Transitional Objects

Alice in 1932

Two years ago, I was given Alice’s photographs. The collection included three albums and many loose photographs. It took a while to go through them all and I still have many whose subjects I can’t identify. However, there have been moments when my synapses have pinged like a pinball machine and one image has linked to another to form an entirely new connection.

One particular photograph of Alice stood out as completely different from the rest. It was obviously a studio photograph, in which she was dressed almost like a Hollywood star. Her hair was carefully styled and she was wearing a figure hugging lace dress with a fur trimmed silk stole over her shoulder. There was no other photograph remotely like it. I am not sure I would even have recognised this glamorous soft-focused Alice, had I not known it was her.

Alice and Eva

Childhood photographs show Alice and Eva carefully dressed in identical outfits with smart hats or big bows in their hair. Their mother, Olga, clearly took great pride in their appearance, but once independent of her mother, Alice seemed to care little for fashion. Photographs show her hiking in sensible skirts and stout boots. In other pictures, she wears stern black lawyer’s outfits, her hair severely drawn back, but there is not one photograph of her in evening dress.

On my most recent trip to Prague I was given two more photographs, both obviously from the same photoshoot as the glamorous picture. They were taken in Zilina in 1932. One is of Alice gazing over one shoulder, the fur trim of the stole brushing her cheek and the other is a full length shot of Eva, looking like a fashion model. Eva’s slim figure and smooth bob always make her look glamorous and, in contrast to photos of Alice, there are many of Eva that could have come straight out of the pages of a magazine. 

Alice in her lawyer’s gown

When I first saw the photograph of Alice, I was certain that it had been taken at the behest of my father. Alice had never shown any inclination towards glamour, but Erwin was always a bit of a dandy and I remembered a portrait of my mother that he had commissioned and how he enjoyed seeing her looking glamorous and sophisticated. Unlike Alice, my mother enjoyed that too. I can’t know whether Alice was happy to go along with the suggestion of the formal studio portrait or whether she only went to satisfy Erwin. The fact there is a picture of Eva from the same time, may mean that going with Eva was the extra element that convinced her. 

In among the many loose photographs there was a set of tiny square pictures that all seemed to have been taken in Alice and Erwin’s home in Zilina before the war. I had looked at them several times and often needed a magnifying glass. One day, I noticed the studio portrait was actually in one of the little photographs. It was on a table in pride of place next to vases of flowers and, in front of it on the table, I noticed something else. It was one of the photograph albums I had been given. Its geometric cover was unmistakable. 

Table in Alice and Erwin’s home in Zilina, with the photograph of Alice and the photograph album.

I picked up the album, looked again at the picture – it was definitely the same album. I was holding the photograph album that Alice and Erwin had owned before the war. It had survived their flight from Zilina to America, had returned with them to Europe and been preserved despite the confiscation of so many of Alice’s belongings when she was arrested. She had kept it until the end of her life and then passed it on to her friend Helena Zavodsky, whose son had finally given it to me. 

I have called this piece “Transitional Objects” because I remember from my time studying at the Tavistock Clinic that the term refers to loved objects that young children hold on to in order to help them cope with separation from their parents. The object, which symbolises the parent, eases the anxiety and loss until the child no longer needs it to feel safe when separated from their parent. I only came across this photograph album recently, it is not an object from my youth, but it is an object that has nevertheless created a link between between me and my father. Rather than helping me to bear my separation from him, it has enabled me to connect with him in a new way, 58 years after his death.

This album bridges those years and takes me back, not just to my time with him, for which I have many memories, but to his youth, when he and Alice were hopeful of a better world and enjoying a happy marriage. These pictures and that album put me back in touch with those hopes and that happiness. Maybe too, for Alice, the studio pictures symbolised a time before the pain, disillusion and betrayal. 

Eva and Alice photographed in Zilina in 1932.

11 thoughts on “Transitional Objects

  1. Dear Liz

    this is incredibly moving, not least because of the implications, and especially the heart-touching survival of the room in Zilina. The barrier between times and places can be very thin. I wonder how Alice felt about having a photograph which she may have felt uncharacteristic thus on display.

    Two very slight cultural thoughts occur: in the early 20th century, girls were photographed in glamorous mode as a kind of rite of passage. Artistic or rich parents might commission a drawing or painting, but some pictorial record was almost de rigueur. (Even my mother, a rampant iconoclast, conceded; though I was atypically immortalised sitting on a low wall holding a duck.) And I wonder if the beautiful stole with its fur collar may have been an opera cloak? It looks like things I dimly remember.

    Your series is powerful, galvanising, and valuable at a time when I feel the cultural and historical ground is heaving and shifting beneath our feet.

    much love to you both,

    Field

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  2. Thought-provoking as ever, Liz. One wonders how future generations will make these connections when most photos never get downloaded from mobile phones! Jill

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    1. I often wonder what it will be like for future researchers with no physical photographs or paper documents. there is something so much more powerful about having a tangible object.

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  3. The link of the album to your father is fascinating, like a family bible. Regarding Alice, is there a studio stamp on the photograph or its card frame? If so that probably won’t lead anywhere further in your research as the studio will long be defunct. Even so I have enjoyed walking the streets in London where similarly styled shots of my grandmother and her sisters were taken, and peering up at where I assume the studio must have been.

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  4. How very moving to find a different, more intimate side to the Alice you had so far uncovered. Photographs on – and for – display were always so important to families in the past – I remember this well from my own grandparents’ homes. They really did have quasi-tangible significance in terms of the person concerned, and provided next-best attachment for family members. It’s indeed true that digital photos these days have a completely different role….. being usually in such quantity, and shots often taken “just because you can”, their relevance seems to have got lost, and they are just all stored away on digital file….. For what purpose I start to ask…..?

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