Wer sass nicht bang vor seines Herzens Vorhang?
Der schlug sich auf: die Szenerie war Abschied.
Who hasn't sat fearful before his heart's curtain?
It goes up: another scene of farewell.
Rainier Marie Rilke
Translated by Brigitte Carnochan
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 1956. 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.