Picnic in Kaliningrad Oblast
Mixed Media on Paper
66 x 100 cm

 

At the age of sixteen Gisela returned from the US to East Berlin and lived with a host family for an organization called World Socialist Youth Exchange. Like most young people in the German Democratic Republic, Eva became a member of the Free German Youth (FDJ), the official youth movement sponsored by the ruling Socialist Unity Party. Membership was nominally voluntary, but those who did not join found it all but impossible to gain admission to higher education. She soon went on to become a member of the FDJ district board and secretary for “Agitprop” (Agitation and Propaganda). Her progress in the compulsory Marxism–Leninism course was graded only genügend (sufficient, passing grade) in 1957 and 1958.

At school, Gisela learned to speak Russian fluently and was awarded prizes for her proficiency in Russian and Linguistics. She was educated at Humboldt University in Berlin, where she studied Spanish from 1958 to 1962. Gisela worked in various areas using her expertise in Spanish and Latin American Studies. From 1962 to 1963 she lived in Cuba.

In 1963 Gisela met a man named Jimmy Fuentes, an American of Cuban descent. Due to her deceased father’s US nationality and Jimmy’s status, Gisela was able to move to and settle in Miami. Later that year, at the age of 22, Gisela gave birth to Anna Virtannen Fuentes.

In 2010, when Anna was 47 and soon after her mother Gisela had begun developing dementia after a stroke, a retired librarian from Berlin’s Staatsbibliothek contacted Anna via an email claiming to have known her grandmother Eva Virtannen. The email said that Eva had recently died, and that she had left boxes of materials in the library that could not stay there. The librarian had failed to establish contact with Gisela, but had recently learned that she had a daughter in Miami.

Eva Virtannen, the mother that Gisela never knew had been alive, had actually been rescued from the ice back in 1945, but had suffered for many years afterwards from a case of sepsis she had developed there and its related state of delirium. Eva had never remarried and had lived alone working in West Berlin’s Staatsbibliothek her whole life. She had wandered to Cuba in the 1980s looking for Gisela, but was never able to find any trail of her. The reason she had not contacted her late father’s family, the Virtannens is unknown. Having found out about Gisela’s return to Germany, and move to Cuba, Eva had no reason to believe or know Gisela would have become a US citizen.

It was around this time that Anna’s step-father Jimmy Fuentes told her the truth about Marla’s adoption and the role of the Northern Georgia Finns. It was also near this time that her step-father helped her to finally connect with her mother’s cousin Marla Larson and share these postcard drawings, slides and journal pages with her.

The box left by Eva Virtannen had sketches of small figures on the back of postcards and typed papers making up a kind of journal. Its contents might best be described as an odd study of a coming Europe based on the workings of an odd figure named “KAHT.” On the back of the each postcard were the images of figures Eva said she had encountered during her travels throughout the then East Block. These figures she made were not necessarily encountered in the particular places the cards represented. Several were in the Kaliningrad region. Unlike Eva, the figures she had drawn had traveled the whole world and, instead of a travelogue, they offered her cultural descriptions, including many related to the anthropology of Europe.

see also Kaliningrad Series