We meet on a draughty, cold platform at Hamburg Central Station at 9:30 a.m. on a Monday morning in January, cutting it quite close. The S-Bahn we need to catch is due to arrive in just a few minutes and since we’re meeting our guide – or more like a regional expert – on the train, we really shouldn’t miss it. “We” are GDL members Julie August and Banu Pekol as well as me, here to provide support on behalf of the GDL Secretariat. We are on our way to Neuengamme concentration camp, which was the largest concentration in North-West Germany. Today, Julie, Banu and I are joining forces with Barbara Brix, an activist for and expert in the field of memory culture, to discuss a difficult topic, the topic of “Memory in Presence – Memorial Sites for Empowering Peacebuilding”. To understand how this site visit came about, let’s briefly rewind the clock to 2017.
A Need for More Action: How we ended up in Neuengamme
In 2017, Banu participated in the GDL’s 6th and 7th Lab, the Incubator and Impact Lab tackling the issue of mass atrocity prevention. Julie was invited to participate in the 6th Lab in Argentina as a local gallery tour guide and as part of the documentation team. In the summer of 2017, she officially became a member and joined the Impact Lab. They were both moved on not only a general, but also on a very personal emotional level by the content of the Labs. In addition, they also both thought that the two Labs weren’t enough, that more work needed doing. The idea for a Lab focussing on “Memory in Presence – Memorial Sites for Empowering Peacebuilding” was born. The objective of the Lab is to develop a training course for diplomats as well as staff members working in memorial sites and museums.
Julie’s wife Lili Furió is the child of an Argentinian perpetrator and the co-founder of the collective ”Historias Desobedientes – descendants of perpetrators”. She fights for memory, truth and justice despite the contradictions and discussions that this causes within families. Barbara’s father was a member of the Nazi “Einsatzgruppen” (task forces), responsible for the deaths of countless people in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe during the regime. How do you reconcile yourself with the fact that one of your parents was involved in mass atrocities? Barbara decided decades ago that she would dedicate a large part of her life to raising awareness and championing memory culture. Julie and Banu decided to use the GDL network, the expertise and the various different perspectives that the members have to create a training course for staff working at memory sites and museums as well as for diplomats in order to sensitise them to memory culture.
For Descendants of Victims and Perpetrators: A Site of Memory
Once at Neuengamme, Banu and I head off to explore the exhibition and part of the grounds by ourselves, whilst Julie and Barbara have a meeting for a book project, also on memory culture. The building complex is vast and empty – both in a non-crowded way, but also in a harmless, “these are just buildings” kind of way. They’re not. From 1938 to 1945, over 100,000 prisoners came through Neuengamme and its more than 85 satellite camps. Thousands and thousands of lives were lost here. Descendants of people interred at the camp come to visit every year, but they’re not the only ones. For descendants of perpetrators come, too. It’s painful either way, because you’re facing your own past – family members lost to death or to a system they fervently believed in, which alienated them from you.
Re-joined by Julie and Barbara, we walk across the grounds and pause by a model of the concentration camp. Barbara explains where the prisoners were housed, she shows us drawings made by inmates portraying the terrible conditions they had to live in, the rags they had to wear. It doesn’t matter which concentration camp you go to, or whether it’s in Germany, Austria or Poland – the conditions under which the prisoners were forced to exist were equally terrible and austere. As painful as it is hearing about these things, for people who don’t know what became of their deported relatives or whose family members never made it out of the camp it’s a way to make sense of their own history. In one part of the exhibition in Neuengamme, there are ledgers with the names of everyone interred at Neuengamme. An entire room is filled with red folders outlining the life stories of some of the prisoners, the ones about whom enough information was available. It’s a room stuffed to the brim with history, full of memory and of remembering.
Where there are Victims, there are Perpetrators
As we continue our walk across the grounds, Barbara says, “Where there are victims, there are always perpetrators, too.” In Neuengamme, the debate about whether or not to include the perpetrators in the exhibition was a heated one. Many people were afraid that doing so would lead to neo-Nazis pilgrimaging there, so they decided to keep that part of the exhibition as sparse and purely informative as possible. The local population in Neuengamme distanced themselves from the memorial site for a long time, a phenomenon that has also been observed frequently in the case of other concentration camps such as Dachau. “The locals need to take a stand, you can’t just say that you’re from Dachau and leave it at that”, Julie says.
We enter the part of the exhibition focusing on the perpetrators. Barbara shows us some statistics: only a minute fraction of all perpetrators were ever tried in court for their crimes. Again, that’s not limited to Germany either, so Julie jumps in, “By now, many of the military elite responsible for the atrocities in Argentina are well into their seventies and eighties. Often, they aren’t tried in court at all since they are not deemed fit enough. Just as often, that’s not true.” As a result, the descendants of victims, but also perpetrators are denied closure and justice.
No Justice: What to do when the State fails
To illustrate the point that the state sometimes fails to enforce justice, Barbara tells us about Hohenlychen sanatorium. During the Nazi regime, many SS doctors were either trained in or stationed at Hohenlychen. Moreover, they conducted unethical medical experiments on humans there to find a cure for sepsis. The human beings they experimented on were oftentimes recruited from Ravensbrück concentration camp which was nearby. The Nazi elite, on the other hand, used the sanatorium for entirely different purposes: they mainly holidayed there. About a year ago, Barbara received a letter from fellow activists telling her that they had stumbled across the remains of the sanatorium when out for a biking trip. The building was partly still in ruins, partly already renovated. Tucked away in the bushes, they found a small sign. It said that the sanatorium was used for NS-compliant activities during the Second World War. Outraged by the insensitive tone of the plaque, they reached out to the mayor of the city of Lychen, asking him to change and update it. It took a really long time, several more letters from Barbara, as well as the head of Ravensbrück concentration camp and a local politican getting involved before they received an answer from the mayor. It was agreed that the plaque would be changed so it would tell the history of Hohenlychen sanatorium in a more appropriate manner. Without them, without the perseverance of civil activists, nothing would have happened. That’s no exception and not limited to Germany, either.
History Undiscovered: Why a Transational Approach to Memory Culture is needed
Stumbling across historically significant sites and remains by accident happens in Argentina frequently enough, too. Almost all families have some connection to the military dictatorship, be it because they have a “desaparecido” (missing person) in their family, because someone in the family was a perpetrator, a victim, a partner from civil society or part of a company that benefited from it. There is still so much history that needs to be properly dealt with and a comprehensive, compassionate memory culture is still only an illusion. The site visit to Neuengamme concentration camp and the stories Barbara and Julie told us about the in some ways shockingly similar things that happened on both sides of an ocean showed how very much a transnational approach to memory culture is needed.
About the author:
Lea Schindler is passionate about what makes other people tick. Not only does she enjoy delving into her fellow humans’ stories, but she also loves sharing those stories, be they in a personal or – as is the case with the GDL – professional environment. As a PR consultant, she brings her knowledge and expertise in the world of media to the table to ensure that the members’ stories reach as wide an audience as possible.
Photo Credit: Lea Schindler
Published on April 14, 2022.