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This is What it Means to be German
Published4 Nov 2021
One of my favorite books is Primo Levi’s two-volume book, If this is a Man/The Truce. The first part tells the story of Levi’s imprisonment in the Auschwitz Monowitz Concentration Camp. It’s the story of the intensity of will it took to survive, of the diversity of European Jews who were murdered there, of the knife edges of constant peril he had to negotiate on a daily level to get water, an extra piece of bread, or clothing, or to evade hard labor and selection for the gas chambers. Most of the inmates of the Monowitz Camp were taken out on a forced march before the camp was liberated by Soviet troops. They died. But Levi had scarlet fever and was left behind. He survived.
The second part tells the journey of Levi’s trip back to his native Italy. It’s like a post-war Seventh Seal, a roundabout journey through the scorched earths of European suffering. And as he travels back, he recounts the people, the places, and the life returning as he is allowed to become human again. He tells the story of traumatized lands, traumatized peoples, but also of the delight of finding food, and drink, and loved ones after the years of unimaginable sufferings. My favorite part of the book is when the men he is traveling with jump out of a long march to the next transit camp to barter a chicken from an isolated village, their first chicken after in Auschwitz. It’s the worst chicken ever, but the best chicken ever.
The Truce is a reminder that the Second World War didn’t end in 1945. People were still being killed in 1945, hundreds of thousands were killed, raped (and not just by the Soviets), or were resettled in the years that followed. Most of all, however, the trauma of the war and its aftermath still remained.
And that is what Erna, Helena, Ania is all about. When he was a child Tomasz Laczny used to visit his grandmother to play. His favorite games were war games – Poles against Nazis – based on the scenes he saw in Polish war films on the television. And then one day, almost by accident, he discovered his grandmother was German. She had fallen in love with Laczny’s grandfather during the war and became pregnant.
‘She hid her pregnancy,’ writes Laczny, ‘was imprisoned in a camp for Germans after the war, and finally gave birth in the most difficult of circumstances, alone. My grandmother couldn’t care for her child, so they took my mother away from her. She was told to go back to Germany, to join the rest of her family (all of whom had been expelled from Poland), but she refused. She wanted to be with her daughter. And so she stayed, and the two were eventually reunited. My grandmother gained Polish nationality and lived with the guilt of being German in the land that had been most devasted by Nazi war crimes.’
This book is the story of my grandmother. It’s the understanding I came to of who she was, and who I am, a story where the happiness of my Polish childhood coincides with the traumas of the Second World War. It’s a story about the shifting sands of national identity, the family secrets we keep, and the way we survive even in the face of the most difficult circumstances. It’s the story of who we are and who we can be, of a certain kind of Polishness.’
The story is beautifully told through a combination of illustrations that start with a series showing his grandmother giving birth alone in a barn in the countryside. There are reproductions of court documents detailing the access rights his grandmother has to the daughter she gave birth to but couldn’t care for, and there are family photographs that have a quality of distance to them, the anguish and pain of separation all too apparent in the awkward images of short times spent together.
Sasha Bauer, in contrast, details the experiences her ethnic German grandfather experienced in the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. The Volga German SSR was an enclave established in 1924 where ethnic Germans were given particular rights until the Germans invaded the USSR in 1941. Then the SSR was disbanded and its citizens were exiled to the Kazakh SSR and Siberia after being ‘declared socially dangerous by ethnicity’. Two of those people were the great-grandparents of the author. They died in exile, leaving their son and daughter behind to be raised in an orphanage. This boy was Sasha Bauer’s grandfather. His name? Also Sasha Bauer. The girl. She died, and her grandfather ‘…at the age of 8… was left alone in a big country surrounded by people who were not at all happy with him.’.
Where Laczny investigates his family history in order to understand who is family, and how that links to contemporary ideas of Polishness, Bauer seeks to rehabilitate her grandfather and other family members from the brutal uprooting of his life that took place.
The book begins with an old image of her grandfather. He’s wearing a uniform and is wide-eyed and apprehensive. The picture was taken in the orphanage he was raised in during the 1950s and begins the first chapter of the book.
This chapter is titled Facts. Emotional traces, cultural traces, rituals, and acceptance follow. So it’s like a self-help guide to understanding where her family and her father in particular came from.
Throughout the book, there are heartfelt texts that lay the case for the innocence of her grandfather, and along with these words come reproductions of mementos and documents; his Shock Worker certificate, his Veteran of Labour medal.
Move forward and the cultural remains of the German-speaking people of the Soviet Union are shown in Christmas cards, images of churches, and maps. As Bauer seeks to understand herself through her family heritage, she travels back to the old family village. Here she lays down nameplates of her ancestors in the ruins of the old family home, she bears witness to what had happened there.
Throughout the book, there are little word-cards with German into Russian translations written on them (orphan, family, bread, German), and the book is interspersed with insertions of maps, documents, and reproduced artifacts. The text is heartfelt and something of a plea for her grandfather to be accepted as an upstanding citizen of the former USSR; a citizen who kept his language, his name, and never spoke out against the state that had repressed him and his family.
Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.