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Monday, 5 October 2020

Erna, Helena, Ania: Family Histories from the Second World War




Erna, Ania, Helena is the story of Tomasz Laczny's family history, how his grandmother (German) fell in love with his grandfather (Polish) at the end of the Second World War, and the struggles she underwent.

It is a beautifully illustrated book that strikes a chord with me because of my German Family Album and the ways in which love stories collide with political histories and extend beyond them. How do you begin to tell those stories. Tomasz did it with gold ink and paper. Here is what he says about the book. 






The idea came around 10-12 years ago when I was obsessively investigating my grandmother's story -- a sad and dramatic love story between my German grandmother and my Polish grandfather during the time of WW2 when this kind of relationship between enemies was prohibited. I discovered this story quite late when I was in my 20s but I really started investigating it when I reached my 30s -- I think it is the time when we starting to look back and ask questions about where we are coming from.





However at that point I didn't have a clear vision of  what kind of medium I wanted to use for this project. I had a lot of material in different forms like video and voice recordings, documents, family pictures, my diaries, drawings and sketches. And I also had a lot of "empty spaces" -- things I didn't know about the story and was not able to find out anymore because the people who witnessed the events were already gone. At the beginning I wanted to make a graphic novel as the whole book.  At the same time I wanted the medium somehow reflecting the shattered way of storytelling, a story which on top of that is incomplete. The project was abandoned for a few years -- during that time I went through difficult personal time (divorce and separation from my children). This however gave me a completely different perspective -- I found some similarities between my personal story and the story of my grandmother (living in a foreign country, separation from the child). I also wanted to include this intergeneration experience into the story, the idea of collective memory and events which are passed from one generation into another. I decided to make a book using different mediums and fill the missing gaps using my own photography (alongside the archival one). The idea was to use photography which suggests rather than illustrate to give the viewer the possibility of imagining their own version of the story.  


I strongly believe in the power of stories -- it is a starting point to any of my projects. Storytelling seems to be the best way to connect with people you don't know to gain their interest and, if the story is good, their trust. I believe that personal stories give this enormous opportunity of becoming universal simply because everyone of us have some stories to tell and can be easily connected to. I was showing my book in Japan and even though the historical and cultural context is different people still were able to quickly connect with the story of my grandmother. 





The initial idea behind the book was to capture simply the story of my grandma: her love of the "enemy", giving birth to my  mum as a consequence of that, her imprisonment and struggle to have contact with her child, her struggle after the war in a country which was earlier occupied by her nation. However during that research I found many layers and it gave me the possibility to ask more universal questions about who we are when we have lost our country family and even name. 




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The project actually started with the illustrations. In my practice I use both photography and drawing.  As I mentioned before the initial idea to tell the story of my Grandmother was to use a graphic novel genre. But at some time I wanted the book to reflect the process of discovery of the story  and have "the different medium feeling". When I was doing my research (interviewing people, historians, reading books, visiting places, taking pictures etc) I started to think about how we actually preserve the story from one generation to another.




On many occasions during the research I had been told  the same story with different details (even my mom at some point told me some fragment of the story contradicting her previous version from a few years ago). I started to think about how our memory works and how I could capture that. I wanted to mirror this in my book to give the impression of many narrators who speak about the same thing but have different voices and sometimes contradict each other. It was not my intention to do a documentary, rather I wanted to capture the way the story is told and form a collective myth at some point at the end.   





I wanted the physicality of the pages (the variety materials used) to follow the multi narration used in the book. I am very much interested in creating handmade art books as it gives the possibility of making something very unique -- even each copy can be different. This uniqueness is key in my practice. For me photography, drawing, illustration exist fully when it is printed. Seeing the image on the screen of my computer is just a starting point to reinterpreting it and giving it full life in a form of physical object. 



The variety of forms of expressions in the book (photographs, illustrations, drawings, comics) are a reflection of my thoughts about storytelling and how we preserve story from one generation to another. It also mirrors my fascination with different techniques of storytelling like using silent graphic novel sections at the beginning of the book for example or using collected old family pictures later in the book. 





Making the book was a closing over 10 years process of research and discovery. I learned a lot not only about my family but also about my country, history (the events which are not really discussed in schools like for example the biggest forced migration of humans in world history). And I also learnt a lot about myself. It changed my perception of the family as a concept and gave me a completely different perspective of how I see my parents and grandparents. I learnt how much history and politics can influence the life of individuals -- how vulnerable we can be in the midst of dramatic historical events. I think it also changed my mum and her relationship to the past. She helped me a lot with researching the history, (she even started to interview some people herself). Also, I think this is the most important thing for me, I met my grandma when she was still young looking for love and was full of dreams about her future life.



Enquire to buy the book here


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