And if you bypassed a war, a war
wouldn’t bypass you
–Diana Khoi Nguyen
In a 10.5×15 cm. photo, he stands among bundled figures at a station, tracks at his feet—film-star handsome in a fedora and unbuttoned overcoat, leather suitcase at his side, a shot posed for a postcard never addressed or signed. The photographer has pulled a newsboy out in front, his right arm raised to hawk a paper? Or any boy in short pants waving a handkerchief, goodbye. Whatever he waves blurs, a slippery symbol. But the train hasn’t left yet. It hasn’t even pulled in.
Is this Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof before the Allies bombed it? Google Lens identifies the photo as Railway Station, 1930s Germany. Here’s what was left of the Anhalter station in 2009.
A binocular case slung around his neck, Uncle Heinz may be traveling to Paris for culinary training, his face as content as if leaving on vacation. Now I recognize, over his left shoulder, one row behind, his mother and father. His father wears the binoculars around his neck. From what I’ve heard about my grandfather, he would have given his son top of the line Zeiss. My grandmother, wrapped to her ankles in a coat, clutches an umbrella to her chest and doesn’t smile, facing what may be a year’s separation from her son. Grandfather turns left to look beyond the frame. I used to stare down the tracks every morning when I commuted to New York by train. Impatient, though I didn’t love my job.
The binocular case, I assume, is empty. Or else there are two pairs, but a father seeing off his son doesn’t need binoculars to see what’s right in front of him.
German lenses. A chronology in photos on the Zeiss website: 1917 binoculars probably being assembled for the front, a 1935 portrait of the inventor of a lens coating, but no further entry until 1954. According to Zeiss, “Increased use of forced labor was necessary for greater production output, because a large portion of the company workforce was drafted into the army. Prisoners of war and civilian workers who had been recruited or brought to Germany by force from the occupied countries….”
My uncle never mentioned to me his many years as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union, when being the cook probably saved his life.
Studying the photo, my husband points out, “Your uncle is the only one with a suitcase.” Grandfather was known for extravagant gestures in good times. Were the other “travelers” hired, along with a photographer, to document the start of his son’s budding career, making what W.G Sebald might term an “authentic” photograph inauthentic?
Black-and-white snapshots, some postage-stamp size, tumble out of the old album I keep on a chest of drawers in my bedroom. As if my life were in the photos.
Marion says, I pick alto sax again. When I was allowed to choose an instrument in fourth grade, Dad proposed the flute, considering the walk to junior-senior high school. My big brother advised, “Take saxophone and play in a jazz band.” At least, I could fit a notebook in the case when I trudged the mile. I marched in formation at varsity football games and played on the stage across from my future husband who sat, facing me, in the clarinets.
In our dream band, on alto sax:
A Yonkers resident and life-long New Yorker, Marion Brown has two chapbooks published by Finishing Line Press, Tasted and The Morning After Summer. She won the inaugural Portico Library Poetry Prize. Other poems have appeared in Guesthouse, the Women’s Review of Books, Kestrel, The Night Heron Barks, and DIAGRAM. She serves on the Advisory Committee of Slapering Hol Press and National Council of Graywolf Press. Website: marionbrownpoet.com