The Lives of Strangers


This week I found a 100-year-old language textbook in a used book store. Inside were a pair of 40-year-old letters written from a family in East Germany to an American relative:


My Dear Frieda! Many thanks for your lovely letter of July 5th. As you wrote, you still haven’t received a visa [to visit East Germany]. If it really doesn’t come through, then please let us know immediately. As you know, from August 5th to the 20th we won’t be at home, since our vacation to Usedom Island on the Baltic Sea is already booked and paid for. But considering your planned route, you could still visit us before then. It would be great!

Now, you wanted to know, if you don’t get a visa, whether we could come to Munich or [West] Berlin. Unfortunately it wouldn’t work, we’re not allowed over the border. Only pensioners receive permission for that. We can’t go from East to West Berlin either.

We wish you lots of fun on the rest of your trip and hope that we can perhaps see each other again.


Dear Frieda, I’ve inquired again. If you don’t get the visa, there’s another possibility to see us in East Berlin. You can get a day pass, although you’d have to return to West Berlin the same evening. It’s five marks for one day. We could meet in the Hotel Berolina. You’d have to go through the wall on foot, but then you can get a taxi to the hotel. We could meet in the lobby, it’s a nice place to sit and chat. You’d just have to tell us which day you’re coming.

Who was Frieda? I’ve cropped out the last names as a matter of privacy, but with a little googling it was easy to find some of her official records. She immigrated to the US as a young woman in the early 1920s, settling in the same county where I bought the book, and likely still lived there when she died at the ripe old age of 96, after which her books surely sat around in boxes until they were bought by this shop.

She’d have been in her 70s when these letters were written, maybe taking a long-planned retirement trip back to Europe, bringing this old book along to brush up on her German. (The first letter is sent in care of other relatives she was staying with, possibly in West Germany.)

That’s where I stopped digging. I don’t think the letters are so personal that it would be worth tracking down and intruding on her surviving family to return them — just a few innocuous travel plans in a fairly standard American life. But I hope she got to see these relatives in the East.

That same day, my friend Max sent me this post about the disappearance of used book stores. I told him about the letters, and he replied:

Makes me wonder how well we’ll be able to preserve the memories of peoples’ existence as things continue to go digital… [social media] accounts and profiles get wiped at some point, at the latest point upon our deaths. Which means it’s pretty easy to wipe out a sizable portion of a person’s history, if no one is around to preserve the data. There isn’t even a library or rare books collection you can go to to find scraps. I wonder if future historians will be able to rely on caches of email data, or if those will get lost too. What’s the equivalent of all those black and white photos you find at flea markets?

It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? Today this whole correspondence would take place over email, and forty years from now it could be gone without a trace. There’s no digital equivalent to the way I found these letters, no way to make this kind of brief but moving contact with the life of a dead stranger.

To be fair, it’s not true that all online profiles are wiped as soon as a user dies. Facebook, for example, will freeze and “memorialize” your profile, hiding it from public search results and leaving it open for your friends to view. But that’s only good for as long as Facebook is around. Social networks come and go. When Friendster finally breathed its last in 2011, they gave users less than two months to export their data before deleting it forever.

Modern social networks are better about this, but how many people have really taken advantage of those export tools? And on the rare occasions when users do think ahead about this, just as often they have the opposite goal, to make sure their data will be deleted when they die. Anyway, even if your family does export all your data or keep a memorial profile up, it’s not something that a stranger would ever stumble across.

Digital media are potentially longer lasting than analog media, of course, because they don’t decay (well, barely) with time or reproduction. But the way we treat them is very different. For example, when I graduated from college, I saved all the emails from my school account, and I had every intention of keeping them forever. But over the next few years, as I moved all my files to a succession of new computers and external hard drives, that email archive just fell through the cracks. By contrast, I still have an envelope full of handwritten letters I had received at summer camp ten years earlier. It’s not that the content of my college emails was any less meaningful, just that it was so much easier to lose them through simple neglect.

As always, technology cuts both ways; without the internet it wouldn’t have been so easy to learn more of Frieda’s story. But those birth and death records would have meant nothing to me without the letter, whereas the letter still carries emotional weight even without any outside context.

I don’t mean to get too misty-eyed about this. I realize that of all the humans who have lived on this planet, the vast majority have left no trace at all. But in the 20th Century, the spread of literacy and consumer photography meant that millions more ordinary people left some kind of physical footprint, some testament to their existence beyond just entries in a government ledger. It would be strange if technology is now beginning to reverse that trend.

“Those family snapshots and handwritten postcards at flea markets are heartbreaking,” I replied to Max. “Either the people involved are dead, or they’ve lost them, or they just didn’t care enough to keep them, and I don’t know which is saddest.”

But wouldn’t it be even sadder if they were never preserved at all?