In Yekaterinburg, I spent an evening with the guys behind the Tesnota webzine walking around the Uralmash (Уралмаш) area of the city, a Post-constructivist residential area specially built for the workers of the nearby factory with the same name during the 1930s, and these days an appealingly run-down area of the city, with bums drinking vodka near the metro station and dogs running around the courtyards. They also took a few photos with an old Soviet camera named ‘Vigilant’. The result is a fierce-looking interview in Russian – nad I allowed myself to present an English translation here. Enjoy.
Tesnota: The hero of The Kindly Ones, a WW2-novel dealing with the same topic as your journey, feels that he is trapped in some kind of a logical paradox: he knows, that what he does is bad, although he cannot abandon the things he does because of the pledge and dedication to the ideology, which apparently saved him from going insane. Your grandmother did nothing wrong but her will was not free for other reasons. Do you think that there was an ideological life-saver for your grandmother out there in the camps?
Marcel: For my grandmother this ideological concept must have been her Catholic faith. I know this because she carried a rosary with her throughout her time in Russia, one that was given to her on her communion day. From what I know all prisoners were rigidly searched and all valuables taken, so she must have hidden it quite well all those years. It survived to this day and accompanied me to Russia – not that I’m a believer in Catholic faith, but it served as a memento, a physical reminder of my grandmother. In some camps there was also political education and classes teaching the basics of communism, but I don’t know if my grandmother attended these or if her camps were purely work- and production-focused. In any way, she was a strong believer through her time in the camps, and until her death.
Tesnota: You said that she always told you bits of the information of the life in the camp; though you never grasped the whole picture. Do you think that the whole narrative would be a fine thing to read through and handle? And do you think that it would be perceived correctly?
Marcel: I think that it’s always easier to follow a single individual through a story (a ‘hero’, if you want to call it like that) than to try and encompass all aspects of such a diverse story as the history of the GULAG – maybe that’s why Solzhenitsyn’s GULAG-book ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ is more famous (or even easier to understand) than ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ and was his first attempt at writing about the camps. So yes, as long as I try to focus on my grandmother and not digress too much, I expect readers will be able to follow her story, hopefully being entertained and learning more about the situation at the same time. My grandmother told a story from her return to Germany after the camps, where all returning prisoners were first going through a reception camp where everyone received 20 Deutschmarks and a chocolate bar. This was the first chocolate she had in five years, so she sat on the grass in the middle of the camp and ate the whole bar at once, promptly falling asleep after she finished. When she woke up, somebody had stolen half her 20 Marks. Another story from Russia is that she already spoke a smatter of Russian which she had picked up in East Prussia, and so she could help fellow inmates a bit. I don’t know how good her Russian was – but it was at least better than mine, haha.
Tesnota: The whole book of the Kind Ones is the exploration of what’s gone; 20 years from Nuremberg process people started doubting its righteousness, 40 years from it people started doubting the war in itself. Do not you see your project as a certain reminder of things which happened (and especially the post-war thing, which was abandoned y popular historians throughout the years)?
Marcel: Every honest and neutral retelling and remembrance of history is a valid one, in my opinion. And we are in a good position today – both with the time that has passed and the current political climate in Europe. I think more and more people are interested not only in the soldier stories from World War Two as retold in ‘Saving Private Ryan’, but also in the influence this time still has on our lives today, just by the way is displaced people and restructured both countries and societies in Germany, Poland and Russia. But we grandchildren can now start searching without being hampered by public opinion and politics, and also on a more personal level than academic research does. I’ve met many people on my trip, scholars or not, who are really into the subject of post-WW2 Europe without being revanchist or blaming a specific party or country. It’s more saying: ‘Look, this happened to people then and we should remember it.’
Tesnota: If so, what do you think the web-stalker and net-surfer would grasp from your upcoming blog posts? What it would evoke (if it evokes anything)?
Marcel: First of all: a general interest in the topic. I’m not doing anything differently than other authors doing ancestry research; I just do it more publicly. And this enables me to get in touch with people (like yourselves) much easier and quicker. A Polish blog called my trip ‘genealogy 2.0’, which I think is quite fitting. If people are entertained by my posts from a travel writing perspective – fine. If they become more interested in the whole topic – even better.
Tesnota: A while ago we stumbled upon a big archive of photos and letters of the old couple, who were war surgeons, and then lived a humble life. They were survived by one daughter who showed no interest in their archive. How do you think one might encourage the interest in the past of his elders? Is there any chance your project would have that kind of influence?
Marcel: I hope so. A few readers started retelling the story of their grandparents in the comments on the blog, so I think there is much more interest and the will to explore in grandchildren than children of people from that time. This is however quite the delicate topic – what if the general public, or even just a small group of scholars, is interested in retelling the story of the old couple, and the daughter refuses to have the letters and photos published because it’s too personal for her? Who has claim? Are these historical documents or personal family keepsakes of no value for the outside? I don’t have an answer to that question.
Tesnota: You have also been to Poland and Yekaterinburg – the perception of the war is surely different in those places. Have you noticed anything in common?
Russia (and not only Yekaterinburg) seems to be very focused on the present and the future, just like Germany. In Poland this is different – not that people here are backwards or revanchist, but there’s a stronger focus on World War Two in everyday life, it seemed to me. What both countries have in common is that they took whatever was left from the past and tried to make something better, something good out of it. In Poland they’ve rebuilt most city centres the way these were before the war; in Yekaterinburg they made a hotel of the former headquarter of the NKVD, and the whole city – which was out of bounds for visitors and foreigners just 30 years ago – is now a pleasant and modern urban centre.
Tesnota: There is this singer M.I.A. who had a song “Story To Be Told”, and the idea behind it is simple – everyone deserves having his story told. What would you feel for the family and yourself as soon as you compile the story? When would you get the scent of accomplishment?
Marcel: I like to tell stories. That’s my main motivation as a writer – and so I think every story that is entertaining and moving for readers and listeners is a story worth telling. And due to my family connection I do not only have a closer relationship to the main ‘protagonist’ of the story, I also know that my family wants her story to be told. So my aim is to make that story accessible to as many people as I can.
Tesnota: Should we relate to what was gone? Or should we try to live a blank life? There are obvious arguments for both sides, but that’s the big issue: when does one decides which side to choose?
My favourite quote about history and the past is by William Faulkner: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ In my opinion learning from history is not so much about avoiding and repeating mistakes, but more about an acute sense of being and knowing where you come from: what place, what people. If you know why a place (a street, a building, a mountain) looks like it looks today, and what people live in that place, this can give you a much more rewarding experience of the present. So I’ll always vote for relating to what was before us and maybe gone now.