Meike Ziervogel: “As long as you can keep disorder at bay you have control. You can see clearly, you know what step to take next. Albert can’t stand chaos. He used to be able to tolerate it. In fact, when he was young he never made a distinction between order and disorder. Never thought about it. That wasn’t how he perceived the world, neatly divided into two camps, with judgements attached: good or bad. But now he’s convinced, has become convinced over the last years, that chaos is the enemy of the people. Every now and again, for a brief moment, he looks longingly back to a time when he wasn’t so clear-sighted. He knows that this lack of a clear view helped him to take good photographs. He was open to surprise, to being surprised.”
Being in a war changes a person for ever. The Photographer is a tale of betrayal, loyalty, sacrifice and survival. The evacuation of East Prussia is pivotal for the family at the centre of the story. By winter 1945, nearly 11 million Germans — mostly women and children — had fled the Eastern provinces of the Reich, heading west. Killings and rapes committed by the Red Army triggered fear and panic amongst the population.
The Evacuation of East Prussia
The Photographer may be a novel, but it is based on the experiences of Meike Ziervogel’s family, which gives the narrative a particular poignancy. At the book launch in Waterstones Piccadilly last week, she said, “I wrote this novel instinctively; I had an image in my head. I wanted to express an emotion; I did not want to sit down and write somebody’s life. I wanted to understand what it was that made people survive . . . against a background of flight and rape and refugee camps.”
The story starts in 1920 and spans three decades. Trude and her seamstress mother, Agatha, live frugally but well, in a small medieval town as in a Grimm’s fairy tale. Her father had survived the Great War, but the wound in his chest got him in the end. Agatha has aspirations for her pretty daughter – she will marry a well-to-do doctor or a lawyer. Her dreams are shattered when Trude falls for a low-born dashing photographer.
“’He’s from the gutter. His father was a drinker, before he disappeared without trace. The mother didn’t waste any tears or time and spread her legs for the next man.’
‘Watch your tongue.’
‘He’s not the right company for you.’
‘Albert is different. He works hard.’
‘He left school when he was eleven. He’s a crook.’
‘He knows a few queer fish. But he isn’t like them.’
‘I don’t want my daughter to end up like her grandmother.’”
The young couple elope and travel across Europe; his photos are published in newspapers and magazines, and they enjoy life. But Trude’s guilt about abandoning her mother grows, so they return home and open up a studio. Peter is born. Agatha bides her time: she is adamant her son-in-law is a bad ‘un. War gives her the opportunity she is waiting for to get rid of him, and “to save her daughter and her grandson.” As a result of her betrayal, Albert is sent off to fight in the war.
Agatha, Trude and little Peter end up fleeing along with thousands of others — part of the mass exodus surging westwards as the Red Army advances from the east. They lose everything, even their suitcase and its contents which spill out on to the station platform. Trude has a few pieces of precious jewellery sewn by her skilful mother into the lining of their clothes. They settle in a refugee camp where, miraculously, Albert finds them once war is over.
“A blond twelve-year-old boy is standing in front of him. Man and boy look at each other. The boy can’t remember ever having seen a photograph of his father. The man can’t remember that that’s what his son looked like. He once had a photograph of himself with his wife and child, but he lost it or someone took it away.
Albert stretches out his hand.
‘Peter?’ The boy nods. ‘I’m your father.’
The boy shakes Albert’s hand. A firm handshake.
Father traumatised by war has to reassert his authority. Feral son is rebellious. The boy loves boxing and has no interest in learning about photography. A gang of local kids at his school bully him, and he uses his fists effectively, which is unfortunate since the ring leader is the son of his father’s boss.
Will Trude forgive her mother for betraying her husband? Can Agatha look her son-in-law in the eye? Will they manage get out of the refugee camp and start a new life?
At the book launch, Meike said, “It is a fairy tale ultimately, even though it is based on my own family. Life is much more complicated, so there was not resolution such as I give it at the end of the book.”
When faced by life-and-death decisions, what is right and what is wrong? Would you shovel piles of dead bodies into mass graves for an extra cup of soup? What do you do when your friend is being gang-raped by drunken soldiers and she goes crazy with a gun?
Meike raised the issue of how trauma is passed on from one generation to the next. “I am very aware I am the grandchild. I could write this and give it a happy end. My parents’ generation could not have written this novel. Like so many German families we never talked about the war. There was total silence. I have done a certain amount of figuring out what has been passed on in terms of trauma, from my grandparents’ generation, to my parents, and on to me . . . At the end of my grandmother’s life, she sat in a chair and wanted to die, but didn’t. For ten years she sat there, and fell into a deep depression, asking, ‘Why didn’t they get us out’?”
Meike asked us to consider how “men and women create war. We women give birth to sons who we then send to war. We have to own up to that. We have not looked enough at the responsibility, at our women’s responsibility, in creating and perpetuating war.”
My own mother, the artist and novelist, Gael Elton Mayo, was traumatised by her experiences age 17 during World War Two when she escaped out of Occupied France with her Polish-Russian apatride husband. Their son was born during the bombardment of Bordeaux. Her subsequent three marriages, bohemian lifestyle, and inability to settle anywhere for long is recounted in her recently reissued memoirs, The Mad Mosaic.
Successive governments in the West continuously pursue destructive, mercenary policies, all the while playing the blame game; their tall tales disseminated by a corrupt Media. From one generation to the next we go blindly through life wearing the blinkers of denial, justifying the unjustifiable.
War is big business
Thousands of people are killed and millions displaced every year because of myriad ongoing conflicts around the globe. Britain is the world’s second largest arms exporter after America. War in Syria has boosted the £100 billion-a-year weapons trade. Last weekend, Donald Trump sealed a $110bn-plus arms deal with Saudi King Salman, despite blaming Saudi Arabia for producing the terrorists behind 9/11.
The human cost of suffering and the knock-on effect on society as a whole is ignored and buried, or ridiculed. The effects of PTSD as a problem beyond the battlefield are well documented. The discovery that biological changes stemming from intense trauma can be passed on to survivors’ children is the clearest sign yet that one person’s life experience can affect subsequent generations. But this kind of science is not a vote-winner.
Meike Ziervogel’s The Photographer is a beautiful and moving work of art, told in a series of vivid and visual chapters like snapshots. With its underlying message of acceptance, forgiveness and hope, The Photographer should be an obligatory teen-read on every school curriculum. It is a perfect book to kick off a book club. Buy it and see.
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