Thursday, June 9, 2011

In a Small Place, the Excitement of Old Newsprint, Fading Photos

Joinville, Brazil

     In a Small Place, the Excitement of Crumbling Newsprint, Old Tools, Fading Photos

When I was a child my grandfather and I sat in the kitchen after grandmother went to bed, a certain book between us on the table. My grandfather opened the tooled leather covers from time to time as he told stories of family, old Indiana, the Civil War. A McConahay had purchased the book blank some two hundred years ago, and successive generations filled it in with the barest bones of passing lives: births, deaths, marriages, the buying of land and the price of flour on the Kentucky frontier. A prayer for a daughter. One song.

Years after my grandfather died I had to travel to the Indiana State Historical Society, to which he had bequeathed it, to see the book again. I’ll never forget coming to a sober waiting room, donning white cloth gloves, trading my pen for a pencil, and waiting for the book to be carried in by a gentleman, also wearing white gloves. The pages from the kitchen table had become more than a family record; now it is a piece of history in the care of guardians, shared with anyone who wants or needs to know what is written there, which is ok with me.

Since then I have trekked to such local archives to find substance and atmosphere for stories and documentary films. I love the smell of the places, slightly musty, sometimes feeling lonely, other times with an air of busy research.

One family's donation, from pictures of Hitler, to the razing of Hamburg by Allied bombs.


Original residents made all their tools of production and transportation with their own hands.

The German-language Joinville paper, still printed in Gothic lettering in the 1940s

 From the Joinville Portuguese-language newspaper.  Equal time for each side.

 I regard anyone met in such places as an ally, someone who shares fascination -- and this can be quirky -- with the life written all over newspapers whose pages need to be turned with two hands, lest they tear. In the Joinville (pronounced: Jo-en-vee-lay) archives today, I realized the young man and woman who had been bringing me material were looking over my shoulder at photos that ran in the local newspaper in the run-up to World War II, the Graf zeppelin floating above an avenue of palms, a German pilot with the palm tree and swastika emblem of the African front painted on the body of his plane.

“Beautiful,” said the young man.

He didn’t mean the subject matter. He meant the fact that these concrete artifacts, undeniable building blocks of history, part of Joinville’s past, are in existence, telling their stories. Founded by Germans in the mid-19th century, whose children continued to speak the home language and re-create a rich culture on Brazilian soil, it’s a miracle such history in Joinville remains at all. When the peripatetic war-time dictator Gertulio Vargas, once “neutral” and arguably pro-Nazi, sniffed which way the wind eventually was to blow he ordered soldiers to carry out a “nationalization” campaign, burning anything not written or printed in Portuguese, taking over arts and social societies that had long knitted the community together, breaking down doors and destroying family treasures reflecting the pioneer ancestors’ homeland.

Locals have extra motivation for saving ephemeral material and documenting their common family tree, the same way we might document ours: Who else would care to do it? I spent an early day of this research journey (on South America during WWII) in the archives of one of the planet’s biggest cities, Sao Paolo (pop: 20 million), where the staff was attentive and helpful. Small collections like Joinville’s (pop: 40,000) can be especially rich, however, treasuring tools particular to their ways of life, telling the story of a nation or an epoch from the ground on which it was lived by real people. I always make them my first stop.