Summerhouse︎︎︎by Geertje Brandenburg
A few months back, I found a folder keeping some of the letters my grandfather wrote towards the end of his life. He was retelling his time as a forced labourer in Germany between 1943 and 1945. As I went through his words, I was, and still am, fascinated by how these experiences lingered in him after so many years. I also wonder how much of what I found in these pages survived with them. Are the people he met, the hospitals he worked in, the streets he walked on still there? Do they remember him as much as he remembered them? Perhaps these questions are more about myself, about how much of his past is in my present. As I read his words, I’m confronted with inherited shadows, with parts of me that are not solely mine.
In January 2021, I travelled to Germany for some answers. I went where his letters took me, back to retrace the steps contained in his memories. Unsettled, his words resonated in me as my own. As I walked, I could not avoid recognising those buildings, those streets; and those trees as the same trees we wandered by. These feelings are echoes of different moments touching. When I went to Germany, I expected to find remains of my grandfather’s past. However, I found a complicated present holding lost memories and an experience filled with impersonal fictions.
Tentatively and curiously, I’m suggesting that, in some ways, my grandfather and I share pieces of each other. We both are part of these letters, of this trip, of these collages. The boundaries between generations are porous. I see myself in the places, people and emotions he turned into words that I’m (re)visiting. Words I cut open, I examine and reassemble, piecing together shared memories. Cutting is an act of aggressive transformation, but it is also the process of healing and regrowth.
In this sense, this book is similar to my grandfather’s letters. They are reenactions and a place of dissection and convergence. For us both, cutting and reassembling the past made us see ourselves more clearly. Nevertheless, when we transform and bring together different locations, times, and persons, we prove that we are more than ourselves.
What you are seeing is part of a journey to find a place for myself. It’s the (re)creation of memories and stories that, although oscillate between facts and fiction, hold warm and monumental truths. These collages are a way to understand how I’m enmeshed in the story of others. By cutting, pasting, scaling, and transforming the past, I create places where moments and people (still) live.