Oblivion and memorialisation: legacies of Nazi persecution in Europe
By Thea G R Cassel, on 6 February 2014
With the approach of Holocaust Memorial Day, this Lunch Hour Lecture was aptly timed. I entered the lecture with feelings of interest and curiosity, but also inevitable apprehension
Having attended another of Professor Mary Fulbrook’s (UCL German) lectures on the Holocaust at last year’s UCL Festival of the Arts, I knew that she was a passionate and brilliant speaker who provokes the audience into questioning not just what has happened in the past, but also how we remember it today.
However, the subject being as sensitive and traumatic as it is, I wasn’t expecting an easy ride. I was pleasantly surprised.
Professor Fulbrook didn’t delve too far into gory details and instead focused on the places and people we remember from the Holocaust, and what they tell us about what and who we remember at the expense of others who have been marginalised by our memorialisation.
As the topic unravelled, we looked at iconic sites of our memorialisation, in particular Auschwitz.
We were informed that the average life expectancy of those working at the camp was just three months, which made the haunting words written above the gates, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work makes you free) seem more accurately translated into ‘extermination through labour’.
It is no wonder, then, that Auschwitz is a place that sticks so vividly in one’s mind as a site that encapsulates the horror that occurred during the Holocaust.
However, what of the other places that were also pivotal in the extermination of Jews in Hitler’s Third Reich? Places such as Chelmno, Sobibor or Mielec are also in Poland, and also have a rich and profound history, yet few people have visited or even heard of them.
Chelmno, situated not far from Warsaw, was the first site where victims were brought into forced labour and death rather than being targeted in their home towns.
The first cases of gassing were in Chelmno, and yet it is only with incredible determination that anyone can visit the site, because it is so hard to find. The memorials there, too, are minimal, with few but very personalised plaques on the wall.
A heart breaking example is a plaque from an older sister, who obviously had little money but needed something to mark her sister’s place of death, no matter how small.
It is not difficult to assess why it is that so little is known about Chelmno – there were only six or possibly seven survivors from the camp.
Similarly, Mielec is marginalised despite being the site of the first major deportation of Jews in 1942. In the town square where the victims were rounded up before being deported, there is no plaque or memorial.
On her visit there, Professor Fulbrook found that the only official memorial is hidden and bears a crudely drawn swastika that no one has bothered to remove.
Mielec’s concentration camp used to be where an aircraft factory now sits. Not a single one of the workers there knew of the building’s significance and history.
They searched the grounds and found a tiny memorial hidden away. The mass grave where hundreds of Jewish people are buried is unmarked and its knowledge will eventually disappear alongside those who do know of its existence.
There is only a tiny, hidden memorial at Mielec. The massive grave where hundreds of Jewish people are buried is unmarked and the knowledge it contains will eventually disappear, alongside those who do know of its existence.
The difficulties of memorialisation
It is not only places that we are selective about remembering, but also people. The mentally and physically disabled victims of a mass ‘euthanasia’ which officially began at the beginning of Hitler’s regime and continued until the end of the war, have virtually no memorials dedicated to them.
Memorials signifying the imprisonment and murder of thousands of homosexuals also came very late, mostly because when the war ended, being gay was still a criminal offence.
Even after the victims got out of the concentration camps, they were marginalised further by not being able to admit why they had been imprisoned.
What does seem incredible to me is the fact that we invest so much energy, emotion and money into the upkeep of memorials and exhibitions, which results in the generation of today metaphorically and literally paying for their ancestors’ mistakes.
And yet, comparatively little energy went into the prosecution and punishment of those who caused the genocide; of the 6,000–8,000 people who worked in Auschwitz, a mere 22 of them were ever put on trial.
Professor Fulbrook ended the lecture with a multitude of questions for us to consider:
Do memorials make us think hard enough? Are we obsessively creating huge memorials to ensure we remember past events, and in doing so, do we take take for granted that we are remembering the right things?
What about the people and places these memorials don’t include? Should we even have these memorials, or should we be trying to move towards the future without living with our ghosts?
You can watch Professor Fulbrook’s lecture below: