Today, January 27th, is the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust. It was established in 2005 by the United Nations (UN), which thus took up the day of remembrance of the victims of Nazism. It has been marked in Germany since 1997, on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.
Texts and images
Texts and images about the crimes of National Socialism have already been used by the Allies directly after the end of the war specifically for the purpose of education. They painfully tell WHAT happened, the extent of all the horror. But precisely because of this extent, other means are needed to convey the HOW. The mediation through text and images often remains a documentation with distance. Temporally and spatially, these events seem far away. This is also how I remember it from my own school days. I had nothing to do with these events myself. This is probably a natural human protective reaction.
For the mediation of the HOW and the overcoming of such distancing strategies, real experiences in the form of encounters, encounters with people and encounters with places are needed.
People who tell about their own experiences during the time of National Socialism tell differently than images and texts do. Their stories convey immediacy, closeness. It is less important which experiences they report, whether they are particularly terrible or extreme. What is more decisive is the communication from person to person. From this point of view, anyone who has or had people in their family or other social environment who have told them about the past and who have not followed the frequent pattern of silence can consider themselves lucky. Recognition is also due to those who go into schools to tell about the past and to those who are committed to arranging such contacts, such as the Berlin-based Verein Zeitzeugen e.V. (Contemporary Witnesses Association). With regard to the National Socialist era, this possibility will soon no longer exist with the passing away of witnesses. Video archives such as that of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation record first-hand experiences for future generations. This too is undeniably valuable, but the immediacy of person-to-person communication has been lost.
Places, on the other hand, remain. In my opinion, the importance of authentic places for the culture of commemoration and remembrance cannot be overestimated. Of course, there are many individual questions regarding the way in which a historical place can and should be made into a place of experience, for example, through the means of documentation and reconstruction. However, there is no question that the authenticity of a place in itself creates a greater immediacy than any documentary or feature film, no matter how carefully researched or expensively produced.
A visit to the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, almost on my doorstep in Berlin, makes me understand something new every time, hurts every time, and makes me glad every time that this place exists as a memorial.
Most of the barracks are no longer standing, and their ground plans are now marked by gravel surfaces. The only two buildings remaining from the semicircle are the former kitchen (left) and the laundry (right).
At the edge of the semicircle there was – with a rectangular layout – the so-called Small Camp, where mainly Jewish people were interned until their deportation, and the camp prison. Here, some barracks and parts of the cell wing have been preserved. Unlike on the photo, the corridor for the inmates did not lead to the light, but mostly to death.
As at other memorial sites, the question arose in Sachsenhausen as to the means of making the original shape of the camp, which had been destroyed in parts, vivid. In 1961, the Sachsenhausen National Memorial was opened and a small section of the fence, marked with the sign Neutral Zone. There will be immediate firing without a call, was reconstructed.
For my next visit, I have resolved to devote myself exclusively to these memorial plaques and their countless names.
As important as the significance of authentic places is for the culture of remembrance and commemoration, it would be nothing without the link to the stories of life and suffering of people who could have been, or perhaps were, our grandparents, aunts, uncles or other relatives.