Stalking the dead: how tracing old photographs helped me resurrect my mother’s past

I spent my youth running away from my mother’s Holocaust story. As mother to the grandchildren she never knew, I ached to know more

My mother had four different first names, depending on which language she was speaking at the time. She was Anka in German, Hanka in Polish, Chanka in Yiddish, and after arriving in Australia on a refugee passport in 1949, she adopted the anglicised version of herself, Hannah. Her surname was Altman, although after she married my father, that vestige of her former life disappeared too. The only remnants of her years in Europe were captured in a few black-and-white photographs kept in an old shoebox, hidden away in the hallway cupboard, together with a leather suitcase and tailored winter coat she never wore. As a young girl, I would secretly rummage through these photos, searching for my mother’s story in the anonymous faces I knew no longer walked this earth.

When the ghosts of her past became too much for her to bear, my mother took her own life. I was 21 years old at the time, left to deal with my own ghosts. More than 30 years later, on one otherwise uneventful Sunday afternoon, I tried to resurrect my mother’s past.

Continue reading…