|Backstory: Yvonne was 11 when the war began. She was in Warsaw when the SS arrived and bore witness to the Uprising. Her father was taken early on in the occupation – most likely in the so-called Intelligenzaktion. He was sent to Mauthausen, a slave labor camp in Upper Austria used to imprison the intelligentsia and political prisoners from the occupied lands. Yvonne’s father survived – after the camp was liberated the Swedish Red Cross sent him to a hospital in Stockholm. At 19 Yvonne was reunited with her father in Sweden where they took up residence. Her father recovered physically but “he had a lot of scars, mental scars — he didn’t believe in god, he didn’t believe in people.”
I met Yvonne on the street. I walk to work every day. Occasionally I meet people and do a portrait shot, if the person is willing. The day we met, Yvonne approached me and asked about my old Nikon F2, indicating that she was a photographer and very interested in art. She told me her story, including her truncated childhood in Warsaw and painful memories of how Poles were treated by the Nazi occupiers. Although Yvonne is still not overly fond of Germans she told me that she works with a few and they are “intelligent, hard working, and very nice people once you get to know them.”
“How could they follow this idiot?” she asked in an incredulous tone. “He wasn’t even fucking German…”
I carry a 20 Mark coin in my wallet. It isn’t worth anything except to historians and ethnic Germans who don’t believe that the Deutsche Demokratische Republik was an “illegitimate state.” The enduring legacy of the first, failed, socialist experiment on German soil is anti-fascism. When economic hard times hit Sachsen and surrounding areas, after Wiedervereinigung, neo-Nazis tried to hold marches. People in Dresden wouldn’t have it. They turned out in great numbers to block the Nazis.
My coin was minted in 1971, to commemorate the 85th birthday of Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands during the 1930s. Thälmann was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933. He was held for 11 years in solitary confinement in Bautzen Prison (part of the Groß-Rosen concentration camp), before being transferred to Buchenwald in 1944, where he was shot – on Hitler’s personal orders. (The Nazis told the press that Thälmann had been killed in an Allied air attack).
I was born 14 years to the day after Thälmann was murdered – as an ethnic German, I feel a connection with the man who was butchered on my birthday.
I showed Yvonne the coin, explaining who Thälmann was. When she heard he was executed at Buchenwald she squinted and examined the coin carefully.
“What kind of money is that?” she asked.
“East German,” I said.
Yvonne raised an eyebrow, looked at me intently, nodded, and said, “Thank you, Thomas.”
I often think about her question and wonder, how indeed? — TAG
Locale: East of Eden
Equipment: Nikon D200 / Nikkor 28~80mm f3.5-5.6 D