To listen to an audio version of ‘A Family Affair’ click the play button
“All origins become mysterious if we search far enough into the past. And almost all peoples, when we look at their earliest origins, turn out to have come from somewhere else.” -Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History
A fierce north wind struck the boat, chilling us to the bone. Waves from an oil-tanker slapped the hull; the pilot boats taking it out to sea resembled the small fish that keep company with whales. Towering cranes lined the docks, their metallic arms reaching through air, loading and unloading cargo from around the world. Fishermen cupped cigarettes to their mouths, the thin nets of smoke sheering away in the wind. A grey sky skimmed the world.
A class of Polish university students huddled on the open deck, listening to a lecture about the historic importance of the port, the trade of nations that made its way through the waters, the momentous and violent events that altered the fabric of the city. We picked up fragments of the talk when one of the ship’s crew, a kindly mariner who wore his many decades at sea with a smile, brought us coffee and tried with a few words of English and motions of his hands and arms to explain the essentials. In light of our reason for being there, his considerably better German should in theory have been our common tongue. But between the three of us we couldn’t muster a sentence.
It was our last day in Szczecin, in northern Poland, and my parents sat across from me on the deck. Despite the cold, we rarely went down below to the warm comfort of the lounge while journeying around the city’s extensive docklands, shipyards, waterways, repair yards, cargo terminals, channels and lakes. Staying up top afforded us our best view of the city, a peek into its historic heart. But while the skyline and riverbanks drifted past we were searching for something else as well, something more elusive and intangible. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of its past.
In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes that, “when you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one can know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back…” This is true in so many respects, but what of yourself can you find if the place you’re travelling to was known only by an ancestor? What memories and associations might linger over the years? And what meanings can we make from the traces? If the past is another country, can it ever entwine with today?
Before my great-grandfather jumped ship in South Shields, England sometime around the year 1900 for reasons that will never be known, he worked in the merchant navy out of the port at Szczecin. This was the place he belonged to, where whatever memories and associations he might have seeded from the first part of his life would be stowed. Only the city of his birth was called Stettin back then, and was German rather than Polish, behind a line on a map that moved after the war. Charles Hoffmann (as the family name was spelled at the time) was the son of a police chief, and about 26 when he left the city. So angry were his family at his desertion that they disowned him, and eventually he signed over his rights to inheritance, severing ties to his native land. Whatever his reasons for choosing to stay, the moment my great-grandfather decided against rejoining his ship as it sailed away from England many things were set in motion that he couldn’t possibly foresee. A cutting from the family tree began rooting a long way from its ancestors.
Journeying around the harbour, my parents remarked upon how eerily familiar it was to the English coastal town they both grew up in, only a few miles down the coast from where my dad’s grandfather had landed. I find myself drawn to these similarities, these “memories and associations” conjured by two distinct places. Years ago, when we began tracing the family history, I was immediately struck by the resemblances, the fact that Charles Hoffmann had lived out the span of his life between two coasts. And yet port cities have long been gateways where sailors, traders and immigrants first landed, where languages and cultures coalesced and collided. To stay in a place that might have reminded my great-grandfather of his old home, and where his skills as a mariner remained useful, seemed obvious after only a short while in Poland.
But something else sparked my fascination while we trawled the waters of Szczecin harbour. I don’t know whether it was the open sea that the Odra River ran into, or the flags of countless countries rippling above ships, but I became aware of how common an experience my great-grandfather shared in. All across our planet people are moving this very minute, led by wanderlust or economics, out of love or out of fear. People are leaving homes and crafting new ones, slowly, surely, spurred on by optimism or desperation, moving a little or wandering far, searching with determination for a place that seems right.
The reasons for movement are immeasurable; it’s what our species has always done from the moment it spread out from Africa, crossing vast, forbidding seas and inhospitable deserts, pushing on over land bridges and funnelling down through continents, migrating, dispersing, gathering in unexpected ways. And with each movement a line is altered, a lineage like a vine encouraged in a new direction. The world shifts a little each time, is remade by our steps.
While the contemporary photographs of Szczecin are mine, the historic images are taken from postcards bought in the city. The original photographers are unfortunately not attributed. The pictured airship is the Graf Zeppelin, famous for its round the world journeys, and from which the overhead image of the Odra River was also taken two years later.