The Woman in the Photograph is a poignant account of a Jewish girl’s attempt to reconnect with her heritage. Mani Feniger has to be applauded for openly sharing something which has obviously had a big impact on her life. Holocaust survivors will relate to the story. Actually, anyone who has ever been uprooted in life will be able to empathize to some extent.
Mani is born in New York and lives in Queens with her parents and older brother. Her parents are Germans who escaped Nazi Germany. Her mother is reticent about her past and Mani grows up without knowing much about her mother’s or father’s prior life. She loses her father at a young age, after which her mother devotes herself to working and raising her family.
Throughout her life, Mani feels that her mother is a bit different. Circumstances have made the mother bitter, she thinks. Mani dabbles in some spirituality and gets the name of ‘MaNi’ from her guru which means diamond. She faces early setbacks in life and eventually settles in California.
The destruction of the Berlin wall sets some things in motion. She comes across an old photo of her mother and aunt, who are fashionably dressed looking very stylish. Mani realizes the mother she knew was never like that. She embarks on a journey to try to discover the mother in the photo.
Based on the title and some reference to wartime crimes, I had thought this would be an actual search for a missing woman. But the story turned out to be different, maybe much more esoteric. In the beginning, it almost felt like the journal of a teenager, someone writing candid comments about their parents. About 20-30% into the book, the story starts getting interesting.
I suppose there is a ‘story’ in every family, whether it is a sad or happy story. Kids grow up hearing about the exploits of their grandparents and their parents. There is some kind of reversal of fortune someone faces, and then there are stories about hardships or challenges that were overcome. I am not saying that a Jewish person’s angst, especially a Holocaust survivor’s grief or courage can be compared to anything else. I just want to say that stories abound in almost any family. It is commendable that the author has opened up and narrated her own story, knowing that thousands will read it and comment on it.
In a way, the basis of the whole plot is that Mani grows up without knowing anything about her ancestors. And then she embarks on a journey to find out what really happened. Some parts might seem repetitive, like there is a sort of summation of events after every few chapters, but it helps the reader to keep the timeline straight and get a holistic picture.
The Woman in the Photograph is as brave a work as the people it talks about. It is certainly worth a read as a tale of staunch belief and persistence in one’s chosen challenges.