Camera of My Family: Four Generations in Germany 1845-1945 | Facing History & Ourselves

Camera of My Family: Four Generations in Germany 1845-1945

Photographer Catherine Hanf Noren tells the story of her family, before, during, and after the Holocaust, through old photographs.
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At a Glance



English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies
  • Culture & Identity
  • The Holocaust



My name is Catherine Noren. I'm a photographer by choice and by trade. The camera is my tool. With it, I capture images before they are lost in time. I fell in love with images long ago, images of my peaceful corner of Connecticut and the house I was raised in, the school I went to.

I photograph images such as these. Images have changed my preconception of life. And images began my search to discover who I am and where I came from. It was a quest that took me to Germany to the house where I was born in Hitler's Germany.



I was born in Germany in 1938. A few months later, my parents escaped with me to Australia. It was just before Hitler started World War II. Nine years later, we came to America, and for the first time I came to know other members of my family-- my uncle Fritz and his American wife; my aunt Annalisa and her soldier husband; my Uncle Ralph and his wife, and their parents, my grandparents Moritz and Meta Wallach.

My mother's family, refugees from Germany, had come just a few years before us. Over the years, we settled into life in America and the family grew, but I never heard them speak of their lives in Germany. The sense of a secret past made me feel strange, alienated.

One day while visiting my grandmother she showed me a picture from her past, and I discovered it was a picture of my past for the face of this stranger was so like my own at the same age. She was my great aunt Elsa, grandma said. Me at 16, I loved gardening and flowers, and grandma told me that aunt Elsa loved the same things.

Grandma picked up another photograph. She smiled. "Ah, the wonderful summer of 1924. And here we are back home," grandma said, "in Munich. I'd forgotten our garden was so large."

Grandma's chest was heaped with pictures, beautiful portraits but of a strange and alien time. It was hard for me to believe that this world once existed, so completely had my family erased the past. I studied the old pictures intensely uncovering my personal history, feeling sorrow and anger, pain, and pride as the secrets unfolded.

It was a quest for answers-- to whom do I belong? Where do I come from? Who am I? The search took me to Europe, to Germany to see for myself where those lives tied to mine had once lived.

I discovered that my family had roots deep in Germany's past. I photographed the house of my great, great, great grandfather, Abraham. Built nearly 200 years ago, it still stands in a small German town.

Back then, Jews lived in restricted areas. To live in a town, a Jew had to obtain special permission. To die, however, you did not need permission. I focused my camera on the cemetery where Abraham is buried.

And I photographed the concentration camp, now a museum where so many of Abraham's descendants died. They died to order, to Hitler's order who back in Abraham's time dreamed this could happen. Abraham's descendants-- my newly discovered family-- thought of themselves as Germans, Jews by religion only.

Great aunts and uncles, scores of cousins they were busy with life growing up, falling in love, marrying, raising children. Moritz, my grandfather and his family. Moritz is the 10-year-old in knee pants seated on the right, his brother Max standing to far right, and his sister Betty seated next to Moritz. We will meet them again.

Meta, my grandmother with her family and all of them taking the same pose 17 years later. Meta's two brothers, Richard and Oscar seated on the right we will hear of them again too. My grandparents Moritz and Meta on the day of their marriage. It was 1908.

My grandfather loved the folk art of his native Bavaria. The costume he's wearing was a part of the tradition he wanted to preserve. Grandpa Moritz began to reproduce traditional furniture and fabric that was sewed into curtains, tablecloths, and peasant dresses.

In 1922, Moritz opened the Wallach House of Folk Art in Munich, a flourishing enterprise built up by my talented and energetic grandfather. A prosperous business had brought my grandparents a comfortable life. It meant vacations, good times, and children to continue the generations.

In a town 10 miles outside of Munich, my grandfather started a factory for weaving and printing fabric. The factory was in Dachau, a town soon to be known for another enterprise, the killing business. It was soon after World War I in which all the men of my family had fought. Like most German Jews, they were ardent patriots.

This was their country, their home. They were ready to die for the fatherland. But the war ended in shocking, humiliating defeat. Germany's economy was shattered. There was unemployment and misery everywhere.

A new government with a new democratic constitution was born but it had no cure for such terrible trouble. Many Germans blamed democracy, radicals, Jews. They looked for an all-powerful leader to save Germany. Adolf Hitler was destined to fulfill the role. Playing on Germany's deep-rooted antisemitism, he built the Nazi party on the promise of salvation for all Germans and destruction for all Jews.

In 1923, Hitler made his first bid for power. Nazi party members took to the streets of Munich to overthrow the government. The Nazis dragged prominent people from their homes or offices and held them as hostages. My grandfather was one of the hostages. But the uprising collapsed, and Moritz got home safely.

Hitler was found guilty of treason and sentenced to five years in prison. He served less than one. In a comfortable cell, he wrote his book Mein Kampf-- My Struggle. It outlined precisely how he meant to win power and dominate Germany ridding the nation of Jews.

