THE GREY FOLDER PROJECT
Glimpses of Lost Life
END OF THE DAY'S HARVEST, Freudental, Germany, 1938
AT THIS POINT I WAS SURE there was nothing more of significance to discover about my family's past in Germany. I had mined the contents of the Grey Folder and the resources of the Mannheim city archive, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the International Tracing Service and various other archives in Germany, France and the United States.
But yet again, I was wrong. Another discovery awaited me in my own home. And like the cliché, it had been hidden in plain sight.
I found it inadvertently, searching my closet for a scarf that I wanted to bring with me on my trip to Germany in October of 2017. On a high shelf of the closet, where I kept a small box of silk scarves, I spotted an old cardboard box labeled, in my father's distinctive handwriting, "Negatives, Europe."
ROLLIEFLEX, A HIGH-END TWIN-LENS REFLEX CAMERA, made in Germany, was introduced in 1929. The "Old Standard" model used by my father (a "New Standard" was introduced in 1939, after he'd left Europe), was also used by Robert Capa to document World War II. The negatives made by the Rollieflex were 6 cm. x 6 cm., meaning that they could be viewed as contact prints, without being enlarged.
I HAD KNOWN about the box since I'd brought it back with me from Chicago after my father's death, thirteen years before, but I'd never known what to do with it, other than save it. I didn't have a way to view the negatives and had little idea what they portrayed.
Now, as I took a fresh look at the paper folders that held groups of negatives inside the box, I recognized in my father's hand the words on a few of the files: "Landscapes," "Freudental," and "Portraits." I held some of the photos up to the light, and saw scenes of farming, of hands on a piano, of street signs surrounded by Nazi flags.
I knew these photographs must have been taken before my father left Germany in December of 1938.
I RECOGNIZED my grandfather's hands on the piano in the Mannheim apartment
ALTHOUGH IT WAS HARD to make out the images -- and I felt overwhelmed by the hundreds of negatives--I suddenly realized that the re-discovery of the box of negatives had come at the perfect time. On my first stop in Germany, I planned to meet with Karen Strobel, at the Mannheim City Archive.
Would the Stadtarchiv be interested in archiving these negatives, I asked? Not only was the answer a resounding yes, but the archive also offered to digitize the negatives for me and other historians and researchers to use.
As the negatives were digitized and turned into positives, fascinating images began to appear as if emerging from a dense fog. There were portraits of my family from happier days, before Kristallnacht of November, 1938. Steffen Pross determined that all the photographs of farming in Freudental, the village where my grandmother's brother and family lived, were taken in the summer of 1938. The images were clear and crisp, a lens to the past.
WHEN I HAD STARTED the Grey Folder project I had only one photograph of Frieda, and during the next five years I had found only one more.
Now, with the digital copies of my father's photographs, there were a dozen or more. They showed Frieda in the apartment that she shared with my grandparents and family, Frieda walking on the street with her sister Berta (my Oma), both in stylish dresses and jaunty hats, Frieda at the table with my father's family.
Frieda at the balcony, Mannheim
Frieda in the Mannheim apartment
Frieda on the balcony
Portrait, Frieda Berger
Sisters: Berta Sonnemann and Frieda Berger, Mannheim
Frieda with Berta and Kurt Sonnemann
Sonnemann family with Frieda Berger
THERE WERE PHOTOS of other members of my family and their friends too, some who survived, many who did not. Clearly, one could see that these days before Kristallnacht were happier times.
Adolf, Sidonie, Moritz Herrmann
Sidonie Herrmann, Hedwig Wertheimer
Max Sonnemann with parrot
Dozens of photographs from my grandmother's brother's farm-- before it was stolen by the Nazis -- showed the harvest of wheat or hay in the summer of 1938.
HISTORIAN STEFFEN PROSS had a name for this group of photos taken in Freudental: The Last Summer. In December of 2018, the PKC (Center for Education and Culture at the former synagogue) in Freudental hosted Der Letzte Sommer (The Last Summer), an exhibit of my father's 1938 photos.
MY DAUGHTER, AVIVA Steigmeyer, and her partner Roy Pilgrim played music for the opening of the exhibit. In the photo above, they sit in front of a poster of my father/ Aviva's Opa with the words from a letter he wrote describing the farming life in Freudental.
PKC ALSO PUBLISHED a book of my father's photos, with essays by Steffen Pross and myself in both German and English. You can read the English version of my essay here.