Walter Kempowski - the chronicler
When Walter Kempowski, one of north Germany's greatest writers, died in 2007, he left behind a substantial oeuvre of novels, diaries, letters and collections of documents reflecting the reality of life during the Second World War. He called these works "Echolot" - echo sounder - which are probing into the past.
In his house in the north German countryside, Kempowski surrounded himself with thousands of letters and documents he has collected over the years. Among them are diaries, letters, photographs and postcards - most of which come from ordinary people. He bought some of them in second-hand bookshops and on market stalls, while many more were sent to him as unsolicited material. In some respects, he became the keeper of the national memory.
His main work charts five weeks in 1943, when the tide of war was turning against the Germans in Stalingrad. Each week is represented by dozens of quotes from people from all walks of life. The book forms an intricate mosaic, with a reminder that the terrible and the banal often go side-by-side. Kempowski himself said he had always been interested in "what people tell of their lives". He explains how he first had the idea of a book based on the time of Stalingrad: "I saw something interesting happen - how a great choir of the dead found its voice, creating a great conversation about this period."
Some of the stories reflect daily life and suffering at the front, like 30-year-old Josef Zimmermann's tale: "We sat down on a crate of ammunition and talked about home. I told my comrade about Cologne and a girl I had met at the last Carnival. He took a piece of sausage from his bag and we both enjoyed a taste of home. Neither of us had any idea it would be his last meal." Other stories tell of everyday life at home in Germany. And finally, a constant underlying theme - an entry from the annals of Auschwitz: "17 January, Auschwitz-Birkenau: 2,000 Polish Jews - men, women, children - arrive. After the selection process, 255 men are put into the camp as prisoners. The remaining 1,745 people are killed in the gas chambers."
"Echolot" does not seek to allocate blame - it merely records what happened, without comment. It is for readers to understand and interpret what they read, with all its many layers and complexities.
Walter Kempowski's own personal website is still being updated with information about his work and invitations to literature events at his house Kreienhoop. In German.