I’ve twice donned a pair of white cotton gloves and pored over Eva Braun’s nearly three dozen photograph albums at the National Archives.
Each visit had its own rhythm and pace. The first, in the spring of 2010, was a kind of mad-rush count-down to get through them all before the Archives’ five o’clock closing time. This involved leaving at least 15-20 extra minutes on each end for passing through security, checking in or out, and depositing or retrieving my belongings from a locker.
I couldn’t take so much as my own pencil into the resource room where her albums are housed in several piles of volumes hard-bound in dark blue. Overwhelmed as I encountered them for the first time, I was attempting to encompass 33 years of one life in the equivalent of two afternoons.
Years of reading and research later, including interviews with some of those who met the subject of my search, my approach on the second visit was more like forensics. I was watching, amidst those several dozen books of her photos, most arranged quite haphazardly with little attention to chronological order, for patterns and connections that form a larger picture.
There are many photos whose settings and significance I could spot more readily, based on who was present, clues in the background of interiors and landscapes, even the clothes people were wearing.
But it was that most-elusive quarry that I was watching for — the evidence of the emotional side of things.
By the time I made the second visit, the years that I’ve spent following the trail of this life, as my novel’s protagonist does, have led somewhere deeper. In much the way I can with photos of those whom I know, I can tell when a day was a joy, or a strain; when a smile was a spontaneous response, or a tight, forced mask.
“May I always stay this way” one typewritten caption proclaims of her 18- or 19-year-old self, who had already met her famous lover, 23 years her senior. She is sitting outside over coffee with friends on what was likely a lovely day in Munich.
Her expression seems guileless, innocent. Those who remember her from this time call her vivacious and effervescent.
Seven years onto this trail, I troll these hundreds of images again where many are now stored on my computer, watching for the signs of where the shifts came.
Watching for those large and little junctures at which a life was repeatedly bartered away in the shadow of another, to the detriment of its self.
Phyllis Edgerly Ring’s forthcoming The Munich Girl, A Novel of the Legacies That Outlast War, follows a similar trail when its protagonist discovers that her mother had a secret friendship with Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun.
Find more from the book’s research trail at:
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