For Hanna, Future Stories from the Past… by Willem Poelstra




Text: Guido van Eijck

My mother Hanna was Jewish. Many of her family members were killed in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. She was relieved her daughter only had sons. The Jewish bloodline is passed down through the mother, so it would end with my sister’s sons and me. There would be no more victims in her family. My father Albert decided to move to Berlin in 1941 and found a job at Schichau-Werke, a locomotive construction company that built the trains used for the deportation of Jews to concentration camps. He returned to The Netherlands at the end of the war when the Russian army arrived, afraid they might consider him a collaborator. My parents met in Amsterdam shortly after the war and married several years later. They managed to overcome the hatred that divided so many Dutch communities after the war and ignored the protests from my mother’s family and friends. They let the past be the past. As their son, I did not know much about their past. It was only in 2011, after they had both died, that I found a box filled with letters, pictures and other documents. It unfolded a history they had preferred not to speak of.

I wanted to mirror my parents’ untold past to present-day stories of war and the deep scars it leaves on people and their communities. And to show a timeless story that keeps repeating itself. In early 2012, I travelled to Kosovo for the first time. It’s hard to miss the effects of the war that took place in 1998 and 1999. The Albanian majority and Serbian minority in Kosovo are still deeply divided. I wanted to show how war and its aftermath affect people and how individuals carry traumas with them for the rest of their lives. Because these are stories that keep repeating themselves. I closely cooperated with a team of academics in the fields of history and anthropology. They urged me to always dig one layer deeper and to keep a certain distance to emotions and politics involved. And to not take anything for granted, but to stay sensitive to the historical, political and social context of what happened in Kosovo since the 1990s – and before.

In Pristina, the works were exhibited outside, along the busy Mother Theresa Boulevard and right in front of the Parliament. I saw people looking at my pictures who’d otherwise never visit a museum. Some of them got angry or sad, while reliving memories of friends and family they’d lost in the war. Another person didn’t like my decision to show the increased presence of the orthodox Islam in Kosovo. ‘Why did you photograph those people praying, that’s not Kosovo’, he said. But most responses were positive. I saw young people translate the English texts to their parents and older people contemplating the sad fates of people who they’d always considered to be the enemy.

This project seeks to encourage a debate about the way people relate to one another in the aftermath of war. It’s a universal topic, that’s why I started by telling my parents’ history. But it’s also why I decided to bring my photos ‘back’ to Kosovo. Dozens of people told me their stories, invited me to their homes, trusted me. Tempting though it may be to simply return home, show the photos in a museum, and discuss what other countries should do; it’s better to retell these stories where they happened. And although these stories didn’t happen in Belgrade, the city is inherently linked to the events that took place in Kosovo. I hope that people here want to look at my pictures with the same openness I witnessed in Pristina.

One might ask why someone from a whole different part of Europe should show up and tell these stories? I think being an outsider allows a certain distance. Neutrality has always been central to this project. I don’t want to tell people what they should or shouldn’t think. Instead, being an independent documentary photographer, I wanted to show the suffering of all the people I met, people who share the same dark past. Take Kosovo-Serbian Dejan, who saw his friend get killed and was gravely injured himself over a land dispute in Western-Kosovo in 2011. Jorgovanka had to bury her son Dimitrije after he was shot for no reason in the streets of Gracanica. Or Kosovo-Albanian Nehat, who showed me a memorial for the victims of a massacre in the vicinity of Prizren including no less than 43 members of his extended family. His cousin Tauland told me the house where he was born was used as an execution site. Dozens of bodies were burned inside. He wanted to save the house, he said, as a memorial.

There’s an old Jewish saying: ‘He who saves the life of one man saves the world entire’. In particular, I hope to reach a young audience with my pictures. After all, it’s up to them to reconcile themselves with those who used to be the enemy. The book For Hanna, Future Stories from the Past, an account of the entire project, has sections with the entire text translated in Serbian and Albanian. Language shouldn’t be an obstacle to read these stories.

The Forhanna Foundation – founded to support documentary photography – cooperated with the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence in inviting professional photographers from Serbia and Kosovo to join a three-day-masterclass on visual storytelling in Belgrade. It’s an effort to bring people together in what they share instead of what separates them.

Perhaps it can contribute, if only a little bit, to young people setting aside old differences. Over the last few years I have encountered numerous communities that were marked by a dark past. But I also met people who managed to overcome their feelings of hatred. Just like my parents did.

About autor: