By Samantha Stewart, Berlin trip participant, Together, Restoring their Names fellow, and student at Wellesley College
History. Often times a graduation requirement for a student to check off, possibly without realizing history is not confined just to the past. Rather, we are history. We are participants, and not just now in 2017. We impact what happened in World War II and the Holocaust. Our role is remembering and investigating the past; for us it is not written in stone. It is living.
I had considered the vehicle of knowledge as objective. Some clear vessel that did not have its own story. Something unworthy of investigation. Just two weeks ago this thought was challenged and upended through my participation in Together, Restoring their Names. This program took college students, like myself, to sites in Berlin to learn more about the Holocaust and memory work through the lens of gender.
This series of experiences taught me more than I can convey. At the center was the obvious and hidden role of memory work. How we choose to engage in memory work is indicative of our time, society, and sentiments.
A few hours north from our hotel in Berlin, we toured the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück. The barracks in the former camp were destroyed. In fact, when the Soviet Union occupied the area they repurposed the camp as an army training facility. Since reunification, the camp transformed again. A visitor center has been erected outside the walls and the former administrative building now acts as a museum. It holds artifacts and tells the stories of the lives and horrors of the women when they were held in the camp, town, and surroundings.
I found the use of the administrative building as a sort of museum to be an interesting choice. The building did not just hold artifacts; it was an artifact. When first stepping in the door a patch of the wall stood out, especially worn. Our guide explained that leaving the wall in that condition was intentional because in that space there used to hang the German eagle holding the Nazi swastika. It was a clear reminder of the original purpose of the building. A mark so inconspicuous in the post-war rebuilding era that it could be easily missed without a knowledgeable guide to explain the story.
Upon entering the former camp, we gathered in the check-in building as a shelter from the wind, cold, and snow that rivaled the weather at home in Boston and acted as a reminder of what these women endured. This building was transformed into a memorial for all of the women and children who died in—and because of—the concentration camp. On a table at the center was a book filled with names, and accompanying birth and death year. Some of the victims remain nameless; it will never be complete.
In order for the atrocities that occurred to be accepted by the general public, the Nazis systematically dehumanized the victims. As such, in remembering we must be conscious of that purpose and remind ourselves and others of the humanity of the targets. Accomplishing that with just words, or trying to comprehend the sheer scale of the horror, is challenging. A picture speaks a thousand words, physical objects speak more. An artist created a piece in the old check-in building to emphasize the humanity of the victims, a pairing to round out the names of the deceased in the book.
On paper it sounds like the productive remembrance. As the guide told a story of a survivor of the camp we were asked to examine exactly what the artist did and what the images really showed. They were all black and white, indicative of their time. The women were not smiling. They faced forward, some photos paired with another slight angle off to the side that showed an ear. Mugshots.
The photos were taken shortly after the arrest of these women. They are seen through the perpetrators eyes, without their consent. They depict both women who died and those who survived, a choice that seems at odds with the purpose to pair the display to the book of the deceased. The images remain nameless without a plaque to tell observers of even the most basic facts about their lives. The survivors were not asked or informed of the use of their images, and one cannot ask the dead.
The attempt to reclaim the humanity and livelihood of the people may have re-victimized them. The artist’s interpretation of honoring the victims may not be the same as an observer or survivor. Does that mean it is wrong and should be removed? No, if we removed every controversial memorial to the victims of the Holocaust there would be few left. Every person interprets art differently.
This experience, coaxed out by the guide leading us in an examination, sparked my interest in questioning how we remember, what we remember, and ultimately why we emphasize those aspects in the memory work today.
That same tour guide led us through the layers of history. We stand on the same ground and see the wall erected by the Soviet Union, the camp built by the Nazis, and the learning center today. It is powerful and eerie. When the Soviets occupied this part of Germany they created their own memorial. Its purpose was to lift up the communist heroes in effective propaganda for the new government. They recognized the political dissidents in the camps, at the expense of ignoring the Jews and many other victims.
We saw some of the lives of those who perished and were displaced while walking through the heart of Berlin. We followed the stolperstein, or stumbling stones, that mark the last chosen residence of a victim of the Holocaust with a copper stone engraved with their name, deportation, and other information. Our guide started the tour off by asking which groups of people were targeted by the Nazis to be sent to camps. Our group got most of them: Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, disabled people, and political dissidents.
We had missed asocials, a group she explained that was so broad that it could encompass any person that appeared “unfit” for Germany society. The homeless and sex workers were part of this group. She made the point that these victims are usually excluded from our discussions of the Holocaust. Why?
How we remember and what we remember, like the Soviets, reflects our society and what we deem important to remember. We recognize the horrendous racism present but let the marginalization of asocials go unnoticed. In today’s society, sex workers and homeless people are still stigmatized. If we remembered them as victims of the Holocaust we would be forced to reexamine how we treat and look at them today.
Here is where I find the idea of living history to be especially powerful. How we choose to remember and perform memory work has an impact on what the history was. Our relationship with any point in history is constantly evolving. How we engage with an event changes how current and future generations learn from and view that event.
While meeting with government officials it struck me how recent some of these Holocaust related positions, buildings, and memorial sites were established. The creation of these tools for memory work in my lifetime seemed at odds with how distant the Holocaust was. What I learned on this trip was that history is not over.
The story of the Holocaust did not end when Hitler was defeated and the concentration camps were liberated. The story continues today. Our memory work and interaction with the history keeps it alive. We have a duty to reengage with it, examine different angles, and question how we represent it. Everyone will not agree on the best way to perform memory work, but the job is not over. It never will be. History is living.