism, anti-Semitism and fear was gradually seeping into the society.
These albums are not unique; it was a period where photography and making albums was hugely popular; an engagement with the ‘modern’. They would have been kept in a prominent place and shown to visitors; in a sense the Instagram of the period where a romanticised version of the family was displayed for public viewing.
Dealing with such a huge family archive with so many photographs, letters and documents is a daunting task. So, in response to the mountain of material I am trying to comprehend, I have chosen to be very specific and focus here on just one album, the final one in this set. On one level it is beautifully made, and showcases my grandmother’s artistry both as a photographer and album maker. But, in a close reading it also represents the end of an era in my family history.
Many of the photographs are from their final holiday in the summer of 1938. One image shows a well-known fountain in Lucerne, so they may have travelled to Switzerland for this trip. We see many photographs of my mother enjoying the languid beauty of a hot alpine summer, glowing and happy. We have no inkling that she had been bullied for being Jewish, evicted from various schools and the final school she had been able to attend for Jewish girls had just been shut down.
After this holiday, my mother was sent to stay with the Hamlyn family in London because she was no longer able to attend school in Germany. Soon after that my grandfather, Bruno Schwarz, was arrested on Kristallnacht and taken to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Like many others arrested in this way he was released a few weeks later. He and Irma, after being forced to sell their home, were able to escape to South Africa.
These photographs also mark the end of my grandmother’s journey as a photographer. She had a Leica camera, but when my mother was dispatched to London, the camera was sent with her, to cover the cost of her board and lodging. My mother remembers that this was misunderstood, as her hosts did not appreciate its value. It seems that Irma never took photographs again during the next phase of her life in South Africa.
Putting all of these albums together I am struck by their materiality and the transition in their form. They are dated from 1924 through to 1938 and the albums from the Weimar period have beautiful, colourful art deco covers, while the albums from 1933 (when Hitler came to power) become increasingly brown, functional an non-decorative.
Looking today at that one image and the album, so many questions emerge. What was the purpose of this album? Was Irma photographing with the knowledge that this would soon all be left behind? Who was it for? Was she aware that these could become historical documents and evidence?
My mother had no memory of that day or of that photograph being taken. But in the archive of documents I did find a letter, sent by Muriel Hamlyn about that day. It reads: “ My Hamlyn and I forwarded to you yesterday two books dealing with our countryside entitled ‘The Heart of England’ and ‘English Villages and Hamlets’. We would like you to accept these as a small token of your kindness in showing us the sights of Berlin”.
This photo album, from 1938, is one of a set of twelve albums that my grandmother, Irma Schwarz, made between 1924 and 1938. All the images in this series are from this album.
This is one of the carefully constructed pages of the album, the one that contains the ‘Altes Museum’ image. Alongside this image we see images of their home furnishings in the family home in Zehlendorf, on the outskirts of Berlin and on the opposite page we see their final summer holiday. This conjunction of images across two pages s leaves many unanswered questions for me.
My mother, Rose, in a gymnastic pose. Her support is Lawrence Hamlyn, the son of Muriel Hamlyn who appears in the first image. He had spent some months living with Rose’s family, to learn German. At the end of this summer, my mother travelled to London and spent a year with his family.
An idyllic rural scene is shown in one of the images. The location is unknown, but likely to be Switzerland.
An alpine landscape is displayed on the page in almost panoramic form over two images, pasted side-by-side into the album. For me this displays both my grandmother’s talents as a photographer and her thoughtful way of constructing album sequences.
A family event, with tea and coffee served with the best china, in the family home in Zehlendorf in Berlin. My mother and grandfather are on the left.
My mother, holding a cat, looks radiant and happy in alpine landscape. Going through all the albums, I am struck by the constant and almost obsessive gaze at my mother. Perhaps my grandmother, who studied photography, but never practiced as a photographer, made this documentation of her only child, her project.
This image of my mother at Lake Lucerne, during a hot alpine summer, is my favourite image in this album. A unique moment is captured within a complex and interesting composition.
A vertical combination of images with similar gestures is displayed on an album page. My grandparents, Bruno and Irma, appear together in the top photograph. This is rare across all the albums as my grandmother, the photographer, rarely appears.
A portrait of my mother and an unidentified young man in a forest setting. This was on the family’s final alpine holiday before the disruption of immigration and war.
This humorous and unsettling image, a portrait with both faces obscured, was taken on an alpine hike on the family’s final summer holiday before escaping Germany.
A photograph showing an idyllic sunset scene is obscured here by the crepe paper that separates the album pages.
This is the set of albums my grandmother, Irma Schwarz, made between 1924 and 1938. The top seven albums, with attractive and colourful covers, were all made during the years of the Weimar Republic. The bottom five albums, with the functional and drab covers were all made during the years after 1933, when Hitler was in power.