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Keeping the memory alive

13 Sep 2021

How to talk about the horror? An interview about the culture of remembrance and the role of first-hand witnesses of the Holocaust.

“We must accept the Holocaust as a matter of course as part of German history”: Mirjam Zadoff, Director of the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, in conversation with LMU historians Kim Wünschmann and Michael Brenner:

Tobogganing over the graves of Buchenwald, bachelor parties at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial—are the dead of the Nazi genocide being forgotten, lost in the fog of indifference? Or what do such everyday scenes say about remembrance?

Brenner: Forgotten? No, but they naturally move into the historical distance over time. That makes it all the more challenging to keep the Nazi era more clearly in our memory than other phases of German history. And as for the tobogganing and similar aberrations, it’s sadly not the first time. Even in the 1950s, people didn’t always treat these places of remembrance as we would wish them to be treated.

Zadoff: We sometimes think that Germany entered into a kind of culture of remembrance right after 1945. But no, it was a painful and long process that was carried primarily by the survivors and didn’t have much effect on the general population at first. What we are now experiencing three-quarters of a century later, in these pandemic times, conveys a sense of democracy in crisis. Because some of the public space in which democracy takes place is being lost to us—and is being instrumentalized, to cite just one example, with self-promotion by Covid deniers who liken themselves to Anne Frank or Sophie Scholl.

The concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau: symbol of the Nazis’ extermination campaign

© Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Charlotte Knobloch, the president of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria, gives a different, very solemn warning: “Anti-Semitic thought and words draw votes again, are socially acceptable again—from schools to coronavirus protests and of course the internet, that catalyst for hatred and incitement of all kinds,” she said in the Bundestag on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the end of January. Would you agree with this gloomy assessment?

Wünschmann: It is alarming how the boundaries of acceptable speech can shift in our fast-moving media-oriented society. The narrow mindset encountered in the echo chambers reinforces a way of speaking about the past that can only be seen as an attack on our consensus of remembrance and our democratic, pluralistic value system.

Brenner: Anti-Semitism had never disappeared. It was to some extent taboo or not socially acceptable, as Charlotte Knobloch said. The big difference now is that it has even become acceptable in the Bundestag—with a party in parliament using it to garner votes.

Zadoff: That kind of attitude is quite specifically about shooting down an open, diverse culture and rewriting history from a nationalist, revisionist perspective. The growth of anti-Semitism and racism is, by the way, an international phenomenon with transnational coalitions of right-wing extremists.

Björn Höcke, one of the AfDs chief ideologues, has been calling for a change in the politics of remembrance for years.

Brenner: I think what we’re seeing here is the return, in a new guise, of the old attitude of wanting to draw a line under what happened—actively turning away from a German politics of remembrance that consciously said: we cannot avoid this dark chapter of German history; it is central to the creation and the essence of the Federal Republic of Germany.

It’s almost 100 years since National Socialism came on the scene. Is there a whiff of Weimar, as people often say, in the air again?

Zadoff: Let’s not make rash comparisons. But the question of the mechanisms that made the Nazis socially acceptable in the 1920s does come to mind. What happens when a society slips into crisis, when social cohesion breaks down—we can learn a lot from the 1920s, as different as that period was.

Wünschmann: History never repeats itself in exactly the same way. Nevertheless, comparisons can be made with Weimar. Weimar has always been a counter-image for the Federal Republic. Our constitution is, you could say, an anti-Weimar constitution; the political system was established as a conscious reaction to the shortcomings of the political system in the Weimar Republic, as a strictly representative democracy with much more of an equilibrium within the balance of power.

Faces of survivors: In Israel photographer Martin Schoeller visited and portrayed 75 men and women who witnessed, endured and survived the Holocaust. From an exhibition at the Zollverein in Essen, January 2020.

© Rolf Vennenbernd/picture alliance/dpa

Generational issues, or the end of contemporary witnessing

Soon there will be no more survivors of the Nazi death machine who can tell us about it from personal experience. What does this loss mean for the way we remember and engage with the Holocaust?

Wünschmann: I think we are currently in a transitional phase. There are still contemporary witnesses among us from the large group of those who survived the Holocaust as children and adolescents.

