I am always happy to receive feedback from my course participants, including this one from Johanna Holze, which reached me the day before yesterday:

Dear Dr. Mäckler,
At the end of Biography Assignment No. 10 (completion of Part I), you asked me for feedback on the work completed so far. As I was away for some time, I wasn’t able to answer right away. But fortunately, everyone can work at the pace that suits them. And even if I don’t have my laptop with me: I always carry a notebook and pen, and there is always a little time for taking notes.

So – at some point, based on a suggestion to try my hand at biographical writing, I began to take stock of the various places and apartments I’ve lived in. There have been a considerable number – 13 towns and cities, about 20 apartments. I had already compiled some notes about this when I received your suggestion to create a separate sheet of paper for each year of my life.

All of a sudden, I felt like I could get some structure into my notes. So I started writing, collecting. Also got myself a chronicle of the 20th century, although it ends at 1984. I will get myself a supplementary copy for the subsequent years.

What happened next was almost like a dam burst. Where at the beginning I thought I had not experienced anything of significance, as I looked at my life the memories suddenly began to gush out from the depths. Diffuse images often at first, but as soon as I proceeded to put things into words, one detail joined another, one image after another rose from the blurred darkness of buried memories.

With my father, who died not long ago at the age of 93, I and my siblings often found that asking, “Tell us about the olden days”, or, “What was it like …” etc. wasn’t enough. We were often disappointed to find that he could tell us so little about his past, which was after all a very special past (two World Wars, the Nazi era, the Wall, two Germanys, reunification, etc.). His storytelling quickly exhausted itself each time, going over the same things that we already knew about him.

It has now become clear to me from your detailed suggestions that we didn’t ask the right questions, had failed to give the right hints. It’s about the questions that direct the mind’s gaze into submerged corners and are able to illuminate them in a completely new way.

I realize that now and am reminded of it each time I myself come across such submerged corners. I still have the opportunity to get my old mother and other very old close relatives to divulge new narratives by asking new questions, and in the process I learn an incredible amount not only about my life but also about theirs, which after all has influenced my life and determined some of its direction.

For one, I once again have a frequent and vivid vision of what I call my “museum life” (i.e., I have seen and experienced the sorts of things that today are included and displayed in local history museums).

At other times, I am amazed when I browse through the chronicles of the 20th century how much world history is contained in such a human life, my life! – all the things that during the struggle to master the daily challenges of work, raising children, household chores, hobbies, crises often profoundly impacted me, but then had to be “sacrificed” again to deal with the more immediate requirements of everyday life.

I am grateful that with the help of your suggestions, I can now take the time to look at all of these years again. Because I see that even my daughters, who are now grown up, don’t ask. I am eager to give them – or maybe even my grandchildren – an insight into my life, my thoughts, my feelings. Understanding a life lived helps a person to find forgiveness for a live lived, and to move on. That is why it is such a pity when gaps in life are so large that the path to understanding may become unnecessarily difficult.

In the meantime, I am trying gradually to transfer my collected notes about “places I’ve lived” into the “annual sheets”.

The work is progressing, like a large jigsaw puzzle, for the most part still only consisting of individual disconnected pieces. But there are individual corners where one can already get a sense of what they might turn into. Exciting! And I am curious to see what will happen next.

Warm regards to you,
Johanna Holze