This is an English translation of Interview mit Torkel S. Wächter written by Silvia.
Torkel S. Wächter was born in 1961 in Stockholm, Sweden. He studied at the universities of Lund, Melbourne and Leipzig, and at Paideia - The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden and at the Royal Academy in Stockholm. Between 1986 and 1999 he worked as a pilot for SAS. Wächter’s first novel, Roman Samson was published in 1997 by Verlag Natur och Kultur; his second novel, Roman Ciona, an autobiography that appeared in AlfabetaAnamma, was published in 2002 and was nominated for a major Swedish literary award, Augustpreis. Since 2006 he has both Swedish and German citizenship. Torkel is the founder of the website, 32postkarten.com, where you will be able to read 32 authentic postcards sent from Hamburg during 1940 and 1941.
MH: What sparked your interest in genealogy?
TSW: I have never spoken to my father about Germany, and he gave me only a summary of his experiences there. I knew that my grandparents were deported and had not survived the war, but I did not know the details. I was 40 years old when I first saw a photo of my grandparents! When I became a father myself, I thought that I wanted to tell my children about their family story; my interest was in our family's history. I am fascinated by genealogy.
MH: To what century have you traced your family?
TSW: I am really an amateur genealogist. I focused on the early 20th century, the time of my grandparents. I have investigated as far back as the 18th century, and this will certainly lead to even more possibilities. The Hamburg State Archive has a lot of material, but unfortunately I do not have enough time for it.
The family name became Wächter in the early 19th century, when German Jews assumed fixed surnames. Before this time, it was tradition that the father's first name was continued as the children’s last name in the next generation. The grandfather, Tobias Elias, had taken his father’s (Elias Jacob) name as his surname in accordance with the custom.
Elias Tobias was born in 1783 in the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. He was a musician and member of the Chevra Kadisha. He woke in the night before the funeral to watch over the body, which was regarded as one of the most distinguished and good deeds, as the deceased had indeed no way to repay the deed. In Yiddish Tobias Elias was called Tobias Wacherle, resulting in High German Tobias Wächter.
MH: What has been your best experience in your genealogical research?
TSW: Let me give two examples:
1. The best friend of my father was Bruno Meyer, called Simba. Between 1934 and 1950, they had no contact, because Simba was in a concentration camp, and then in the Gulag as a prisoner of war because he was forcibly drafted into a SS battalion at the end of the war.
After the war, Simba and my father had a lively correspondence. Of the letters, I have understood that Simba and his wife, Ruth Meyer, saw to it that I was cared for when I was a very small child. I remember when they were taken in Hamburg.
The last of Simba's letters was written in 1983. Simba died shortly after my father. A few years ago in Hamburg I found in the letterhead of 30-year-old Simba's letter a phone number, and I called this number. And who responded? Ruth Meyer, who cared for me as a child!
2. A few weeks ago a woman from Manchester, who had seen the website, sent me an e-mail. Together, we learned that a son of Tobias Wächter had settled in Manchester in the 1830s and that I have many relatives in the United Kingdom.
MH: Your website 32postkarten.com has really touched our users. Would you tell us a bit about 32postkarten.com? What caused you to create this site and what do you hope to achieve with it?
TSW: The postcards are only a small part of the estate of my father, but when I saw them for the first time, I was very impressed. At that time I did not know who had written to whom, or what the letters were regarding. Now I see the postcards are a series of art prints, which are almost identical in design.
I then researched the history of postcards as it was very important for me and my family. In art class in high school I made a limited edition book for my family. I then realized that there was great interest in this material, and so I have continued to work with these postcards, a project that bridges art and literature.
The text format fits very well with the Internet, because the texts are too long. Without comments, you can hardly understand the postcards, but I wanted to keep the comments short so that the postcards will remain in the foreground. I also find it interesting to make this journey in "simulated real time".
And all this, I can investigate on the web with others. It’s free and open to all who feel concerned to participate, and you can read as much as you wish. You can subscribe to the newsletter or unsubscribe as you see fit.
MH: As a father, what do you hope your children will take from their family history, and how do you explain this story to them?
TSW: It could be said as the train with my grandparents, Gustav and Minna Wächter, leaving Hamburg, ends the story that began with Elias Tobias, who changed his name. Minna and Gustav, all their possessions, their dignity and their German citizenship had been stripped of the family – leaving the Wächters of Hamburg no longer!
But there is a continuation of the story of Gustav and Minna and her German-Jewish family. I do not think of what happened when the train reached Riga. I would rather think about my children, Minna and Gustav's great-grandchildren. They have inherited Minna's eyes, Gustav's optimism, and have received German citizenship, which was taken from their ancestors.
When I walk with my children to the German school in Stockholm by the pedestrian walkway in the middle of the Karlavägen, we often talk about my grandmother and my grandfather. For me, the story of Minna and Gustav continues under the guard of Linden Karlavägen. It continues with the Hebrew word Zachor, the exhortation to remember. Zachor has not in the past but in present and future. Remembering is an activity that is devoted to the present and points to the future. By remembering, we keep the past alive.
MH: What nationality do you feel really attached to?
TSW: I grew up in Sweden with a very German father. As an adult I have lived in many different countries. I think where there are people who know and respect me, that’s where I'm at home.
Germany and my family are now good friends. It has not always been this way, but we have reconciled with each other. My children and I have been German citizens for five years now. The children go to German school in Stockholm. I like the German language and German culture. I feel very comfortable in the Federal Republic, and travel happily on the train. And I am obviously a big fan of the Nationalelf (German national soccer team)!
MH: Do you think your life would have been different had your father told you about his past?
TSW: Sure, but the Third Reich was not a topic we discussed. I understand that this has been the case with many German families. My father died in 1983; he did not see the Berlin Wall and Germany thereafter. Perhaps it would be possible for us today to speak about what he could not speak about then. Maybe ...
I think that it's a requirement of this project that my father had died several years before I started it. He could not speak on the subject, and I respect that. But my father has contributed to the project -- when he died, he left materials and the memoirs he started writing.
MH: And finally, what advice would you give to those researching their family history?
TSW: I am very grateful to all the people I have met along the way who helped me in various ways. In each archive, there are experts who can really provide valuable assistance in specific areas of research. Elderly family members are also a great resource. For example, I have a relative who is 90 years old who made several trips to Germany. I have learned a lot from her.