Brenner: I can answer the question about this loss very personally. My mother died last year at the age of 95. Until recently, she still spoke about her experiences, especially in schools. Usually, she’d always be asked to speak on Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, and also on February 13, the day of the air raid on Dresden in 1945. You know, my mother survived in Dresden, and paradoxically it was the bombing that night that saved her life because she was able to go into hiding. She had been given a deportation order for the 16th of the month. And I thought to myself this year, as those days were approaching, how different it was this time, because some of the requests came to me this year. But I can’t convey the same memories. I didn’t experience all of those things. I can only repeat what I have heard from her so many times. Yet what is important in first-hand accounts are those small moments of encounters, not the big story, not the grand narrative. When I sometimes watched my mother talking to school classes, there might be a certain hand movement, a smile, an anecdote or even a joke in the middle that could offer a bit of relief for the young people in the class. Or even allow a moment of sadness. We are unable to reproduce these spontaneous moments, not as second generation survivors and not as historians. We can’t find them in the written sources either. It is indeed a loss.

Did the experiences of both your parents—your father was also a Holocaust survivor—influence you as a researcher, did they perhaps even give you something like a mandate to devote yourself to the subject?

Brenner: I grew up with those stories. It was certainly one of the key factors in my decision to study history. However, this was by no means typical for the children of survivors. Among the young Jewish people of the same age that I knew, I was the only one.

Zadoff: Many people report that hearing a first-hand witness tell his story was the moment when they understood something of it. And I think, right now, we are once more becoming aware of how much the stability of German democracy is bound up with the role of those who were there and how much it may have cost them. Ernst Grube, a survivor from Munich with whom we work closely, sometimes says he doesn’t know how much longer he can do this. Every talk he gives about his story, about the loss of his family, is difficult for him, it retraumatizes him. And now, much sooner than we’d thought, we are seeing the contemporary witnesses disappear out of view. They are in the high-risk group in the pandemic; close to 9,000 of them worldwide have already died of Covid-19. Our search for new technologies to preserve the first-hand accounts basically shows how helpless we are.

The history of the remembrance culture

The culture of remembrance as we know it today emerged in the 1970s as a kind of grassroots movement, with a large number of local historical societies doing research into the sites of suffering and places where atrocities were perpetrated in their neighborhoods.

Zadoff: Yes, and apart from that, there were individual figures, especially Jewish historians, even survivors, who played a significant role for Germany, too. Raul Hilberg, for example, whose writings didn’t actually appear in German until 1982 after a great deal of back and forth. Or Saul Friedländer, who in the 1980s took issue with Martin Broszat from the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich over the value of eyewitness testimony from the time. For Broszat, such recollections were like myths oversimplifying history, too emotional. Friedländer, on the other hand, called for an approach that draws in multiple perspectives, something that is taken for granted today.

Brenner: Ultimately, both of them were first-hand witnesses to what happened. But why should Friedländer’s perspective be more emotional or less relevant just because he’d escaped extermination as a child by going into hiding, and the perspective of a German historian who was in the Nazi party and the Wehrmacht, by contrast, be less colored by subjective experiences? We all have our past—even we historians cannot shake it off.

Having come into being since the late seventies, the culture of remembrance is dubbed by some a generational project of today’s 55- to 75-year-olds. Is that what it is?

Zadoff: There are many from that age group who have made a difference, because they resisted, because they were troublesome, who fought for memorials to be opened, documentation centers to be established.

Brenner: The big turning point was actually when the U.S. TV series Holocaust was broadcast in Germany at the beginning of 1979. I was in high school at the time. All of a sudden, everybody started talking about the subject and asking their parents and grandparents: What did you do? It was like a wave that went through the population. I, too, came to my research topic through an examination of local history. A teacher approached me about taking part in a history contest organized by the Körber Foundation. I grew up in the town of Weiden in der Oberpfalz and in the early 1980s I began to look into the history of the Jewish community there, writing to many emigrants in Israel, New Zealand, Canada, the Dominican Republic and so on. Incidentally, that teacher is still involved with schools today, although he has long since retired.

This shows how important it is that there are people who consciously carry the memory forward. Who could that be in the future?

Wünschmann: All three of us are involved in educating this young generation, passing on to them what we have learned. Students of LMU’s teacher training program who go on to teach the subject in schools, or students who may later work in civic education, adult edaction or at memorial sites—these are the people who will then be in the front row of remembrance work. We have to offer them the space to try out new forms of getting the message across, for example those that focus on personalization, on the life stories of the persecuted, on empathy and emotion. And to be able to put this in the right context, they need a deep foundation of knowledge about the Holocaust, the Nazi era, Jewish life and Jewish culture in Europe.

