Visu­al Arts

Every­one Is Present

Ter­ry Kurgan

By – December 16, 2020

Sev­en­ty-five years after the end of World War II and the Holo­caust, one might assume that every angle of exam­i­na­tion has already been employed and exhaust­ed, leav­ing room only for rep­e­ti­tion. Not so! Ter­ry Kur­gan, with her cre­ative non­fic­tion fam­i­ly mem­oir Every­one Is Present, has mas­ter­ful­ly opened a new way of look­ing, see­ing, and sens­ing — and invites us to fol­low her on this jour­ney of dis­cov­er­ing what was and what may have been. Two dif­fer­ent aspects of the same pho­to, tak­en in the late sum­mer of 1939 in the gar­den of a hotel in Zakopane, a resort town at the foot of the Pol­ish Tatra moun­tains, con­sti­tute the first and the last page of the book. They also frame the phys­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly cir­cuitous escape of the Kallir fam­i­ly from the south of Poland at the out­break of World War II across half the world to South Africa — and Kurgan’s return sev­en­ty-five years later.

When Kur­gan inher­its a hand­ful of old fam­i­ly pho­tos tak­en by her grand­fa­ther Jasek Kallir, as well as his wartime diaries, she not only becomes the metic­u­lous observ­er of what is depict­ed in the images, but also finds a way to enter the scenes from the van­tage point of her present life, going back to where I have nev­er been before.” The effect is deeply mov­ing. Each of the pho­tographs anchors an essay about Kurgan’s search for her ances­tors’ life — for traces of exis­tence erad­i­cat­ed by per­se­cu­tion and mur­der. Kur­gan inter­twines detailed research about the pri­vate his­to­ry of her rel­a­tives with equal­ly in-depth descrip­tions of the geo­graph­i­cal and polit­i­cal his­to­ry of their imme­di­ate sur­round­ings and coun­try. An inno­cent pho­to of two sis­ters-in-law is paired with a brief and qui­et para­graph of how only one sis­ter-in-law sur­vived; the oth­er per­ished in a mass grave not long after the Ger­man inva­sion of Poland on Sep­tem­ber 1, 1939. A pho­to of two chil­dren, play­mates appar­ent­ly, leads the author to research their fate. Wist­ful­ly, she writes: I wish to pro­tect them from the harm that is just ahead.”


The Holo­caust is always in the back­ground of Every­one Is Present, but recount­ing its atroc­i­ties is not Kurgan’s pur­pose. Find­ing con­nec­tions to her grand­par­ents who nev­er spoke about their expe­ri­ences over there,” and find­ing a way to feel a vis­cer­al sense of belong­ing to her larg­er fam­i­ly, is. As Kur­gan traces back her rel­a­tives’ dynam­ics to just before and dur­ing their flight for their lives, the mun­dane and the extra­or­di­nary often meet in the same unas­sum­ing trav­el log entry — for exam­ple, a vis­it to a Bom­bay muse­um after once more hav­ing been rude­ly reject­ed by the Amer­i­can con­sulate in their quest for tran­sit visa.

Kur­gan does uncov­er a fam­i­ly secret: she comes to under­stand the path of trans­mis­sion of inter­gen­er­a­tional trau­ma in her fam­i­ly. And that mem­o­ry, truth, real­i­ty, and facts — even those cap­tured in pho­tographs — are noth­ing but approx­i­ma­tions of what might have been and can nev­er be known for sure.

Rein­hild Draeger-Muenke left her native Ger­many as a young adult and has lived in the Unit­ed States for almost 40 years. She is a psy­chol­o­gist and fam­i­ly ther­a­pist in the Philadel­phia area, help­ing peo­ple heal from inter­gen­er­a­tional­ly trans­mit­ted trauma.

Discussion Questions

Every­one Is Present is a series of essays using a war-time diary and a col­lec­tion of fam­i­ly pho­tographs left by the author’s grand­fa­ther to cre­ate a work fus­ing text and image, which cre­ates a mov­ing fam­i­ly mem­oir and reflec­tion on pho­tog­ra­phy and mem­o­ry. A cross genre work that draws on the author’s twen­ty-five years of visu­al arts prac­tice and writ­ing, the vol­ume itself is a work of art.

Each essay builds a grip­ping fam­i­ly his­to­ry, begin­ning with the Ger­man inva­sion of Poland, as the fam­i­ly trav­eled through Roma­nia, Turkey and India to South Africa where the family’s tran­sit visas final­ly ran out. By fus­ing this account of the Jew­ish refugee jour­ney with a detailed read­ing of seem­ing­ly ordi­nary pho­tographs (which actu­al­ly hold secrets) the author teas­es out details of her fam­i­ly (who typ­i­cal­ly nev­er spoke about their wartime expe­ri­ences) in extreme con­di­tions. Through this process, the read­er begins to under­stand what was lost, what was found, and the rela­tion­ship between fate and char­ac­ter in forg­ing a new life in an unin­tend­ed place.