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Interviews with Contemporary Witnesses in the Fore

On 17 and 18 November 2011, the 14th conference of the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship and the Association against Oblivion – For Democracy in conjunction with the International Tracing Service (ITS) was held in Bad Arolsen. 40 participants – among them senior staff from memorial centres, educators and teachers from institutes for political education and representatives from associations working on projects with contemporary witnesses – attended this year’s meeting. Oral history – as perceived in the stories of contemporary witnesses – was in the fore of the conference.

The beginning of this year’s meeting was marked by its attendants’ joint visit to the ITS, an institution that preserves approximately 30 million documents including a huge number of person-related records for about 17.5 million victims and survivors of National Socialist persecution. Here, they were provided with a general insight into the records and mandates of the ITS and especially into the research field and the educational activities.

Susanne Urban, Head of the Research Department with the ITS, considers oral history an important means of teaching the substance of history. She emphasizes: “Although the ITS lacks audio tapes or video clips by survivors of Nazi persecution, we have all those documents at hand here that flank, illustrate and complement their memories.” The holdings on Displaced Persons (DPs), for instance, include questionnaires that were completed by the survivors themselves immediately after the war. They are the very first pieces of a written memory process set in motion by the victims themselves.

“It is both exciting and instructive an experience to compare this information provided by the DPs and the, in part, most comprehensive letters from the correspondence files the victims had sent to the ITS with the interviews recorded these last years by the Shoah Foundation and other organisations“, historian Alexander von Plato gives his opinion. “And it is most interesting to see how the accounts survivors give of their fate vary in colour when they are asked to speak about it again after some time has elapsed.” Plato for his part acquainted his conference colleagues with an interview project he initiated with contemporary witnesses on the “Bombardment of Dresden on 13 February 1945”.  

Apart from actively addressing and discussing in detail the history and the holdings of the ITS and the Dresden interview project, the participants of the conference were introduced into various contemporary witnesses’ projects relating to the history of the German Democratic Republic and a project that cast light on the view that young people of Turkish origin take on the Fall of the Berlin Wall and on German Reunification. The meeting also broached and debated on the experience memorial centres, institutes of political education, but also staff working on exhibitions, film projects or events had gained with contemporary witnesses. “One of our focuses was the question: How shall we continue remembrance work when there will be no contemporary witnesses any more?” says Ernst Klein, Against Oblivion – For Democracy e.V.