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Demanding Remembrance

How has the culture of remembrance changed over the years? That is the topic of an interview with Gerd Kühling, a research associate at the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site in Berlin, and Akim Jah, a research associate at the International Tracing Service (ITS). Together they edited the fourth volume of the ITS Fundstücke series published this year under the title Die Deportation der Juden aus Deutschland und ihre verdrängte Geschichte nach 1945.

What exactly is the fourth Fundstücke volume about?

Akim Jah: We outline the history of the deportations from Germany to the ghettoes and extermination camps, show what types of documents the ITS archive holds pertaining to the deportations, and then also take a look at how that aspect of history was dealt with after the liberation. The sociopolitical response to the deportations and the mass murder of the Jews was initially very reserved—to put it mildly. In both Germanys, West and East. This is especially evident in how the public addressed—or, more specifically, did not address—the deportations and the mass murder of the German Jews. But it’s also apparent in the urban space—that is, how the historical sites of the deportations were dealt with. Were monuments erected there, or if not monuments, were the sites at least identified in some way? And how were these initiatives carried out?

To present generations, it’s clear that remembrance is related directly to the actual people, to naming their names and recalling their individual fates. It hasn’t always been that way. When did this form of remembrance develop?

Gerd Kühling: You have to go back about 25 to 30 years. That’s when a few isolated memorials began working intensively with people who had witnessed the historical events, for example by inviting them to speak or participate in memorial activities. Of course there had already been survivors’ reports before that, but it was only then that a broader public began learning about and reflecting on the victims and survivors.

In the Fundstücke the concern is with the culture of remembrance in Eastern and Western Germany, particularly Berlin. How does Berlin differ from other cities?

Gerd Kühling: Berlin is a kind of crossroads. The coexistence of two different approaches to commemoration is especially apparent there. And back then, it had very direct consequences. You could literally see what was happening in the other part of the city, because Berlin had a special role. The border between the Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic was closed in 1952. In Berlin, however, it was still possible to go from east to west until 1961. That’s what brought about an exchange on the different concepts for “coming to terms with the past.”

Akim Jah: Berlin also played a special role in that it had been the capital of the Reich and home to Germany’s largest Jewish community. In the public space of Berlin, there are far more historical sites of Nazi crime than in other cities. The majority of deportations in the so-called Altreich (Old Reich) left from Berlin.

Gerd Kühling: What’s more, survivors of other victims’ groups were also active in Berlin, groups that demanded and pursued the remembrance of the Nazi crimes in the early post-1945 years. Regardless of whether or not Berlin deserves the epithet “Capital of Resistance”—in any case, members of the resistance did speak out strongly in favor of remembrance.

In the book, you call attention to a collection of documents that turned out to be especially important for remembering the Jewish deportees. Shortly after it was discovered in 1946, it was referred to in a newspaper article as a “paper cemetery.”

Akim Jah: The reference was to lists of the deportees’ names, drawn up by the Gestapo. Often they’re the only documentary proof of a person’s deportation or transport. After liberation, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee found the Berlin lists in the city’s financial administration. The Gestapo had sent them to the Chief Finance President’s so-called Department for the Utilization of Assets for the purpose of “liquidating” those assets. Today there are copies of the lists in the Main State Archive of Brandenburg in Potsdam. I learned that the originals are in the ITS archive in 2007, when I was working on my dissertation.

How large are the holdings?

Akim Jah: In connection with Berlin, there are lists of nearly 200 transports, 117 to Terezín and nearly 60 to ghettoes and extermination camps. There are only a very small number of cases in which no information has come down to us. The smallest transport comprised 19 persons, the largest over a thousand. The holdings also include lists pertaining to transports from other cities. That adds up to a lot of file folders and a lot of shelves. The documents were an important source for information for families of the victims, but also for commemoration initiatives and numerous research projects. And even if a lot of questions have already been answered from the research point of view, the material offers potential for further research based on the names on the lists. The ITS archive is especially helpful when it comes to reconstructing biographies. In many cases, there are other documents in the archive as well, providing information about individual persecution histories and, in the case of the survivors, also about the years after 1945.

Were the deportation lists used for commemoration projects right after they were found?

Gerd Kühling: No. In the early post-war years, commemoration in the public realm was very general in nature. There were no references to specific names or the actual sites of crimes. Nor did anyone talk about what had happened to the people, the fact that they were murdered in extermination camps. Commemoration became ever more specific over the decades. Gradually the first plaques and monuments turned up in the cityscape, some of them listing locations, for example. This specification process reached an initial culmination in 1995 with the dedication of a large monument—the Spiegel gegen das Vergessen (Mirror Against Oblivion)—in Steglitz listing the names of the deportees from that district of Berlin. I find it an extremely powerful experience to stand there and read the mass of names of people whose identities, in a sense, are thus being returned to them. Another example of commemoration of the victims by name are the Stolpersteine memorial stones, the first of which were installed in Berlin in 1996.

The Stolpersteine are a subject of controversial discussion. What’s your opinion?

Gerd Kühling: I think very highly of the project. It’s a way of getting people who aren’t historians acquainted with the theme and inspiring people to reflect on their neighborhood. Who used to live in this building? What happened to them? So-called Stolpersteine walks also evolved from the project—guided tours about the history of a neighborhood and the fates of the persecution victims. The Stolpersteine cleaning campaigns, for example on November 9, are another good thing. Stolpersteine offer people interested in history a means of reflecting critically on the topic. Of the nearly 7,000 Stolpersteine in Berlin, more than 90 percent are dedicated to Jewish victims of persecution. To an increasing degree, they’re also being dedicated to members of other groups of persecution victims.

Akim Jah: I think it’s important to take the families’ viewpoint into account. I know that it’s important to many of them to install a stone in memory of a relative who was murdered, or to know that such a stone has been installed.