Several years ago, I moved into an office being vacated by a professor close to retirement. Our areas of interest were a few hundred years apart, but still close enough that he kindly gave me various books and runs of journals for which he no longer had any use. Along with these he also gave me a battered cardboard box. It had been given to him, he said, by another retiring professor some years before but he knew nothing of its previous history. Within it were perhaps two dozen photograph albums, dating, it would seem, from the first half of the twentieth century.
Not long after I received this strange bequest, I moved house, then moved house again, and it was only this weekend, as the Historian and I were emptying some boxes left over from our last move, that it came once more to light. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a series of posts about the mysterious box and its contents, beginning today with the first two albums I picked – more or at less at random – from the top of the pile.
Both are long rectangular albums, secured with cord and the first one I open is bound in printed paper with a sort of tan and purple primitivist motif – something from the thirties, I imagine, as I gently remove it from the box. My guess is broadly confirmed by the neat inscription in silver ink on the first page: Schweizerreise vom 9.-28. August 1928. Somebody, a German speaker, on holiday in Switzerland. The pressed flowers are entrancing, but I tear myself away from them and begin to leaf through the pages.
The protagonists soon make themselves known: a husband and wife, and their two daughters, young teenagers. The photos are often not very well exposed – I imagine the brilliant Alpine light defeating amateur photographic attempts – but have an air of happiness and intimacy about them.
The family are busy, hiking to Reichenbach Falls and descending by metal walkways into the depths of the nearby Aare Gorge. Intermixed with these snaps are picture postcards of sites in the region: the Wetterhorn, Kurhaus Rosenlaui, Interlaken, and more.
One picture towards the end strikes me especially. It is captioned Im Zuge von Bern nach Basel (on the train from Bern to Basel) and shows the Husband and the more serious of the two Daughters sitting in their compartment, both reading the newspaper. Something about the intent concentration of the Daughter, her eyes downcast towards the page, reminds me of old photographs of my own Russian-German grandmother.
The final photograph shows the Wife and Daughters standing in the porch of a rather grand apartment building and is captioned Wieder in Koblenz. Our protagonists would seem to hail from Koblenz in the Rhineland. Loose with this album is an older photograph – nineteenth century – of a husband and wife. I think they look a little like the Husband, but the photographer’s studio is in Neubrandenburg, far in the northeast. Perhaps the family had not always been in Koblenz?
The next album is the same shape, but with a different paper binding, this one imitating the texture of woven cloth. A label in the back proclaims its origins in the shop of August Kreutzer, Löhrstrasse 82, Koblenz – more evidence for our protagonists’ residence. Five years have passed: the first group of photos here are dated “Waldeck 1933”. The family are here as well, the daughters now young women, but most of the photos are of a large group of young people, evidently having a ball at “Haus Waldeck”. My eye for faces is poor, but I think I see the daughters amongst them.
The latter half of the album is in a different key. It is headed “Davos 1933.-35.” and its enigmatic opening page contains two pressed flowers, two cut out photographs of younger men, and, in the centre, a portrait of the Husband.
He is sitting at a desk, books behind him, and wears a white hospital coat beneath which his immaculate tie and stiff collar can just be seen. Was he a doctor at the Magic Mountain?
The following pages are full of smiling men and women on excursions in the snow, but also of scenes from a sanatorium: doctors on their rounds down the aisles and someone – is it one of the daughters? – lying in bed.
Over her stands one of the young men from the half title page, her husband, I suppose. They are smiling, but I wonder if I fully understand what I am seeing.
Other things have changed as well since the family’s trip to Switzerland five years before. A postcard pasted in amongst the snaps shows a building, perhaps the sanatorium, and flying over it the Swiss cross and the Nazi swastika. Already I seem to know surprisingly much and yet still tantalisingly little about these people. What will become of them? Who were they? And how did these time capsules of their memories and emotions, frozen in the exposure of film, reach me, nearly a hundred years later?
© 2019 Kelsey Jackson Williams.
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