This negative, purchased from eBay, is part of a small collection of an unnamed German soldier of the Medical Unit of the 10th Hanover Engineer Battalion in World War I. I have identified the location as the town of Grandpré, in France. Like this one, the other negatives reveal light moments away from the Western Front in the Ardennes. Sadly the unit’s military records were totally destroyed in World War II by British bombing.
Below: One of a series of postcards purchased via the internet of the same town, which shows the location of the above negative. This postcard is sent from a French soldier and is a ‘correspondance militaire’ dated 23 Août 1914. E. Sitry, its sender, simply notes ‘I got your letter this morning at the Hotel du Dix’.
During the Covid lockdown of 2020, I began collecting further postcards of Grandpré, sent home by occupying German soldiers. Maybe the soldier above is one of them, Wilhelm, Johannes, Karl, Eb., Paul, or Josef, there are others yet to be identified. Maybe his family name was Behinger, Kaspari, Klein, Fest, Kraft, Weiss, Jüng, or Müller. Their messages are tantilizingly out of reach at the moment, as I begin to scan them and enlarge the minute handwriting.
Along with the negatives, I have now collected over 25 postcards, to date, and these will inform a new body of work exploring ‘place’, ‘community’ and ‘language’, titled La Vojo Returne*.
* This is the Esperanto title of the book Der Weg Zurück (The Road Back), a first edition translation of the novel by German author Erich Maria Remarque. It is commonly regarded as the sequel to his 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front.
I read the first english translation of this work (A W Wheen) during lockdown, and then compared it with a 2019 critically acclaimed translation by Brian Murdoch. I was struck by how very different they felt, how language was interpreted and nuanced differently over time. Then when buying the Esperanto edition by chance, I began to understand the reasons for the translation of this book in 1931 by Joseph F Berger. Here was an international language created to foster world peace, and of course this book was an important piece of literature at a time when Europe was beginning to be unsettled again by the rise of fascism. The book’s most salient feature is the main characters’ pessimism about contemporary society which, they feel, is morally bankrupt because it has allegedly caused the war and apparently does not wish to reform itself.
At a time when we need to quietly reflect on what it is to be human – family, loss, transience and memory – especially during these times of increasing national introspection, I’m intending to reanimate these still lives and distant voices.
Note: Esperanto is the most widely spoken constructed international auxiliary language. It was created by Polish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof in 1887. Zamenhof first described the language in The International Language, which he published in five languages under the pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto”. (This book is often nicknamed in Esperanto as la Unua Libro i.e. The First Book.) The word esperanto translates into English as “one who hopes”.
Zamenhof’s goal was to create an easy and flexible language that would serve as a universal second language to foster world peace and international understanding, and to build a “community of speakers”, as he believed that one could not have a language without such a community.
His original title for the language was simply “the international language” (la lingvo internacia), but early speakers grew fond of the name Esperanto and began to use it as the name for the language just two years after its creation. The name quickly gained prominence and has been used as an official name ever since.