In the daylight for everyone to see

Anyone who knows me knows of my obsession with the village of my birth. I’ve talked about it here and here. I’ve been photographing and researching it for at least a decade. A couple of months ago a friend invited me to take part in an art exhibition at a New York City university, with a loose theme around apparitions in the landscape. My central thesis is that the 20th Century is buried just outside the perimeter of that little village, and there are traces everywhere, for those who care to look.

So I said yes, reluctantly.

First of all, I don’t really like my own pictures. Never have, even though I’ve had a bunch of shows. In fact I can barely even look at them.

Secondly, I didn’t just want to show pictures without context. I wanted there to be enough fragmentary evidence for people to begin to do their own excavations. Even publish a little book to accompany the show. Which means, doing a lot more research, fast.

Which is what I have been doing over the last few weeks. Which has become obsessive and painful.

I’ve managed to pull together more information from the village archives, from a distance. I’ve also found, for the first time, people who passionately care about what happened 70 years ago. I’ve been handed the information on the forced laborers who are buried beneath the 665 numbered grave markers. Names, birth and death dates, names of parents, villages of birth.

And that information just breaks my heart. It’s teenagers and young men and women from the Ukraine and Russia. And many of the young people from Ukraine were likely orphans, survivors of the Holomodor – that terrible genocide by famine. They were double victims of the vortex of evil created by Stalin and Hitler. So young. Dying of tuberculosis, mostly. At the rate of one or two a day. In that beautiful countryside.

I asked the question to my informant how the mayor of the town must have felt signing one or two death certificates a day, for boys and girls, for babies, for young men and women. When normally he’d sign one or two a month, for old people.

She surprised me with her answer. She noticed he would always note not only the day but the hour and minute of their death on their death certificates. There was no pattern to the numbers, so they were likely real, not made up. It could have been a Nazi bureaucrat doing his diligent best to do his paperwork. Or it could have been a human being, doing one small thing to honor the humanity of another being, recording the exact time of their death as if it really mattered.

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Maybug, fly

I have previously remarked on the lack of melodic complexity of German children’s song. But sometimes those simple-minded melodies create ironies that are powerful in their brutality. A short and popular children’s song – a nursery rhyme really – has the following lyrics “Maybug, fly. Father’s in the war. Mother’s in Pomerania. Pomerania burned down. Maybug, fly.” One brutal reality, written for the voices of little children.

Maikaefer flieg

I came across “Meine 960 Tage im Reichsgau Wartheland” (My 960 days in the Reichsgau of Wielkopolska) by Erik Thomson in 2002, when I was doing some research into my grandfather’s past. In it, my grandfather is mentioned once, briefly, towards the end. He’s referred to as the “HWH, the Kreisleiter of Wielun, tall as a tree”. I became fascinated by the book, a humble, self-published affair. After a long preamble it becomes a diligent documentation of running a (presumably confiscated) farm in occupied Poland from 1944 to 1945. It goes over, in loving detail, the different crops he experimented with and how they fared. From potatoes to rape seed, sunflowers, flax to serradella to kok-sagis, a dandelion producing a latex-like substance. He also documents his successes in raising pigs and horses.

‘Wartheland’ – a national socialist administrative region that included today’s Wielskopolska and the Łódź area – is where millions of Poles were forced to leave toward the East, where large ghettos such as Łódź existed up to 1944, and large extermination camps such as Chelmno. Millions of people were starved, worked to death and murdered not very far from the rural idyll of the Gallwiese estate that Thomson farmed with such devotion and care.

Erik Thomson may well not have known all that much. His obsessive focus on tracking the success and yield of his farming experiments were far more important to him than the war and destruction raging around him. There is comfort in focusing on your own life. On metrics and numbers you can control. I do so understand the draw of that narrow field of vision, on the quantifiable, on just putting one foot ahead of the other. And yet, by so obsessively measuring and optimizing the numbers relating  to our own lives we are in danger of being blind to everything else? This is a question I ask myself, with some guilt.

Further excavations

As I have written before, the village of my birth is a place of layers upon layers. Everyone has been here from the Celts to the Alemanni, to the Romans to the Nazis to the Americans. On a recent visit my father told me that the mystical square mile – his hunting grounds (he’s a hunter), where American Nike missiles used to be buried deep in the ground, where a small labor/sick camp once stood, where planes used to take off heavy with bombs during the Second World War – is about to become an industrial zone.

Porsche already has a large storage facility there and other buildings and distribution centers have gradually colonized the area. But the latest wave of development will obliterate, or at least cover up most of the remaining evidence. He also reminded me of old stories about the village, when had was a military airport, that planes would get stored in the woods for protection. American or British planes would bomb those woods and there is still so much shrapnel in the old oak trees that no-one will fell them. The metal in there would ruin any saw blade, so old oaks grow majestically, undisturbed. It is for those mystical oaks that I first set out, to see what I would find in the dark fairy tale forest of my childhood.

This is what I found. Foundations of buildings, with cellars beneath them. Trees with damage to their bark. Traces and signs.

