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  • Picturing Children Loved and Lost
  • Ellen Handler Spitz

" . . . and the dead / Are but as pictures"

—Lady Macbeth

In a basement room, discreetly lit, in the Memorial du Martyr juif inconnu (Memorial to the Unknown Jewish Martyr) in Paris, I am surrounded by photographs of children.1 Most of them were born in the decade of the 1930s. All were French. All were Jewish. All were seized in the infamous Vel' d'Hiv' roundup by the Nazis in mid-July of 1942 and deported later that summer, and all were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Every single child.

I look around me. Each face, body, and expression is unique. Every child carefully dressed for his or her portrait photograph. Some smile coyly; others seem serious. A tough-looking fellow folds his arms across his chest and glares daringly out at the world; his arrogance reminds me of that Bronzino portrait of a young Florentine nobleman of the early cinquecento I revisited just weeks ago at the Frick Collection in New York. A proud mother offers her two smartly dressed sons to the camera as if, like the ancient Roman matron Cornelia, she wants to say of them: "Look! These are my jewels." A small curly-haired girl in white with patent-leather shoes brings back snapshots of my younger sister Connie, whose blond ringlets were once the object of my intensest envy. Planted on a bench too high for her so that her fat legs dangle, her miniature body is balanced by a ceramic pot of flowers no larger than she. Near her, on the wall to the left, a chubby fellow perches perilously on a table covered with a checkered cloth, his fuzzy white toy lamb resting lopsided in his arms. He looks a bit belligerent, as though he might want more than anything else to get down and run around. I can almost tell the lamb was handed to him in exasperation to keep him still. [End Page 253]

Beneath him, another mother and her two daughters instantly recall to mind a majestic Renoir canvas—that langorous, richly colored portait in sensuous oils of "Madame Charpentier and her Children" that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art—but, here, in this photograph, everyone is stiff. The mother and older girl wear, sewn across their hearts, the star that proclaims Juif. Elegantly dressed in fur-collared pleated coats and matching hats, the girls stand erect beside their mother whose attire proclaims the height of fashion—hand-stitched leather gloves, a plumed hat, a silk blouse. Even in this formally posed photograph, we can sense the difference between the personalities of the two sisters, the older one more docile and accepting, the younger one independent, rebellious, a trifle fierce, perhaps, and difficult.

Many children hold their favorite toys. I see teddy bears, a very lifelike toy dog, one large rubber ball, and several smaller ones, two dollies, a hand puppet, even a miniature violin. One older girl clutches a book tightly held in her left hand and seems almost to be trying to hide it. I feel that nothing would make her put it down. I used to be like that too. "Why must you always bring a book with you?" my mother would ask in an aggravated tone whenever we went visiting: "It isn't polite, and, besides, there will be no time for you to read it." But, to me, just as to this girl perhaps, the book mattered desperately. I needed to have it. It completed me somehow. Without a book, I could not feel whole.

Another child is nearly dwarfed by the huge white bow that sails her hair. She looks suspicious. Clearly, she does not want to stand there on that pedestal all trussed up, and she is not standing straight. Her eyes seem to demand: "How long must I endure this? When can I get down? Who are you, anyway? I don't like you; so, please just go away!"

A large close-up image portrays a mother with two children who are leaning up against her, all three heads seeming to flow together in the shadow created by their dark hair and the son's...


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pp. 253-256
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