Poland, 1981: Tomasz Laczny was seven when an old man with a prosthetic arm rang the doorbell of the family home. The man spoke German. The child was surprised to discover that his grandmother also spoke German. He had thought she was Polish through and through. He discovered that the visitor was a childhood friend of his grandmother’s and that she had been German before becoming Polish.
It was during World War II that Laczny’s (German) grandmother fell in love with his (Polish) grandfather. Such a union was “verboten” at a time when Germany was occupying Poland (Germany had invaded Poland in September 1939). But it was even more forbidden after the country was liberated and fell under the Soviet dictatorship, following the Red Army offensives. Liberation brought the expulsion of the Germans from Poland. Such a union could have had serious consequences, but the two lovers did not care.
Laczny’s grandmother became pregnant, was imprisoned in a camp along with other German nationals, and had to give birth alone in atrocious circumstances. Since she could not take care of her daughter (Laczny’s mother), the authorities separated them, trying to send the grandmother back to Germany. But the grandmother did not want to return to her family in Germany—she wanted to live in Poland with her daughter. She obtained Polish citizenship and was reunited with her daughter.
Almost 40 years later, Laczny retraced his grandmother’s footsteps in a book entitled Erna Helena Ania. Laczny scoured the archives: using old photos, illustrations, as well as letters, official correspondence, and scanned or reconstructed documents, he was able to piece together the life of this woman, from the painful childbirth, beautifully drawn at the beginning of the book, to her internment in a camp for Germans, to her naturalization as a Polish citizen.
To read this book is to relive the tormented history of twentieth-century Europe through the destiny of one woman caught in the turmoil. We are encouraged to examine “hybrid” identities cobbled up out of enemy nationalities, and we wonder at how family secrets are kept. This a handsome volume, elegantly produced by Blow Up Press. The reader meanders through its pages, unfolding and re-folding the images, loose-leaf inserts with a strange impression that, page by page, one is burrowing deeper into one’s own history. Thus Erna Helena Ania’s story becomes our own.
By Sabyl Ghoussoub
Born in Paris in 1988 into a Lebanese family, Sabyl Ghoussoub is a writer, columnist and curator. His second novel, Beyrouth entre parenthèses [Beirut in Parentheses] was released by Antilope editions in August 2020.
Tomasz Laczny, Erna Helena Ania, Blow Up Press, 102 pages, €55.