Old photographs tease out fragments of memory—a laugh, a sigh,
a conversation the camera interrupts and then suspends across
time. Looking at photographs and documents that came to me after
my parents died, I’m struck not only by how much I’ve forgotten but
also how easily and quickly the past rushes back when called.
Sometimes forgetting is simply being afraid to remember. I was born
in Worms, Germany in 1941 and reunited in 1976 with my German
father, who had disappeared from my life when I was eighteen months
old. I knew he had been a German soldier and that he and my mother
had divorced after the war so she could marry my American stepfather,
a man I quickly grew to love as my father. But I knew very little about my
German father. My mother never spoke of him, and I was afraid—given
the possibilities—to ask.
Like a New Year’s gift, in January 1976, his letter arrived and took me
completely by surprise. I had no memory of him whatsoever—no image in
my head to put with the bold blue script on the paper. Over the following
months we exchanged many letters, and that summer my nine–year–old
daughter and I visited him and his family in Connecticut, where he had
immigrated in 1952.
It is oddly unsettling to find you have played a role in people’s lives who
were strangers to you. And odder still to sort through the stories suffused
with emotion trying to find the real story. The truth, of course, is that all
the stories are real—my father’s story, my mother’s story, my stepfather’s
story. They are authentic and subjective simultaneously; tell the truth but
“tell it slant.”
Trying now to reclaim my early life by imagining the years from 1941–1947
heals a wound I hadn’t consciously known I carried. The story remains
elusive, however, even though I have a remarkable number of photos and
documents from those years, saved by both of my parents. But however
fragile, it is quite real.
In these images, I have drawn a map of my life by taking the random but
tangible artifacts my parents left behind and reordering them within a larger
historical context. I have tried to find and shape my story from those fragments
that survived and relate it to other lives, those of people I have never met.
Any life story includes love and loss, hope and fear, success and failure.
Some focus on what is lost, others on what is found, and some will not
believe that anything was lost (or found) at all.