as if / History / Philosophy / Thoughts

Voices from the Past

File:Georgstraße 27.JPG

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, 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The letters are interesting as a piece of family history but are, in their entirety, also an interesting historical document of more general interest.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 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.)

9 thoughts on “Voices from the Past

  1. This is quite interesting. For me, most of the voices from the past are in the form of oral literature. They are stories we are told by our parents and other relatives. There is hardly any written letters between my relatives.

    • Try to write down those stories. Such oral traditions tend to disappear as soon as writing is introduced.
      The reason there are so many letters is that the members of the family lived in different cities, in a time when there was no telephone, or phoning was expensive and cumbersome. The letters my mother is working on (from the generation of my grandparents and greatgrandparents) have survived because my greatgrandmother kept them and because the house she lived in was not dstroyed during the war. The letters I am working on have survived because my parents kept them. I know many people here who do not have anything like that. It is something that emerged after literacy became wide-spread in the 19th century and before electronic media started pushing letters aside. We are luky to have this material, but it is also a lot of work to make it accessible. 🙂

  2. This is great that you’re collecting the past and able to glean some information from your mother to fill in the gaps. I wish I had been able to get more information from my mother, but all of her stories were so out of order and incomprehensible, even before she got dementia. The result is I know very little about my lineage, and I suspect there were a lot of interesting things going on there. I know that my great grandfather was a general (I don’t even know his name) and that he was “in history books.” It’s sad to have history disappear beneath your feet.

    Then there’s the problem of conflicting stories. This happens a lot because, as you say, they represent the interpretation of their authors. This is interesting to me. The truth of the matter may not be accessible, but you can find out so much about the people through their stories, and perhaps this is the greater truth.

    Your use of context to recognize words is very much a part of learning another language, as you probably know. I have such a limited vocabulary in French, but I find I can get by when I’m there because I rely on the context to figure out what’s being said. I’ll hear a sentence and miss a great number of words, but I can guess them based on gestures and what that person is likely to be saying. I might remember one word. Then later I’ll use that word to figure out some other word. This has limits, of course, but it’s like this sphere of knowledge keeps opening up as context reveals new knowledge. It’s an interesting process.

    • Actually this is the way I learnt most of my English.
      Do you have any contact to your mother’s family? Or some documents that could provide a clue to find some relatives?

      • Unfortunately, I don’t. I have pretty much nothing. Even much of my parent’s lives are a mystery to me. For some strange reason, they kept a lot from me. For instance, I didn’t know that my father was a tunnel rat in Vietnam until his funeral when some relative provided this fact. Of course I was stunned when I heard this. It makes a lot of sense in retrospect, but it bothers me that he kept this from me. It was probably too horrific to talk about, so this is understandable.

        Another strange one for you: I didn’t know I had a half-brother until I was 8 years old and he showed up at our house. Apparently he had to serve in the Korean army and was not allowed to get out of it. He continued to live in Korea after the army and my mother never mentioned him! As a child, I didn’t think my lack of knowledge of this was strange. I just brought home my grammar books and tried to teach him English in the hopes that he’d play a game with me after “homework time”. Although he was in his twenties, I thought of him as a play mate and was excited to have a brother. It was only later that I reflected on this as a very strange fact to keep from me. I think my mother was ashamed that she had to leave her children behind to start a new life in America, and these feelings made her very secretive about these matters. I think she just wanted to forget that life that she left behind. Still, though, it’s her son! I’m still confused about it all. How could she not mention him at some point? It makes no sense. When I tried to ask her about this, she evaded the question or said something that didn’t make sense.

        • It sounds like she deliberately wanted to brake the bridge to her past. It might still be possible to find your brother or other relatives again, but it may be difficult.
          The mother of one of my great-grandfathers never told him or anybody who was his father. We simply don’t know, and we don’t know why she kept this a secret. Probably it was some kind of “shame” and that is what I suspect in the case of your mother as well.

  3. Dear Bro

    thanks for your elaborations… I have been reading the books of the Dschungle Child Sabine Kuegler who grew up with the Fayu in West Papua. She describes that when she and her family arrived this tribe lived in war with the four clan groups and she sais part of that was because they had not recordet any history. When a person died, they did not talk about them ever again. They lost tradition and understanding. It is more than I have time for now to write more about this but I thank you for doing this recording. I will this year scan my “book” so you will see which resources and documents I have and you can add them to your information…

    Many greetings
    Sista Dine

  4. Pingback: Ruins 5 | The Kellerdoscope

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