Julian Lass

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There are two stories to be told about Gorit. The first is that he chose to end his own life by running deliberately into the path of the enemy. The second is that he was shot in the back by his own men.

In any event, while examining his portrait and thinking about this, I become preoccupied by his death. I ask his image what happened. It smiles and says: 'You want to learn what happened to me?' 'Yes,' I say, 'since I cannot find out myself.' 'Your eyes are as blind as stone,' it says, and turns away, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter.

Three years later, hidden among old bank statements and other such papers, I find his death.

"Lieutenant Gottfried Lindow was stationed with Staff Unit Light Flak Battalion 995 – Field Number L40279 (German Official Mail, Posen) – on the Eastern Front and has been missing in Lublin, Poland since 24 July 1944."

In the photograph they stand together. My grandmother, Charlotte, wears a fur coat, her hands inserted into a muff. He stands in the long leather coat of a Luftwaffe officer, all peaked cap and leather gloves. The way his hands clasp together suggest discomfort.

In 1952, a knock at my grandmother's door. Cap in hand, a fellow officer makes small talk, she offers him a cigarette, the Hamburg summer heat in the mid-thirties centigrade, my mother sitting alongside on the wide window ledge, looking over the city. After he left my grandmother cried so much she was admitted to hospital for two weeks.

Yes, yes, my sister tells me over the phone, Gorit was shot while running through a clearing in the woods, cornered, a desperate suicide perhaps, exposing himself to enemy fire. Or, he was shot in the back by his own men, I'm not sure. This rumour still exists in a family murmur, in half-remembered memories of stories told long ago, or not told at all.

He was an architect who, like you, I think my grandmother once told me, loved taking photographs. One of five brothers, all killed in the war. When my mother talks about the father she never knew, her eyes mist over. His official Luftwaffe portrait sits on her bureau in her bedroom, and it is this portrait I am looking at. Sometimes I find it, face down, in a drawer.

A second photo in my mother's bedroom is of my grandmother. An orange date stamp reads 1988. She is now 77 years old, almost the same age as my mother now. On the day of her death I was shown into a small room where she lay on a table, my mother standing next to her. As we left the room, I turned back to spend a moment with her, this grandmother from Germany.