My town for many years was home to its small American village. Many people harbor happy memories of their time here. But after the Iron Curtain came down many military bases were closed down and dismantled. Few traces remain of the radar towers, the barracks, the compound, or the place where missiles facing Russia were buried deep underground.

Soon, even fewer will be left.

I also tried to find out more about where the camp once stood but did not find out anything further.

Actually, I just found the map that would have pointed me in the right direction

I did however notice a gravestone for the camp’s Jewish unofficial doctor Adolf Levi (who died there, like so many others in 1944), among the gravestones of people who died in the final days of the war.

As I walked back to my father’s house, musing on how inside village limits everything looked as if forgotten by time, a strange apparition entered from left field. A young black man on a unicycle, wearing headphones and a baseball cap. What could it all mean?


I’ve always seen it as my obligation to dive into my family’s secrets, perhaps in a quest to figure out what cast the long shadows that have always hung over it. With my mom’s family that was easy. There were archival documents, references, a long paper trail.

My father’s family always seemed bland in comparison. Decent, modest, hard-working people who kept out of politics and out of trouble. My father lived in a small village in the countryside as a child, and was 12 when the war ended. My beloved aunt was 14. I’ve been gently begging them for any kind of story, of anything they knew or had seen. A few gradually emerged. Here is one:

During the war, when all young, able men were off fighting somewhere far away, it was left to women and the old to carry with farm work and other labor. Which is why the government allocated to them “forced laborers”, slave laborers from occupied countries, often just teenagers. My father’s village had workers from France, Poland and Russia.

The mandate was to treat these laborers as badly as you could get away with; they were supposed to worked to exhaustion, and fed and housed poorly.

The villagers, and there were only a few of them, did not have that kind of contempt in them. Faced with a frightened group of other human beings they behaved decently. For example meals were taken together – a violation of the rules that could have gotten everyone into deep trouble. But the little community held together. Later, after the war was over, several of the former laborers from France and Poland got back in touch, some even came to visit, to exchange memories and catch up on where life had taken everyone.

The biggest challenge to his covert arrangement was when one of the Russian laborers became pregnant by her Russian boyfriend, and had a little boy, Vladimir. The official directive (as my aunt tells me) was that children born in these circumstances were not to be fed, so that they would starve.  The little band of people rallied together around the baby, summoning up clothes, diapers and even an old baby carriage. They managed to keep the existence of this little boy secret from all outsiders and authorities.

When the Russian laborers heard that the war was over, and that they were to be repatriated, they wept. They must have felt that nothing good was in store for them. Returning forced laborers were often treated as traitors, as being ‘contaminated’ and of “questionable loyalty”, and sent off to hard labor or gulags. Many suffered a lifetime of abuse and suspicion.

None of the Russian laborers of my father’s village were ever of heard again.

I sometimes wonder what happened to little Vladimir, born between the fault lines of two merciless world events.

Family, lost and found

You might have noticed at this point that my family was more of the “unhappy in its own way” kind. Helmed by parents whose own parents had never shown them much affection, which meant they never learned how dispense it themselves, my family was an archipelago of six individuals with few bonds. We were four girls, who could have been friends and should have banded together to defend ourselves against the unhappiness around them. Instead we all retreated into our private miseries, desperately alone.

Now, many years later, everyone’s worked on fixing what got broken, with middling success. I’ve managed to patch together reasonable, respectful relationships with both parents and two of my sisters. However, my third sister was so traumatized by her childhood that she, like me, ran away young, but then permanently severed all ties to her family.

She was my favorite sister, even though I never let her know. Blond, very thin and vulnerable, she was the little-est of the bunch, and generally got ground under in the fight for whatever crumbs of attention were to be had. I know where she lives and what she does; she has a general idea of what we’re up to, but remains determined in her refusal to re-establish a relationship.

It breaks my heart but I respect her choice.

A while ago, a new person came into my life through a circuitous route. She’s 87 and lives in my beloved Brighton Beach (I can see the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel through the windows). She started life in what used to be Romania, but is now Belarus, and has lived in Russia, Poland and Israel. Her whole family was murdered by the Nazis. Her husband and son are dead. We see each other every week, and have long conversations and go on little outings and errands. She lets me practice my still halting Yiddish on her. She is sharp, and witty, and beautiful. She stuffs my pockets with her rugelach, sugar cookies and sponge cake. She makes sure I wear a scarf and a hat. She loves to see me dance at the events we go to, and one day I will get her to dance with me.

I walk to her apartment from mine, one straight line 6.8 miles, down McDonald Avenue, the most utilitarian of thoroughfares. Everyone else is going to work. I am disappearing. Her apartment is my little refuge from the world, a place utterly peaceful, outside space and time, with just the F train clattering by every few minutes.

She is the third of four girls and her name is the also the name of my favorite sister, #3 of our lot.

She calls me the daughter she never had. I can’t call her my mother, because I have a mother. She’s not really like my grandmother either – at 87 she’s still too young, in a way. Maybe somehow, someone has given me another sister.

