Meditations on Photographs: Josef Nowak by an unknown photographer



Josef Nowak.jpg


What you see in this photograph is what I see in it, a man that none of us have ever met. I can say that with certainty because I know just a little bit, albeit not much, more about this man. He is, or actually was, Josef Nowak, an accountant born in what is now the Czech Republic, a citizen of Germany when it was called Nazi Germany, an avid multi-instrumentalist (mostly playing the accordion, though), and, just like millions of others, a soldier, drafted to fight in World War 2. Josef Nowak was killed (“fell”) on 21 March 1942 in what was then the Soviet Union. There was not going to be another spring in his life, and for a long time there was none in his wife’s (now widow’s) who on the very day that her husband died gave birth to their fourth daughter. That fourth daughter is my mother’s youngest sister. Josef Nowak is my grandfather. (more)

During my childhood, there were very few recollections of my grandmother who had died a few years before me, and there were none of my grandfather. Simple math tells me that my mother must have met her father (given there was going to be another, younger sister), but there were no memories: She was less than two years old the last time she might have met him. There were no recollections, and there were no stories. There was just silence, that German silence that was so ubiquitous after the war when an older generation wanted to forget, and a younger (my parent’s) generation didn’t want to ask about and possibly get answers to the questions my and an even younger generation are (finally) posing now.

You grow up, and you go through all your different phases, including the rebellious and/or angry ones. I remember I kept asking people where all the Nazis had gone after the war, because, you see, during World War 2, Germany was ruled by the Nazis, but by a sheer miracle they seemed to all have gone afterwards. There weren’t that many answers, if there were any.

But I have never been content with not getting any answers. Thus, eventually I figured I should try to find out whatever there was to be found out on my own. There is a register for German soldiers who had died during World War 2. A few years ago, I got in touch with them, to inquire what they might know about a cemetery. I wanted to get some answers, and even if it was just something that might, possibly, allow me to put some pieces together. As it turned out, there was information about a Josef Nowak, in fact - this is from memory - there were three of them in the database, but only one who had died on 21 March 1942. His remains were buried in Sologubowka, a large cemetery, where most of the soldiers who had fought around the area of Leningrad ended up.

There is a photography project by Claudia Heinermann, which explains the background. Seeing that project (I came across it being mentioned on Colin Pantall’s blog) made me think that potentially, any of the bones in the photographs could in fact have been my grandfather’s. Any of those very small coffins holding blue plastic bags with whatever might be in them could have been my grandfather’s.

After I had found out about Sologubowka I contacted my parents who were taken by surprise. I expected the story to end there, Josef Nowak, my grandfather, being just a name, when I received two dozen scanned photographs, plus scans of documents in my inbox. My mother, having learned about the cemetery, had turned to her older brother who, as it turned out, had photographs and documents. The old habit - don’t ask any questions, or maybe: Let the past rest - had finally been broken.

Through the scans of documents I learned about the exact location where my grandfather had been killed, some remote village or hamlet, I suppose, that I failed to locate on Google Earth. I managed to find the places around it, I poked around online to find what army units had fought (I will not “served” even if that
is what many of those men did) in the area. I gave up on these efforts rather quickly when I encountered too many websites maintained to preserve the record of all that military stuff - there is a dirty underbelly to all those books about Second World War 2 and about the various battles that still are being written, maintaining a little industry often respected writers. Still, part of me thinks I need to go back to find the unit, and to then trace back its path - the fighting around that area had served to strangle Leningrad, amongst other things, and the armies advancing towards that area had previously been engaged in many atrocities in what now are the Baltic States. I will never know for sure what my grandfather had done or known or seen, but I’m not quite content, yet, with the fact that I will never know.

Through the scans of the documents I also got to read the letter that some officer had sent to my grandmother, informing her that her husband had “fallen for Führer and Fatherland.” There was a second letter from the same officer, explaining that, no, there were no personal possessions left, those had been looted. It makes me sad to imagine my grandmother writing a letter inquiring, with a baby on her lap. And it makes me shudder to imagine what she must have felt receiving a Mother’s Cross (third class) in the mail, with the Führer’s machine-automated signature on the document.

After I received the photographs I looked at them for a long time. Here was, after all, visual proof of small parts of the life of a man I had never met, a man who was one of my grandfathers. I had not known my grandfathers (they had both died before I was born), so the concept - a father figure once removed - itself seemed strange to me. All these photographs, I figured, would surely tell me something about my grandfather, wouldn’t they? How can 25 photographs not say anything?

In various of the photographs, Josef Nowak is seen holding and/or playing an instrument, mostly an accordion. There are various group portraits, and there even is a photograph of an actual performance. My grandfather must have loved music. In many of the photographs, he strikes an almost comic figure, with his large round glasses, his slightly bewildered look in his eyes, and those ears that seem stick out just a tad too much. At times, my grandfather looked like the Zelig character in the eponymous movie, the person who somehow was everywhere, without actually belonging there. My grandfather, in other words, was the kind of person you wouldn’t really have to mark in a photograph. You’d notice that one guy sticking out anyway.

There is an exception to that rule. One photograph shows him in a field hospital, another group photograph. His right hand is bandaged, and the goofiness in his face seems gone. He also suddenly looks much younger, possibly because his uniform jacket is open, and his stance is more casual.

Every photographs tells a story, the old adage goes. It’s a wonderful cliché, it’s a horrible cliché, and it’s most certainly not true. What stories do these photographs of my grandfather tell me? Having looked at them for so long now (a few years) I’m still not an inch closer to knowing anything about the man. He loved music, I wrote. How would I know that? All I can really know from the photographs is that he knew how to competently hold an instrument and, possibly, play it. Everything else I added on top. Maybe he didn’t love music, maybe he just ended up playing music on the side because it’s something he had learned doing, and he had somehow never abandoned it. Who can know for sure?

At the end of the day, I came to realize that I was bringing more to the photographs of Josef Nowak than they were bringing to me. They brought me precious little. So when I saw Heinermann’s photograph of the little coffins with the blue plastic bags, my thought was that one of them could have contained the remains of a man whose DNA was passed down to me, a man I still know nothing about, the presence of those 25 photographs notwithstanding.

I am grateful to Colin Pantall for his insisting I write this mediation and for his comments on a pre-publication draft.