Ex-internee, Rudolf Girschik (R36358) shaking hands with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the king of Iran during an opening ceremony, Poldasht, Azarbayjan, Iran, 11.11.1958. © Girschik Collection. Curator: P. Khosronejad.
A Journey to Damavand, photo album of Lothar Böhmer (R36358) depicting his travel on Iranian soil accompanied by the rest of Hohenfels’s crew (German Merchant Ship), 1940. © Böhmer Collection.
Visit to Tatura War Camps and Tatura Irrigation and Wartime Camps Museum, Tatura, Australia. © Helga Girschik 2019.
Since August 2019 I have been in Australia working on the story of the German civilians who arrived in Persia (Iran) in the early 1930s for the development of the country on the order of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1878-1944), the King of Iran (r. 1925-1941).
They had a minimum of two Leica cameras and produced unique photographs of their industrial works and infrastructure projects, their families and the Iranian landscape and its people (1930 to 1941). Many of them wrote remarkable diaries and memoirs which remain unpublished until today. Once in the Australian Second World War camps, as internees of the war, they also wrote their memoirs of Iran and of camp life (1941 to 1947) especially. This group of German civilians of Persia should be considered as first-rate scholars and academics, and also highly qualified scientists and technicians, especially in the single men’s camps. They greatly changed life in their camps and influenced the other internees. It is astonishing to learn that Dr. Hans Eberhard Wulff (1907-1967), the author of "The Traditional Crafts of Persia", was among them.
After leaving the war camps (1945-1947) and only during the 1950s to 1960s, very few of these internees could return to Iran to finish their work or continue their projects. Again during their visits and sojourns in Iran they took magnificent photographs and wrote personal diaries of those days.
It was also during August 2019 that I found some of the “children” of those German internees, some of whom had been born there, and also have Persian names. I am working on their entire oral history of Iran during the war period, after the war, during their resettlement in Australia, and their retrospective impressions of Iran. I am working with around ten of these “children”, who are between seventy-six and eighty-five years old. They have given me the entire archives of their parents which include original diaries, photo albums, research materials, and personal and family documents.
After nine months (since August 2019) working on this project, I am currently focusing on two major families with the participation of six protagonists, three siblings from each family. Occasionally I also work with the children of other families. I came to this decision because of the situation of the detention of their parents in Iran, their exceptional situation during the war and of course what happened to them after the war during their settlement in Australia.
Documents confirm that there were six married couples with four children from three of them, brought to the Australian war camps from Iran.
Family A were arrested in their own house in the west of Iran by the British Army and from there the entire family (father, mother, and two children, one girl and one boy) were sent to the British Army war camp situated in Basra, Iraq, for further interrogation. Then the entire family along with other Germans (including single men and five more families) who were captured in Iran were sent to war camps in Australia.
The third child of this family was born inside the camp and today all three siblings are alive and in good mental health. After the war, the entire family was encouraged to stay in Australia, and after a few years, the father was able to return to Iran to continue his work as a railway engineer. According to my investigations, he was one of the two ex-internees of war in Australia who were eventually able to return to Iran to continue their professional activities.
Studying family A, and working with its children, is crucial for this project, not only because they came to the camp together and can tell me their camp life experiences, but also because as post-war settlers of Australia they have had very interesting life experiences which provide insights into Australia’s contemporary social history.
I should also add the importance of the visual and material culture that this family produced and collected from Persia, which date back to the pre- and post-war periods. The father of this family was an admirer of photography and recorded in remarkable detail the different parts of his professional projects, his family and also the country. The mother also had a great love for Persian handwoven carpets, rugs and textiles, and during their life in Iran collected many examples of such material culture and was able to take many of them with her to the Australian war camp. Today, most of this Persian material culture is with the family in Australia or was already recorded visually in the father’s photographs during their life in Iran.
I also decided to work with family B because of their family experiences in Iran before the war, their situation during the war, and of course what happened to them in the post-war period until today. The father of this family held very important positions, and this is why today his works and research in Iran form an invaluable archive containing more than five thousand photographs and documents.
