The Image: Sylvia de Swaan, "The War Game"

The War Game, Szceszcin, Poland - July 5, 1994.

The airplane in this picture is a model P38 bomber that I assembled from a kit at my kitchen table in upstate New York. I brought it along on my circuitous journey through Central and Eastern Europe to replay a recurrent nightmare from my childhood years. On this particular day my train is crossing the Oder River from Germany into Poland, a trip I wouldn’t have thought to make a few years before. In Eastern Europe they refer to Jews as the “roots people,” because since the fall of communism so many of us have come back to explore the lands of our ancestry and reclaim our heritage. “Memory is the source of liberation, as forgetfulness is the root of exile,” said a wise old rabbi of the eighteenth century.

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In early 1990 I ventured on the first of a series of train journeys through post-communist Eastern Europe retracing routes my family traversed as refugees at the end of the Second World War. I titled the project “Return” with a touch of irony because my destination was not a point on the map but an amorphous territory with shifting boundaries. In my journal I asked, “How does one photograph an absence?”

In 1993 I spent several months making model airplanes, assembling family photos and other artifacts to mark my connection with these alien but familiar lands of my ancestry.

By 2000 I’d made six expeditions through Eastern Europe, traveling hundreds of miles by train, shooting many rolls of film, keeping a journal, writing four personal essays, earning grants and fellowships, presenting the work through exhibitions, lectures, publications, and websites – and though there remained many unanswered questions – things that I would never know because of all the documentation and people lost in the maelstrom of war and genocide – my metaphoric quest nonetheless fulfilled the need for me to see the place where I was born, acknowledge the collective history of which I am a part, and to make a body of work about the process.

In 2008 I came upon an online chat site whose members, all emigrants from Czernowitz, the city where I was born - most in their seventies, eighties, nineties - converse online, reminiscing about their youth, exchanging stories about daily life before the war - the things they ate, the customs they had, the jokes they told - about the fascist time, the hunger, the fear, the struggle for survival - and in effect recreating an old world city in cyberspace. Through these exchanges I’ve learned new details, corroborated vague memories and started gaining insight and inspiration for a sequel to my original body of work.

- Sylvia de Swaan