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Published Date

January 1, 2004

This resource was developed as part of Linking Family History and World History by Linda Pomerantz.

While I don’t remember this photograph distinctly from my childhood, I am sure it hung in my grandparents’ apartment in the Bronx, New York. After my grandmother died in 1978, my Uncle Morris had it in his living room in his apartment in Howard Beach, New York, where I first noticed it. Quite large and nicely framed, it had been delicately hand tinted, although the colors had faded somewhat over time. My parents had a copy made (in black and white), and I had a negative made from their copy so that I might have my own for my family.

I only became interested in the photograph as a primary source for my family’s history after I began teaching. In the 1970’s, in part due to the influence of the “new” social history with its emphasis on ordinary peoples’ lives, and in part due to the enormous impact of Alex Haley’s book Roots (later made into a successful television mini-series), I began experimenting with oral history and family history projects in my classes at California State University, Dominguez Hills. I was struck with the excitement and power among my students that these assignments generated.

Of course, this stimulated my own interest in recording my older relatives on tape about their personal histories and our family history. In 1973 I interviewed my mother Clara Sarfaty Pomerantz about her childhood and youthful experiences, and in 1975 while on a trip to New York, I interviewed my grandmother, Sara Sarfaty. In the 1980’s I interviewed my Uncle Morris as well. These interviews are the major sources for their stories as related in this project. While I was unable to interview my grandfather Jacob, as he had passed away much earlier, I heard a number of stories about his history from my mother and uncles and aunts, so Jacob’s story is based upon others’ recollections rather than Jacob’s himself. I have also spoken with the surviving children of Jacob and Sara, my aunts and uncles, and continue to speak with them by phone as questions arise. An important source has been Mollie Pomerantz Zucker, my father’s younger sister and my mother’s closest friend, who remembers so much about their early lives and the Sarfaty family.

My interest in the photograph resurfaced in the 1990’s as a result of teaching future teachers about how to engage youngsters in family and community history projects through hands-on work with primary sources. This approach was advocated by my colleagues in the California History-Social Science Project at Dominguez Hills, Drs. Judd Grenier and Priscilla Porter. In using the photograph as a subject for “photoanalysis” in the course of several presentations, I began to notice new things about it. For example, while it was clear that the cluster of the three youngest children constituted the major focal point for the photograph, I felt that Uncle Morris occupied a special place of honor between his two parents, and I began to think more about the meaning of his placement in the photograph.

My mother had told me that she was twelve years old when the photograph was taken, and since she was born in 1911, that dated the photograph at about 1923. She also told me that they had gone to a photographer’s studio in their Lower East Side neighborhood to take the photograph. I began to wonder about the occasion that called for a photograph, but my mother and Morris had already passed away and I was not able to ask them about it. Looking again at Uncle Morris in the photograph, I remembered that he was five years older than my mother, so if my mother were twelve years old, Morris would have been seventeen. What was going on in his life when he was seventeen, I thought? Of course, he left the sanitarium when he was seventeen! I had heard the story of his dramatic return to his family when he came out of the sanitarium. Could this be the photograph that commemorated this event? I thought it must be, and this inference was later confirmed by my Aunt Goldie, who remembered the occasion very well.

With each puzzle solved, new questions emerge. I discovered that I know very little about my grandparents’ families. The question of how many siblings each of them had has proven surprisingly complicated and I am still attempting to sort out the basic genealogical facts about their parentage. An even greater puzzle concerns their earlier family history. People have differing recollections, and it is difficult to reconcile conflicting evidence. What were their economic circumstances in Monastir? Had they lived elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire before coming to Monastir? Where in Spain did they come from? And so on, so many questions, and alas! the people who might know some of the answers are now gone and the historians’ task becomes much harder.

This demonstrates the on-going nature of historical inquiry. An historian (be he/she student or professional) must at some point stop gathering material and begin to construct a narrative as best he or she can, bearing in mind that the narrative constructed is a best effort, based on what is known, that new questions will emerge naturally, and that narratives will need to be constructed afresh. For example, I found my grandparents’ marriage photograph in my Aunt Goldie’s home quite by chance when I visited Florida in 1996 for my Aunt Celia’s eightieth birthday party.  It wasn’t a new source to Goldie, but it sure was for me, and obtaining it raised a host of new questions about my grandparents’ lives in Monastir and about out ancestors. As our interest in family history develops, I am sure that my aunts, uncles, cousins, sister Anita and I will find new sources of information, each of them adding a bit to our understanding of what came before and raising new areas of investigation. What an exciting treasure hunt, and how lucky historians are to engage in it!

Happy hunting!

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