This family is one of the German civilian families who sought refuge in the German Embassy in Shemiran in Tehran (1941) at the beginning of the invasion of Iran. The mother and three children were then separated from the father and forced to leave Iran for Germany with the rest of the women and children who sheltered in the Embassy. The life experience of the mother and her three young children on their way to Turkey and then to Germany during the war is crucial for this project. Forced separation from the father, the trauma of displacement, and experiencing daily bombing by the Allies in Germany are very important aspects of this dire experience. The mother and children joined the father in 1949 after his captivity in Australian war camps and created a new life in Australia, which continues today.
Like family A, the post-war experiences of family B are also important for this project. Not only did they join a father whom they had to leave in Iran at the beginning of the war and in a very difficult psychological situation, but also living with a father who suffered post-camp trauma was definitely not an easy task for the rest of the family. One should consider it similarly for the father, who did not see his wife and children for about eight years (1941-1949).
As with case A, the father of family B is also one of the two ex-internees of the war who was able to return to Iran and continue his professional work. Like case A, today all three siblings of family B are alive, in good mental health and living in Australia.
As mentioned above, beside these two major families I am also working with several children of German ex-internees who were arrested in Persia for different reasons. For example, the father of family C never lived in Iran and had nothing to do with the country directly; he was captured on one of the German ships in one of the southern ports of Iran. He was a single young male when he was detained and then sent to Basra, accompanying the rest of his comrades. He was then transferred to the Australian war camps with the rest of the Germans from Persia, and only after the war married another German ex-internee of the war in Australia till today. They remained in Australia.
This is why their experiences are entirely different from families A and B. Like the men of the other two families, the father of family C was an admirer of photography and took incredible photographs of his work on the German ship while in the southern ports of Iran, and also during his short visit to the country itself. His visual materials are unique in this sense, and beside the rest of the family’s oral history, his own photo albums should be considered very important materials for the project.
Families A and B are at the heart of my interest in this part of the project, in which I am focusing on the oral history, memories, and life experiences of these two families. In the matter of methodology I am following the traditional systems of observation / participant observation and interviews.
However, what makes this part of the project more fascinating for me is the age of my protagonists, as they are all between sixty-seven and eighty-six years old. Reviewing most of the methodologies in working with aged people or the anthropology of aging, I came to the decision that for many reasons the best method for this part of my research is to perform my work in the way of friendship rather than as an anthropologist. Therefore, I have adopted the methods and experiences of P. Gay y Blasco and L. Hernández (2019), what she calls Reciprocal Ethnography.
"The emphasis on reciprocity thus proposes to implement the anticolonial aims of the collaborative outlook—establishing nonhierarchical relations between ethnographer and collaborators; involving collaborators in the design and implementation of research projects; and producing outputs relevant and accessible to them—within the specific context of academic ethnographic writing." (Blasco 2017: 93)
Adhering to this as one of my major points in the entire project, little by little we (the “children” of families A and B and I) are going to create our methodology and our plans, step by step, and will do so together. Based on weekly emails, WhatsApp talks, or zoom meetings, we are attempting to determine our own way. However, I have entirely separate connections with each family and even keep it this way among the siblings.
By keeping this method as the major research framework for conducting the project, at the same time I am utilizing several internal research methods to perform different parts of this research.
As is obvious, a major part of this phase of the project concerns oral history and memory, and especially childhood memory. I am encouraging my protagonists to return to their very first childhood memories and write about them and at the same time record some part of it orally with a voice recorder. They need to review their own texts and also listen to their own voices before sending them to me. I am encouraging them to work on their autobiographies.
In this part of the project, besides using their own personal memories, I am also encouraging them to use their family photographs as mediums for encapsulating their memories, especially those of their childhood when they were in Iran. While in Iran they were between one month to six years old and, as previously mentioned, some of them were also born there (three of them). Besides our extensive talks and exchanges of ideas, I have scanned all of their family photographs and provided high quality resolution images for them to use in this project. They should study the albums as a whole and think and write about them, and then again go through each photograph one by one and create captions for them. This could be done as a written work following recordings of their own voices, or they could just write them directly from their memories.
