The Passover secret hidden in a beloved family photograph
When the maternal side of my family came to America in 1949, one of the only tangible links to their despoiled Polish home of Rovno (now Rivne, Ukraine) were photographs sent to family members who started coming to America as early as 1905. The Steinberg family stayed in touch over the vast distances and would always send the poor Rovno relatives (my branch of the family) money around Passover to buy the needed supplies (in the mid-1920s five American dollars were all that was needed to make a full family Passover spread.)
Coming to America after the war, my grandfather Izak Steinberg (Of Blessed Memory) in his typically take charge way, became the self-appointed official curator of the family photographs assiduously ingathering them when relatives passed and when their surviving children showed insufficient interest in caring for them.
With my zeyde's death in 1988, the family photos went to my mother Pearl (Of Blessed Memory ) and, with her passing five years ago at the age of 95, they have come down to me. I am the last.
My mother (ever her father's daughter) prepared me for that eventual transition by making sure we always had time during our weekly visits to sit and go over all the pictures and label who was in each one as she, (again, ever like her father) had a precise and photographic memory able to recall not only who was in the picture but to whom they were married, the names of their children and where they lived.
Nestled among the studio portraits and informal snapshots, was a clipping from the rotogravure section of the New York Yiddish socialist newspaper The Forward showing "main street Saturday night" of Rovno. I remember the picture from growing up because my grandfather thought enough of the image to make three of them (one for each of his daughters and one for him) carefully gluing each clipping onto a cardboard backing for added stability and support and always propping it up amongst the art treasures he collected and created and which he would display in his living room. Only one survives.
Going through the photos recently, I found that the newspaper clipping had become fully detached from its backing revealing, for the first time, the inside face of the cardboard: a portion of a matzo box sent to Holocaust survivors for Passover in Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Germany and Austria and Italy.
Among the millions of survivors during the years 1947-1949 to whom the Jewish aid agency the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee ("The Joint") sent Passover matzos were my family in the Wegscheid and Bindermichl DP camps in the American sector in Linz, Austria, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler. What the fortuitously preserved date of "1948" reveals is that my family had been in the repurposed SS training camp for about a year with another year still to go before they could board the S.S. General Ballou en route to a new life in America. (Note the ghostly reversed images of ads for Borscht Belt hotels caused by leeching of the ink into the porous cardboard. )
My assumption growing up was that my zeyde's little Rovno newspaper photo had been done during the sunset years in his trim little apartment in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, decades removed from the sepia moment depicted in the picture. However, now knowing that the tiny homage to his beloved lost home was made in the mere handful of years following the devastating tragedy and pain still palpably fresh and present, deeply moved me.
Suddenly knowing that I have a vestigial piece of a Passover gift from Amercian Jews to my refugee family's own "exodus" of over 70 years ago has infused the luminous Passover holiday of hope and arrival with even greater meaning and power.
My zeyde, Izak Steinberg (1894-1988) whom the camera deeply loved, with a copy of the Forverts (perhaps even the very one from which he clipped the Rovno photo) in the Bindermichl DP camp c. 1948