Zadoff: The university is certainly an important multiplier. But when we work with schools—with vocational colleges, junior high and high schools—a whole other world is revealed. It reflects the fact that around 40 percent of Munich’s population was not born in Germany. Time and again, we see how important it is who is speaking and who the experts are—ideally, it will include groups of people who are from migrant families themselves.

How can that be achieved?

Zadoff: The real question is how we reach young people and win them over. To do that, we need experience with digital formats, even though that’s certainly not the key to unlocking everything. We are currently working on the Departure Neuaubing app about a former forced labor camp in the west of Munich, and we’re collaborating with computer game developers on that. For example, there’s this very successful German computer game called Through the Darkest of Times, a strategy game about how to survive in the resistance against a dictatorship. Unlike many of the awful games about World War II, in this one you learn a lot about the social contexts of the Nazi era.

Many are saying that we need to place an even greater focus on social history, on how perpetrator societies function, on how a society responds to mechanisms of habituation, exclusion and criminalization. Would you agree?

Zadoff: We had an exhibition in 2019 called The City Without. Jews Foreigners Muslims Refugees. It was about whether certain mechanisms that operate in different historical situations are comparable. There is a model in genocide research that describes five stages in the process of how groups come to be persecuted. It starts with polarization, scapegoating and loss of empathy for them and goes on to isolated violence against them and finally systematic persecution. I believe that this describes a great deal of what goes beyond the usual black-and-white portrayal of perpetrator and victim. It makes us able to see the gray zones of desolidarization, loss of empathy. In the famous television interview with Günter Gaus from 1964, Hannah Arendt describes it like this: 1933 was not a shock because the Nazis were the Nazis. We knew who the Nazis were and what they were doing. 1933 was a shock because our friends were no longer our friends.

Wünschmann: In Holocaust Studies, the focus is increasingly on societies as a whole, not just on perpetrators and victims, but also on the large group of so-called bystanders. And that kind of research approach can cause fierce controversy. In Poland, for example, Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski were recently put on trial for describing in their wide-ranging social history Night Without End how exclusion and persecution functioned in the microcosm of Polish communities. In research, those are exactly the dynamics we need to examine in minute detail, the small steps and decisions, the signs that enabled discrimination to occur in the familiar environment.

Disquieting memorials: The concentration camp Gusen-Mauthausen. In the exhibition entitled “It’s possible that they won’t kill us and they might allow us to live”, the Documentation Center recently presented a selection of the photographs taken by Heimrad Bäcker, who assembled a detailed pictorial record of the site.

© mumok Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, donation from Michael Merighi

After the end of the Second World War, part of the area occupied by the concentration camp Gusen-Mauthausen was used for the cultivation of mushrooms.

© mumok Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, donation from Michael Merighi

Remains of the iron used in the foundations of the Grosse Halle in the Mauthausen concentration camp.

© mumok Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, donation from Michael Merighi

The death ramp at Mauthausen concentration camp

© mumok Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, donation from Michael Merighi

Dissection table at Mauthausen

© mumok Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, donation from Michael Merighi

Close-up of a section of railway track

© mumok Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, donation from Michael Merighi

Places of remembrance

Joe Biden’s memoir Promise Me, Dad was published in Germany right before the U.S. election. In it, the current president recalls visiting the Dachau concentration camp memorial site with his granddaughter and garnishes his account with the rebuke that “they had softened the cruel edges over the years”. In the prisoners’ barracks, for example, he said the bunks looked “clean”, their frames “varnished”. What misunderstanding of the purpose of such places of remembrance as Dachau does Biden’s rebuke reveal?

Brenner: Perhaps many visitors to memorial sites are disappointed that things don’t look the way they do in the movies. The memorial sites have done a lot in the past 20 years to convey to visitors what it was really like back then. And that doesn’t mean rebuilding the barracks exactly true to the original.

Zadoff: Until recently on display in our building are photos by Heimrad Bäcker, who obsessively took around 15,000 photographs of the former Mauthausen and Gusen concentration camps in Upper Austria early on. At that time, large parts of them were still overgrown with vegetation. That reflects how unpopular these places of remembrance were. When you look at some of the photos, it’s hard to know what to make of them today. Like the one of a sign for a mushroom farm at the gates of Gusen, with children playing next to it.

What role can these sites play in the future? After all, there are around 300 official memorial sites in Germany.

