exploring the personal archive
Two photos of the same monument, one taken in 1972, the other in 2008. This particular monument was built as a part of Treptower Park, constructed in East Berlin four years after the end of the Second World War, in 1949. This particular structure is one in a series built by the Soviets to commemorate the Russians killed during the war, as well as a towering reminder to the people of Germany that the Russians were the victors and the new power in the region. The park is also a military cemetery, holding over 5,000 bodies of Russian soldiers.
My mother took the first picture in 1972 - having recently left her life in the convent in Nebraska, and moving to St. Paul as a VISTA volunteer, she embarked on her first journey overseas, to visit her brother who was in the Air Force and stationed at the US base in Stuttgart. Speaking with her recently, she told me she remembered crossing the Berlin Wall to get to the East at Checkpoint Charlie. The Russian soldier at the passport control pointed out that she hadn’t signed her passport, and gave her his pen to do so. (She later signed up for and took an all night bus tour of cabarets in Berlin but that’s a story for a different post).
One of the first places many of us encounter the past is through our family’s stories. Before knowing about the Second World War or the Berlin wall, I had heard my mother talk about her experiences there in the early 1970s, a time before I existed. When I arrived at the same monument over 30 years later, I went because a friend suggested we go, to tour a park that was becoming increasingly out of place in post-1989 Germany. Growing up during the last decades of the Cold War, in a house that was fairly committed to imbibing Cold War spy novels and films, I was eager to see what remained of Soviet controlled East Germany.
The picture taken in 1972 has a very somber tone - an actual soldier walks by the statue of the kneeling Russian soldier, while two park visitors look on. They sky is gray and one can imagine there wasn’t a tremendous amount of public cheer in this city that had been separated from its other half just a decade previously. The second picture, which has its center myself and my friend Eric, is certainly indicative of a change in time and politics. We felt free to climb up on the structure, standing underneath the hammer and sickle, highlighting the relative enormity of the monument with our bodies.
I didn’t know my mother had taken the first picture when I visited the park - I didn’t know she had been in the exact same place, at approximately the same age as I was when I arrived. It was several years later that I found her picture in a box, and immediately thought of my own visit to East Berlin. I often wonder how our relationships to people and places would change if we could watch a film of our lives - how many times would be intersect with people who once did not know, but become integral to our lives? How many spots of land would we cross on the other side of the world that our parent’s or our loved ones once crossed?