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“The fates were very different”

Travelling circus people during the National Socialist era are the focus of an interdisciplinary European research project. Project director Malte Gasche of the Centre for Nordic Studies at the University of Helsinki describes the background and aims of the research and the project’s use of various events to reach the broad public. The International Tracing Service (ITS) is one of the group’s network partners.

How did the idea of launching a project on circus people during the Nazi era come about?

Until now, many aspects of this topic have been mere wallflowers in the field of research on the Holocaust. In my capacity as Finland’s representative in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and member of the Committee on the Roma Genocide, I became very aware of that. It took ages for people to start showing an interest in other victim groups. Consider, for example, the Yenish people and their fates under National Socialism. And one reason we know so little about travelling circus folk is that they have no lobby and there are no written sources. A lot of what happened was only passed down orally. The information gap is very great.

What’s your particular concern?

Circuses brought a lot of people together. There were Sinti and Roma, Yenish, and also Jewish circus owners. The Nazi regime began taking action against these people early on: some couldn’t furnish proof that they were Aryans; others were branded as being asocial. Many were suspected of espionage because they crossed national borders. But circuses also offered advantages, as some of the biographies show. Victims of persecution managed to hide in circuses and survive. The fates were very different.

You emphasize the European aspect in this project. Why?

For various reasons. Circus people have never conformed to society’s ideals, not then and not now. In April 1940, even before German troops occupied France, the French ministry of the interior issued a decree ordering the internment of all nomadic groups. Stereotypes, ostracism and persecution were and are prevalent in many countries. It’s a Europe-wide phenomenon. On the other hand, the circus has been a European institution for centuries. Circus families consider themselves European; they marry European. These days, though, the transnational life of travelling circus families is coming to an end, dying out, complete with its traditions and artistry.

The pilot project started in 2017. At one of the first events, a trapeze artist performed. So research isn’t the only objective?

No, we don’t want the project to be limited to research. On May 21, which is International Museum Day, we’re going to be at the museum festival of the Museum Europäischer Kulturen in Berlin. The festival will feature a performance by the “Circus in Nationalsozialismus” (The Circus under National Socialism) project group in collaboration with our pilot project, “Diverging Fates: Travelling Circus People in Europe under National Socialism”. The show will tell the story of the Jewish circus artist Irene Bento, who survived the Holocaust along with some of her family by hiding in the Circus Adolf Althoff. It will combine live music, text and artistry to convey history in a very memorable manner. We’re convinced that school classes, for example, can gain a far better understanding of the topic if the stories of individual persecuted artists are told in the form of circus performances. That will make these fates far more comprehensible, in a sense even ‘experienceable’. And with events like this we want to address a larger target group. One initial step in that direction was our website, which went online on World Circus Day, April 15.

Who’s involved in the project and what institutions support you financially?

Our international team consists of five scholars, all with differing research focuses. One is an experienced anthropologist who has already worked with Roma and will make contact to circus people for research purposes. The project, which is initially slated to run for two years, is funded by the IHRA, the Fondation pour le Mémorial de la Shoah, the Finnish Academy and the Finnish Kone Foundation.

You’re also cooperating with the ITS and you’ve already carried out some research in the ITS archive.

Yes, through the IHRA I made the acquaintance of the former ITS director, who supported us with letters of recommendation. When we were at the ITS several months ago and asked Henning Borggräfe about forced laborers in the circus, he was able to give us good tips for further research and also some valuable contacts. From a certain point onward, circus technicians as well as musicians and artists had to be replaced. The propaganda ministry supported circus performances as a non-political form of entertainment that could be used to showcase strength, but also—by way of the wild animal acts—discipline and order. People in Poland, Russia and Ukraine have written to the ITS in search of relatives last known to have been working in circuses. Henning Borggräfe pointed out to us that the topic of forced labor in circuses has never yet been researched. That’s a new and very interesting perspective. Next year we’d like to bring our exhibition to Bad Arolsen because we’d like to show a number of the results we obtained with material from the ITS archive.

Website "Diverging Fates": www.divergingfates.eu