Wünschmann: I did a lot of work on the former Osthofen concentration camp near Worms. The camp there was set up in March 1933 in an empty paper factory in the middle of the town, at the time when the Nazis were establishing a dense network of places of terror throughout Germany. Today, Osthofen is home to a memorial site. And occasionally you can actually see the disappointment in the visitors’ faces, which sometimes culminates in the absurd question of where the gas chamber used to be. But when you then tell them how some of the guards and the prisoners knew each other personally because they had gone to school together or had been neighbors, show them how quickly a social structure can break down and split into the persecutors and the persecuted, then something happens in your audience. And therein lies the potential of our decentralized memorial landscape: it makes it possible to engage with the local history, the micro-history of Nazi violence. In this way, many things can be dealt with in a completely different way than on a field trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Zadoff: Places of remembrance are currently experimenting with many different ways of reaching people, such as augmented reality and apps. In Munich, the former forced labor camp of the Reichsbahn railways in Neuaubing is set to become a place of remembrance. To date, all but two of the barracks are in use by artists and craftsmen, and a kindergarten and a children’s farm are also housed there. This haunting and forgotten place far from the center of town is a space where we want to make the past visible in a sensitive way. The question is, how do we integrate the emerging museum space into the local context? After all, the largest new housing development in Europe is being built right nearby in Freiham—it’s a great opportunity to get new Munich residents interested in the subject and the site itself.

Brenner: The general level of interest in concentration camp memorials is undimmed. Visitor numbers have gone up significantly over the past 10, 20 years, at least until the start of the pandemic. The number of visitors to the Dachau concentration camp memorial is the second highest of any Bavarian state institution after Neuschwanstein. Of course, a large proportion of the visitors come from abroad, and naturally there are many among them who don’t necessarily go there of their own free will, so to speak, but with their school class or another group.

Zadoff: The philosopher Jean Améry, himself a survivor, still feared in the 1960s that future generations of schoolchildren would learn nothing from Nazi history and would be quoting “Goethe and Himmler”. More recently, the American philosopher Susan Neiman, who lives in Germany, writes in her book Learning from the Germans about how “societies cope with past evils”. She writes with a view to the United States and says that some things have worked out quite well. But there is one thing that Germany has really failed on, and that is bringing back something of the visibility and presence of Jewish life that existed before 1933 and considering it quite natural.

Brenner: We must not make the mistake of only starting with 1933 when we’re talking about Jewish history in Germany. 2021 is an anniversary year, marking 1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany. So it is a very long history that shows that Jews are not strangers in this country, but have belonged here for as long as there have been Christians here. We have to show what was lost between 1933 and 1945, not only how it was destroyed, not only the act of extermination.

“Compatible with the world as experienced by contemporary teenagers”: Ari Folmann and David Polonsky have recounted the story told in “The Diary of Anne Frank” in the form of a graphic novel.

© Anne Frank Fonds - Basel via Getty Images

How to talk about the horror?

How can we talk about the Holocaustwhat is allowed? This remains an ongoing debate in Germany.

Wünschmann: Yes, time and again there have been heated debates over whether and in what form one is allowed to fictionalize what happened or write about it in a literary context. This applies to works of very, very different qualities, to novels and movies alike. Last winter semester, we examined that question in a seminar with students—using graphic novels as an example. The classic of the genre is Maus by Art Spiegelman. When the book came out in the 1980s, it caused a scandal. How dare he tell the story of a Holocaust survivor in the style of a comic book, critics said, and at the same time publicly air an intergenerational conflict that the author was fighting out with his father, the survivor? If you read this graphic novel now, with the distance of a good 30 years, it’s hard to see what was supposed to be so provocative about it. A lot has changed. Historical comics are now well established.

Let’s stick with graphic novels to sketch that out.

Zadoff: Yes, there are some good examples that deal with history in a very nuanced way, not only the history of the victims, but also the history of the perpetrators and the bystanders. Nora Krug’s Heimat, for example, is a fascinating examination of the role of her own family during the Nazi era. And David Polonsky and Ari Folman manage, with a combination of original text and fictional dialogue and images, to make The Diary of Anne Frank into something a modern-day teenager is able to connect with.

Looking beyond purely rational knowledge transfer, how else can the subject of the Holocaust be brought home to people?

Zadoff: Last year, we put on an art exhibition at the Munich Documentation Centre and deliberately placed some of the works in our permanent exhibition. Among them were works by post-migrant artists who were thereby written into the German discourse of remembrance. They were artists from Germany and from other countries too. The latter address traumas in other contexts and on other topics, such as structural racism and violence in the USA. What we were concerned with was who is talking about remembrance and how we want to do it in the future. We need a lively discourse that takes a stand; we shouldn’t ritualize remembrance too much. And we certainly must not simply rest on our culture of remembrance.