But Germany's economy began to recover. My grandparents breathed easier, took vacations, enjoyed life. Hitler, he really wasn't on anyone's mind. Even my family's personal encounters with hatred of Jews seemed only a temporary madness.

On a business trip, my grandfather heard a man yell "Jew" at him. And one day, his gardener called him a dirty, nasty Jew. At school, my aunt Annalisa was the best in gym. Her teacher was a Nazi. "Don't you have any pride?" she said to the others. "You let this Jew girl be the best in the class." My grandparents weren't angry, just amazed that a teacher could talk like that.

Annalisa's his big sister was thinking of other things. Lottie Wallach, my mother to be, was falling in love. Her sweetheart was Eric Kampf, a bright young man from another part of Germany. The beautiful old house in the Rhineland that was once his home was the house where I was born. My father's family were much like my mother's-- well-off, educated, enjoying their children and their holidays.

Germany was doing better in this last half of the 1920s. Hitler had less discontent to work with. Lottie and Eric, my parents to be, got married. Soon afterward, my mother's brother Ralph ran off to America after a disagreement with his father. It would turn out to be a life-saving decision for many of us.

Just after Ralph left, the world-wide depression of the 1930s hit Germany with devastating force. The people were again plunged into despair, and the crisis gave Hitler his chance. He condemned all who opposed him-- Christian leaders, labor leaders, socialists, communists-- and promised that he alone could save the German nation.

The Nazi vote rose higher and higher. In 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. He wiped out democracy, broke up the labor unions, sent protesters to concentration camps. The first camp was opened at Dachau, a town my family knew well. Yet, my family still went about their everyday lives.

This is my mother with my older sister Birgitta born in 1934. To the sheltered infant, the world was peaceful, but Birgitta, my parents, all Jews were no longer German citizens. German laws would gradually rob them of their birthright, take away profession, job, education, boycott them, segregate them, restrictions much like the old slave codes and Jim Crow laws that afflicted Black Americans for centuries.

My great aunt Greta had married a Christian in 1913. Now, such mixed marriages had to be broken or concealed. One day, the national police arrived at my grandparents' apartment. They took away their antiques and their folk art. German culture was for Aryans only.

In 1938 shortly after I was born, my parents realized it was time to flee. Most of the nations had shut their doors to Jewish immigration but somehow they managed to get visas to Australia. Still, they stayed. Germany was their Homeland.

My uncle Ralph, now an American citizen begged his family to get out of Germany at once. It was almost too late. On November 9, 1938, nationwide riots against the Jews were launched by the Nazis, synagogues were burned, shops were looted, homes were wrecked. The Wallach store windows were sprayed with acid.

26,000 Jews were thrown into jails and concentration camps, 1,000 were murdered. My grandfather hid in the mountains. One of my cousins was sent to Dachau. My father's parents fled across the border to Holland. My father was put in prison but was released.

10 days later, we were in Holland awaiting ship for Australia. In America, Ralph rushed to Washington to get visas for my grandparents. Moritz tried to sell his business but a Nazi official cheated him out of it. It was called Aryanizing Jewish property. In March 1939, my grandparents boarded a ship to freedom. They arrived in New York with all that was left of a lifetime of work-- $10 in German marks.

On September 1, 1939, Hitler's troops invaded Poland. The Second World War had begun. Wherever the Nazi army moved, mass murder followed. 22 million people were slaughtered across the breadth of Europe, among them 6 million Jews-- Hitler's special target for extermination.

Not all stayed within the Nazi grasp, one of Meta's nephews had emigrated to Palestine in the early '30s. He joined the Jewish underground fighters. Another nephew had moved to Amsterdam. He joined the Dutch resistance as soon as the Nazi occupation began. But most of my family were still in Germany. The Wallachs in America were their last hope.

Letters, appeals, affidavits, cables crossed the Atlantic almost daily. My grandfather's brother Max-- we met him as a boy in this 1890 photo-- and his wife Millie were desperately searching for a way out of the death trap. "The last days," wrote Millie to family in America, "have brought great worries and disappointments. Everything again looks gray on gray. Every hope for an early reunion with you is pushed far into the future."

For them, there was no future. They died in a death camp. And Betty, a sister of, Max you remember her, the young girl with the book, Betty had a sponsor in America but the Gestapo kept her from leaving Germany. She died in a death camp as did so many more of my family, family I came to know only through these photographs, these moments captured by the camera

Adolf murdered at the age of 71, Emma murdered at the age of 77, Kate murdered at the age of 31, Richard, Oscar, Paul, Agnes, Trudy, Drac, Nan, all dead by gas, by bullet, by starvation, by suicide. 26 members of my family in Germany were sent to concentration camps. 19 died.

And so in an effort to forget, my family tried to blot out the past. But when I saw those images lying in my grandmother's house it began my search to find our collective memory, the memory of this but also of this and this. These are the images that unlocked the past for me, the story of my family, and the terrible Hitler years. I share these images with you because I now know that the past must be linked to the present if there is to be a future.



Catherine Hanf Noren

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