O R D E R H E R E
"Erna Helena Ania" is part of MoMA library collection
ABOUT THE BOOK:
(Professor emeritus Royal College of Art, London 2021)
History is often defined by epic events, cataclysms, wars, battles
and dramatic shifts in politics and ideology. It speaks to us of another world that is distant and often incomprehensible. Only when real lives are included in the narrative are we able to grasp some understanding of what has happened in the past and why our own lives have evolved the way they have.
Tomasz Laczny has weaved such a story through the portrayal of a woman who is caught up in history and could be seen as a symbol of traumatic upheaval. The author builds his story in a surreptitious manner. The atmosphere is pregnant with fear, expectation and gloom. The young woman is expecting a child and is ostracized by her family. Is it because the father is unknown, or are there other reasons? Laczny keeps us guessing, his book is image driven and as we know images tend to be more ambiguous than words. He gives us just enough information to allow us to speculate what is taking place and when it is occurring. The graphic style of his book is expressive, he builds the ambiguous mood by working in reverse, copper tinted lines are scratched out from the black, and we are never sure whether it is day or night. Even when the sun appears it hurts our eyes in the way a searchlight would. The drama unfolds in the countryside; wooden houses are surrounded by woodland and wild grass. The illustrations look like woodcuts, which is in keeping with the provincial environment but it also, brings forth the spectre of detention camps or worse. The feeling of exclusion and isolation is close to the world of Edvard Munch. The author gradually introduces photographs and photograms that look as if they could fade before our eyes and break off the narrative that we desperately wish to understand. Ghosts of the past and possibly the future lurk behind the phantasmagoria. Laczny literally conceals images in the folds of the paper urging us to get a clearer picture of the narrative. We make some progress only to take a few steps back. This to-ing and fro-ing makes for rewarding reading. The book is like a treasure that one wishes to hold onto and often revisit, with the promise of discovering something new.
"Erna Helena Ania" is unique. It is a visual poem, a graphic novel and a work of art.
I discovered my grandmother was German when I was seven years old. I discovered it when the family was visited by a man with a prosthetic hand, an old friend from her youth. He spoke German. And my grandmother spoke German back to him. That’s when I knew she was German, that my family was made up of people who were the ‘enemy’.
I wondered what it meant for me as a child. I still wonder what it means for me now. I’m Polish, but what does that mean. The Polishness of the pre-war years is very different to the manufactured Polishness of now. And what did it mean then, in the years of the Second World War when my German grandmother first fell in love with my Polish grandfather.
They fell in love towards the end of the Second World War in Poland occupied by Germans. It was a forbidden love, the kind of love you could be killed for. And then she got pregnant with my mother..
She hid her pregnancy, was imprisoned in a camp for Germans after the war, and finally gave birth in the most difficult of circumstances, alone. My grandmother couldn’t care for her
child, so they took my mother away from her. She was told to go back to Germany, to join the rest of her family (all of whom had been expelled from Poland), but she refused. She wanted to be with her daughter. And so she stayed, was eventually reunited with her daughter, gained Polish nationality and lived with the guilt of being German in the land that had been most devastated by Nazi war crimes.
This book is the story of my grandmother. It’s the understanding I came to of who she was, and who I am, a story where the happiness of my Polish childhood coincides with the
traumas of the Second World War. It’s a story about the shifting sands of national identity, the family secrets we keep, and the way we survive even in the face of the most difficult circumstances. It’s the story of who we are and who we can be, of a Polishness .