How did people react to it?

Zadoff: We had much more of a mixed audience than usual. We also received international attention. The London art magazine Frieze rated the exhibition as one of the ten most important in Europe in 2020. The show generated a productive dialog between academia and art. The audience saw it that way, too.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” in the version presented by Ari Folmann and David Polonsky, which combines the original text with illustrations and fictitious dialogs.

© Anne Frank Fonds - Basel via Getty Images

Clicking through history: Digital forms of remembrance

Ten years ago, media artist Michaela Melian caused a sensation with her Memory Loops project: She put a map of Munich on the internet with dozens of places circled on it. With one click, you could play a soundtracksometimes it was a story of persecution, sometimes about terror in everyday life, sometimes the biography of a perpetrator, sometimes somebody’s file. Was this something like the beginnings of a multimedia treatment of the topic?

Zadoff: You often get the feeling that digital projects are the quickest to age. But the Memory Loops, which were previously only available digitally, will now have a place in our building. They are essential for the history of remembrance in Munich.

Wünschmann: The Memory Loops have actually created something like a digital topography of remembrance for Munich. Last semester, we used them on one of our courses as a kind of case study. In an online seminar, students from LMU and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem worked together on projects dealing with public history, about how history is presented in the public sphere. The students each had to navigate their way around a foreign city and its landscape of remembrance in order to develop their own public history projects. What and how do people remember in Munich and Jerusalem? What possibilities do digital technologies offer?

There are now big archives full of recorded interviews with contemporary witnesses. There are also digital projects that allow the witnesses to tell their stories virtually. What has been the reaction to this?

Wünschmann: In the U.S. in particular, people are experimenting with holograms of contemporary witnesses. At LMU, there’s the Learning with digital testimonies (LediZ)-project that uses 3D projections of first-hand witnesses who can answer questions about the past. The real witnesses have previously recorded hundreds of possible answers, and an algorithm selects the most appropriate ones. Such forms of presentation are still in the experimental stages. We have to keep a critical watch over it all and see how it goes.

Zadoff: It has certainly met with a controversial reaction, people asking if such technical solutions are appropriate for the subject matter. Like everything technical and digital, projections can also go faulty and—critics fear—be manipulated. However, such controversy can also be very fruitful, as the prominent example of Schindler’s List shows. When the film was first released in 1993, there was a great deal of criticism—and a very broad debate, initiated by documentary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, over whether it was even possible to depict the horror of it.

Almost 30 years have passed since then. How would you want people to be talking about the Holocaust in ten years’ time?

Wünschmann: I hope we continue to talk about our history in a critical and enlightened way, and that the Holocaust has a central place in that.

Brenner: Perhaps in ten years’ time we will have reached the point where we no longer have to debate whether to draw a line under the Holocaust, but accept it as a matter of course as part of German history.

Zadoff: I agree with that, and I would like to see a responsibility for our present actions that’s derived from remembrance.

Moderation: Hubert Filser and Martin Thurau

© Stephan Rumpf

Contributors to the discussion:

Prof. Michael Brenner holds the Chair of Jewish History and Culture at LMU and the Seymour and Lillian Abensohn Chair in Israel Studies at the American University in Washington DC. Brenner, born in 1964, studied Jewish Studies and History at the Center for Jewish Studies (HfJS) and the University of Heidelberg, with a period of study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He earned his doctorate at Columbia University, New York, and taught and conducted research at Indiana University in Bloomington and Brandeis University in Waltham, USA, before coming to LMU in 1997

© Thomas Wieland

Dr. Kim Wünschmann has since 2017 been a research associate in LMU’s Department of Contemporary History and academic coordinator of LMU’s collaboration with the Center for Holocaust Studies at the Leibniz Institute of Contemporary History (IfZ). Wünschmann studied Jewish Studies, Political Science and Psychology at Freie Universität Berlin. She received her PhD in history from Birkbeck College at the University of London, UK.

© Orla Connolly

Dr. Mirjam Zadoff has been director of the Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism in Munich since May 2018. Zadoff, born in 1974, studied History and Jewish Studies at the University of Vienna and received her PhD in Modern and Contemporary History and Jewish History and Culture from LMU, where she also completed her second book (Habilitation). From 2014 to 2019, she was Professor of History and holder of the Alvin H. Rosenfeld Chair of Jewish Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, USA.

End of Testimony? is the title of a current special exhibition at the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism.

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