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The Projectionist

Carlo Gebler
New Island


From Beginnings

I'm fortunate that a photograph of my Gebler forebears has come down to me. It's black and white. It was taken, I'd guess, in 1908 or 1909. I don't know where. A studio in Prague perhaps, or a provincial Bohemian or south German town. Whatever the location, the setting is unmistakably middle European, high bourgeois. On the floor in front of clan Gebler there's a hideous fur rug (of the kind you might see in a 1960s' German porno, a couple writhing atop it, a fire burning merrily behind, the firelight reflecting off their oiled limbs). On either side of the Geblers there are fussy tables with doilies and flowers. Behind them are heavy drapes and a kitsch landscape (add a naked nymph and it too could be in a porno).

There are ten in the picture - my two paternal great-grandparents and their eight children: going from left to right they are Helen, Julius, Adolf, Gretel (or Greta), Hermann, Ernst, Charles and the eldest, Erna - and they are posed in two semicircles. In the one at the rear stand the four hulking older Gebler men: Julius, Adolf (my grandfather), Hermann and Charles. They're all in suits and collars and ties, though my grandfather, in evidence of his theatrical leanings, also sports a brocade waistcoat. The other thing that strikes is the posture adopted by Charles (the second eldest, a violinist, a pianist, and I think a medical doctor): he has his arms crossed, and he stands slightly apart from everyone else. He looks semi-detached.

In a semicircle in front of the hulking sons are the other family members, seated. These are the three Gebler daughters (two, like Romanov princesses, wear white summer dresses and sport matching white bows in their hair, while the third is in sombre black), the baby, Ernst (his head shaved, he looks like a manikin), and the parents of the eight children the picture features. My great-grandfather looks like a middle European patriarch as supplied by Central Casting: he has a big head and a white beard. His wife, my great-grandmother, wears a white blouse and (I think) a locket around her neck, the sober dress of a sober hausfrau. She also looks older than her husband, when actually she's younger. She looks sad too, like she's been through the mangle.

The faces that look back at me from this photograph all seem familiar. It's partly that I see the Gebler family look (big noses and high foreheads) in these faces (though perhaps I see this because I want to and not because it's actually there), and partly because these faces remind me of the faces that look back at me from the photographs taken by that great contemporary documenter of everyday German life, August Sander (1876-1964). But then that's hardly surprising: these Geblers were just the sort of solid, provincial, resolute and absolutely rooted people Sander photographed.

My father's grandfather, Wilhelm Gebler (he of Central Casting), was born on 2 May 1848 in Schluckenau, a town located inside a little hook of Bohemia (then Austria-Hungary) that pokes up provocatively into Saxony. His ancestors were Armenians who settled in German speaking Bohemia, which later become Sudetenland before reverting to Czechoslovakia.

My father's grandmother and Wilhelm's wife (she of the sad face) was Maria Gebler, nee Zraly. She was born on 21 May 1859 in Koniginhof in eastern Bohemia, also in Austria-Hungary. The Zralys were teachers and professors and Slav patriots, and did not like the Germans or Austrians. Severin Zraly, a relative of Maria's, hacked off his firing fingers so he would not have to serve in the Austro-Hungarian Army. He pretended it was an accident, but he was found out, put in a fortress for several years, and afterwards emigrated to the US, where he got into shipping and made a fortune. Maria asserted her Czech identity more gently by insisting that the Czech feminine of her married name, Geblerova, was used in all communications. As a person, she was supposedly not melancholy (as she seems to be in the family portrait) so much as chilly, even severe. Of course, this may have just been how mothers were at the time, and in this she was not alone. Ultimately, I do not know.

According to some reports, Wilhelm was a gynaecologist, and according to others he was a tax collector or an accountant. He probably lived and worked in Teplice-Sanov in western Bohemia, close to Germany, and at some stage he acquired part-ownership of a musical instrument factory in Markneukirchen, a German town just over the border in Saxony, where something like 80 per cent of the world's instruments were made by 1900. According to family lore, Wilhelm won his share in a game of cards.

The factory made woodwind instruments (oboes, flutes, clarinets), and most of the factory's output was sold either in Germany or Austria-Hungary. Because their market was so German, and he was now an entrepreneur with manufacturing interests, Wilhelm reconfigured his half-Czech family as a wholly German one, and insisted that everyone embrace German language and culture. Perhaps this was why Maria Geblerova looked so sad when her photograph was taken: it was a sacrifice to renounce her Slav identity. As part of this process my father's father, who was born on 2 April 1890 and who was named Adolphe or sometimes Adolphus, became Adolfe, and finally Adolf.

At first he didn't mind. He was young. He was flexible. His father was right, he thought. He saw that this embrace of things German was good for business. He saw how the factory prospered, and as it prospered he saw how wealth was generated, and as wealth was generated he saw that the family's place within the bourgeoisie was secured and enhanced.