I am currently transcribing letters written by my grandparents in the 1950s and 1960s. It is an interesting experience. My grandfather was a graphic artist and there is also an artist’s estate, see https://kellerdoscope.wordpress.com/, containing both commercial and non-commercial works. The letters shed some light on some of these things. They provide a glimpse into how life was in those days in the East Germany, from the unique point of view of an artist.
The letters are interesting as a piece of family history but are, in their entirety, also an interesting historical document of more general interest. I am following here in my mother’s footsteps who already transcribed hundreds of letters from other branches of the family, as well as other documents that have been preserved, and she is still doing so. By accidents of history, a large body of such material has survived in our family. It is also my mother who in many cases can add some additional details about people, places and circumstances in the letters I am currently working on. The chance of getting this extra information, however, gives a certain urgency to this work. And since my time is limited, the frequency of articles on my blogs has suffered a bit from this work, and will continue to do so, since there is work left for many months.
Since most of the letters my grandparents received have not survived, what I have here is only one side of a conversation. There are many instances when the context is just missing and the sense of what is being written remains obscure. But bit by bit, a picture is emerging and some of the things not understandable when I encounter them first become clear later.
Some of the letters are typed, but many are handwritten, and my grandfather’s handwriting is not easy to read. Increasingly I am getting used to it, but sometimes, I can recognize the words only because of the syntactic and semantic context. Sometimes, drawings are inserted and provide some context as well. Sometimes, the internet helps, when I am not sure about a place name, the name of a tropical plant (one of my grandfather’s hobbies) or the brand name of some brand of drawing device, for example. Some words, however, especially names, remain obscure. In some instances, I will have to add information gained from books, especially when it comes to the institutions of the GDR (DDR in German) mentioned in some letters. I will have to do some research in the library.
It is interesting to observe how the whole of a text is used to interpret its parts and vice versa. It is a cyclic process, what is known in philosophy as a hermeneutic circle. The knowledge I have to interpret the text is incomplete. Creativity is used to fill the gaps and then the resulting hypotheses are evaluated and reviewed in the context of the whole. In this process, I am arriving at an interpretation of the letter, and at the same time, my knowledge – about the handwriting, about the life of my grandparents, about the GDR and its life conditions, etc. is growing. I can then use this new knowledge to transcribe further letters and to reassess some already transcribed before.
Some information is lost, however. The letters, of course, only give a few snapshots into the real life that was lived more than 50 years ago. Moreover, they do not present the real life but they are the interpretations of their authors, geared towards the specific receiver of these letters (which, in most cases, was my father).
Such work raises philosophical questions (at least for a philosophy-inclined person like me). In which sense does the past exist? To what extend is the history we reconstruct from such traces a construction (and to which extend are the events and circumstances described in those documents already a construction, made by their author). What is the reality behind this as-if-construction it and how is this reality connected to the texts and to my interpretations of them.
When Odysseus is evoking the spirits of the dead at the entrance of the underworld, he has to do so with a burnt offering of an animal. Devoid of any life of their own, the dead need a bit of real life in order to think and talk. There are graves from antiquity, arranged along streets, carrying inscriptions that where meant to be read aloud by the passing wanderer, so that the deceased would regain a voice for a moment and talk to us. In reading these old letters, I am lending my voice, my eye and my brain to my grandparents for a moment. And whispering, fragments of lives once real appear from the old yellowed pages.
(The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Georgstra%C3%9Fe_27.JPG. It shows the house in Georgstr. 27 (at the time “Kurt-Fischer-Str. 27) where my grandparents where living, the place where most of the letters I am currently working on have been written. The house is now in a bad condition and is apparently empty. The economic conditions of the GDR as well as those of the times since the reunification of Germany have prevented it from being restored to what it must have been originally. So this house itself is a document of history.)