I am also encouraging them, besides studying their family photographs, to use the material culture collected by their parents (back in their childhood) as mediums to open their memory to the past. These could be the real objects that they have in their possession from the past, especially Iran, embedded as images in their family photographs, or simply existing in their virtual memory of the past. I have encouraged them to write about this material culture and see how they can connect it to their past, to their childhood, and to their family and surrounding culture with the aim of reconstructing their memories.
While in Iran, the experiences of both families could be quite similar; but with the outbreak of war, leaving Iran, and living during the war, the experiences of both families will certainly differ massively. The children of both families recount incredible memories, but what the children of family A, especially the elder child, narrate of life in the war camp and its memories has special importance for our project.
Since she was detained and held in Iran and then sent to the war camps in Australia, the mother of family A was able to keep many of the objects and material culture of her family’s life with her and bring them to Australia. Here, we are entering into a new phase of our research, which is the anthropological study and the importance of material culture in coping with the war-prison life and the situation behind barbed wire.
In our case, I am trying to work with the children of family A to better understand together the usage of their family material culture from Persia as a coping strategy by their mother in the stressful context of their imprisonment inside the Australian war camps. It is incredible to learn why and how, by the help of Persian material culture, their family territory was perceived and divided inside the war camp by their mother. We are also interested in learning how power structures were enacted and subverted, and how these can be recognized through space created by family objects and material culture.
Besides the above-mentioned reciprocal and collaborative activities, we (the main protagonists of families A and B and I) also traveled together to visit the war camp site where the entire family A were interned, and we also visited the local museum together and worked for about two days side by side in its archive to obtain further documents and information. This travel and future ones should also be considered as important activities of our project during which protagonists talk both about their childhood memories in Persia and their later life experiences in Australia.
With the above-mentioned introduction, I can confirm that the project is mostly focusing on what Wang & Brockmeier (2002) call “autobiographical remembering”, meaning we speak, in one way or another, of a narrative account of one’s past. In fact, it has often been pointed out that the intimate interplay between one’s self and one’s personal history is crucial for our understanding of what we usually call “autobiographical memory”.
Building upon the above approaches, in our project I conceive of the “autobiographical memory” of my protagonists as an active construction embedded in a social weave of dialogues that are negotiated not only between them and their immediate social environment (parents, siblings, etc.), but also, equally importantly, between them and their larger cultural milieu (Germany, Persia, and Australia). Therefore, I am going to suggest that the “autobiographical remembering” of my protagonists should be considered as a sort of “cultural practice”.
Wang, Q., and Brockmeier, J. (2002). “Autobiographical Remembering as Cultural Practice: Understanding the Interplay between Memory," Self and Culture,” Culture & Psychology, 8(1), pp. 45–64.
PHOTOGRAPHY & CHILDHOOD MEMORY
Gay Y Blasco, P. and Hernández, L . (2019). Writing Friendship: A Reciprocal Ethnography. Palgrave: London.
Gay Y Blasco, P. (2017). "Doubts, Compromises, and Ideals: Attempting a Reciprocal Life Story," Anthropology and Humanism 42.1: pp. 91-108.
PERSIAN MATERIAL CULTURE &
AUSTRALIAN WAR CAMP LIFE
Visit to the Tatura War Camps and Tatura Irrigation and Wartime Camps Museum, Tatura, Australia. © Pedram Khosronejad 2019.
Recording: H. Girschik (R36356). Editing: P. Khosronejad © 2020
Interplay between memory, self and culture (adopted after Wang & Brockmeier 2002)
Dr. Pedram Khosronejad | Adjunct Professor
Religion and Society Research Cluster | Western Sydney University
Fellow | Department of Anthropology | Harvard University