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Saturday, 8 December 2012

Joerg Colberg's Grandfather

 Joerg Colberg has a great post over at Conscientious on the search for his grandather, who died on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. 

It touches on documentary, the family album and how to break through the toxicity of the second world war. Joerg is trying to find out who his grandfather was, but is having little luck. He gets hold of some old family photographs...

After I received the photographs I looked at them for a long time. Here was, after all, visual proof of small parts of the life of a man I had never met, a man who was one of my grandfathers. I had not known my grandfathers (they had both died before I was born), so the concept - a father figure once removed - itself seemed strange to me. All these photographs, I figured, would surely tell me something about my grandfather, wouldn’t they? How can 25 photographs not say anything?


Every photograph tells a story, the old adage goes. It’s a wonderful cliché, it’s a horrible cliché, and it’s most certainly not true. What stories do these photographs of my grandfather tell me? Having looked at them for so long now (a few years) I’m still not an inch closer to knowing anything about the man. He loved music, I wrote. How would I know that? All I can really know from the photographs is that he knew how to competently hold an instrument and, possibly, play it. Everything else I added on top. Maybe he didn’t love music, maybe he just ended up playing music on the side because it’s something he had learned doing, and he had somehow never abandoned it. Who can know for sure?

At the end of the day, I came to realize that I was bringing more to the photographs of Josef Nowak than they were bringing to me. They brought me precious little. So when I saw Heinermann’s photograph of the little coffins with the blue plastic bags, my thought was that one of them could have contained the remains of a man whose DNA was passed down to me, a man I still know nothing about, the presence of those 25 photographs notwithstanding.

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