Oyfn pripetchik

The dead in your backyard

I grew up in a very pretty village in one of the more picturesque parts of (then) rural Germany. It did have a small factory, but the overall vibe was agricultural. The farmer a couple of streets down would sell you a liter of fresh raw milk for one Mark, and our house was surrounded by parsley and chive fields, the products of which were diligently manicured and bundled by a gaggle of ladies seated downstairs from our apartment. I spent many hour seated next to these women, listening to their stories, many of which were about the war, about those that had ‘fallen’  in battle or had been imprisoned by the Russians and returned. “Behave or The Russian will come and get you” was still used as a threat to small children.

Parenting was not taken very seriously. School finished at noon and after a quick lunch kids would roam the streets, building sites, local pool and fields for the rest of the day until called home for dinner six hours later.

It seemed like a place far removed from the anxious Germany of the 1970s with the lingering effects of the 1968 ‘events’. Wanted posters for the Baader-Meinhof gang were ubiquitous however. Some of the terrorists were quasi locals, a getaway vehicle had been found in our town, and a pair of minor members had a fatal accident just a couple of miles away. I visited the spot with my bike, and found their blood dried on the asphalt of our country road. Moreover, the place where Ulrike MeinhofAndreas BaaderGudrun Ensslin und Jan-Carl Raspe killed themselves was only a few towns away.

We also happened to have an American Nike missile base, decorating the town’s perimeter with a strange Bucky Fuller dome and a barracks encampment. We’d see Americans in trains and around local bars, chewing gum and talking loudly. Occasionally a local girl would follow one of these Americans to some place in Ohio or Indiana, returning only rarely and with a heavy American accent.

I learned very early not to trust the idyll that my town was eager to project.

And yet, there was more.

Behind the village, a couple of kilometers away, between fields and a small forest was a small cemetery called the “Russian Cemetery”. It wasn’t a place ever mentioned or visited. It was assumed that it had something to do with the war.

It consisted chiefly of numbered stones that looked like this:

It turns out that before the Americans built their base, there had been another kind of camp on the outskirts of town, created during the Third Reich. Billed as a camp for sick it was in fact a camp for the dying. Prisoners from other camps – many Russian forced laborers, male, female and children – were brought here when they could no longer work, tuberculosis and typhoid ran rampant, no doctors (but two informally operating internees) were there. It was a horrible place to die, surrounded by glorious rolling hills and vineyards. There are particularly wrenching details to this camp that I cannot get myself to write. Many were killed during an attack on the small airport that was right next to the camp. There was nowhere for them to take shelter.

When I was born – in the late 1960s – the dead had not been dead very long. The Third Reich might seem very far away for many, an era that has already slipped into history, a place reassuringly far away. It isn’t for me. I can’t help visiting this little cemetery, I can’t help looking for the foundations of those buildings. I try and imagine names and faces behind the numbers. It still seems very, very close and real to me.

For more information there is an extraordinary book, privately published and hard to find. It is filled with rage, an obsessively detailed accounting of what happened in that region, who was responsible, who turned a blind eye, who benefited, and who lied. The local library had one copy, with no signs of reading or borrowing.

It is with profound joy

While we’re on Klemperer, I’d like to add a digression on the birth announcement of my mother, which appeared in January 1943. It read something like

“With the most profound joy we would like to announce the birth of our daughter Brünnhilde. May she give birth to many courageous warriors. Munich, The Brown House.”

The announcement had a thick black edge, and was set in fat Gothic type.

A few details beg to be annotated. My mother gave birth to four girls, none of which turned out to be warriors, an irony never lost on my mother. “The Brown House” was in fact the NSDAP (Nazi) party headquarters Munich, in which my grandfather had been employed until the end of 1942, reporting up to Martin Bormann, Hitler’s much-despised second-in-command. His fiefdom was however more mundane than the address or his direct report suggested. He was in charge of village culture, with a particular focus on decreasing participation in church choirs to the benefit of patriotic singing circles. It took me several years to weasel out this fact; a fact that gave me some relief, since this time had been unaccounted for, and 1942 being a particularly dark year among dark years.

What had always irked my mother about her birth announcement, beyond the fake-Teutonic spelling of Brunhilde, was that the language and presentation was that of a funeral announcement. Let’s turn to Klemperer.

I have already mentioned the persecution and suffering of the Klemperers. But what I love about Victor Klemperer is that he did not stop working, even though there was no outlet for his writing. As a philologist he turned to analyze the language all around him, the language of the Third Reich, resulting in the masterpiece LTI (Lingua Tertii Imperii). LTI is a cold-blooded analysis of the ‘new speak’ of the Nazi propagandists, a heavily clichéd language that infected not only speeches and announcements but newspaper reporting and everyday speech. It allowed Klemperer to keep a perspective beyond victimhood,  as outside observer of the lunacy and self-delusions of the era.

In the chapter “Familiananzeigen als kleines Repetitorium der LTI” (family announcements as small instances of repetition of the LTI) Klemperer proves through examples that birth announcements unthinkingly began to mirror the language and appearance of death announcements. This as a results of the pages and pages of death announcements in the papers, in which any kind of good news must have seemed almost sacrilegious, and requiring tempering.

LTI is an extraordinary book. Seething, sarcastic yet disciplined and thorough, it is an amazing product of scholarship under adverse circumstances. It is a fascinating read.