Students at the Bauhaus University in Weimar have tackled a project that until now no one had seriously contemplated: What sort of souvenir could you sell at a concentration camp?
Walking the narrow line between taste and disrespect
Apart from a few books, some post cards and the memory of the bare, haunting swath of hilltop that once served as the backdrop for Holocaust crimes, there's little a visitor can take home from the site of the former Buchenwald concentration camp.
Beginning next year, that could change.
Souvenirs and mementos created by design students at the nearby Bauhaus University in Weimar are slated to start appearing in the museum gift shop in time for a memorial service next year marking 60 years since the camp's liberation.
The souvenir project, a collaboration between the association that runs the Buchenwald site and museum and the university, is designed to bring much-needed money into the association's coffers while breaking controversial new ground.
"There have been no other camps that have undertaken something like this," Olaf Theuerkauf, who heads the Buchenwald association, said in an interview with DW-WORLD. "Probably because nobody trusted themselves enough."
Running the risk of frivolity
Successive generations of Germans have learned to remember the crimes of the Holocaust with a mixture of guilt and reflection. The subject is handled with delicacy in German classrooms and in countless books and documentaries.The concentration camp sites themselves are intentionally void of any sort of commercialization.
Auschwitz has not and will not sell souvenirs
"(Visitors) take away memories, or emotions, or photographs, maybe," Jarek Mensfelt, of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, told DW-WORLD. "We don't have something like pencils with Auschwitz printed on it and we don't intend to. It would mean commercializing it."
Buchenwald officials felt the same way until visitors began asking them if they had any plans to sell mementos or small souvenirs in their gift shop. The query sparked a discussion between the association and the Bauhaus design school that led to the creation of a 12-week long course.
"I was curious to see the young students' discussions, how they approached the subject, how they got close to it … and at what point they might overstep their boundaries," said Theuerkauf. He said he was open to the possibility that nothing might come out of it.
Many of the students felt the same way.
"I was skeptical that you could even make something like a souvenir. For me, everything that can hurt a person is taboo," Sabine Hipp, 21, told DW-WORLD at an exhibition of the students' work in Weimar last week.
Intimacy with the subject
Theuerkauf and professors at the university began by taking the class on a three-day intensive tour of Buchenwald. They pored over the concentration camp's archive, heard lectures on what had happened at the site and gathered first impressions, many of which led to some of the first souvenir ideas.
Hipp created a small booklet featuring a black and white photo of one of the victims in pre-camp times and their life story, gleaned from the camp's archives. The pamphlet, which was among the objects slated for possible sale, is designed to accompany the visitor throughout the concentration camp.
"I wanted to pull a person out of this mass of people and numbers, and I wanted to pick a photo that the victim themselves would have picked," she said.
Proposed button souvenir
Other students used Germany's postwar constitution as inspiration, copying quotations from the paragraphs dealing with human rights onto small plaques, or wristbands. One used the thousands of buttons unearthed on the site as a metaphor, creating a simple, clear button pin with 'Buchenwald' inscribed on it.
The right generation for the job
Tom Hanke, a 23-year-old design student, planted sprigs of Buche, or beech tree, that is the camp's namesake in small pots that can be taken home by visitors. After some initial wariness, he too said he came around to the idea of providing visitors something tangible to bring home from the camp.
Hanke's souvenir idea is a beech tree sprig planted in a small pot
"Sometimes not just the knowledge, but the feeling that you have (in Buchenwald) is easier to translate into an object than into writing," he said.
Theuerkauf said this generation of Germans was perhaps the best suited to tackle such a emotional project. The past and their responsibility to remember remains a weight on today's generations, but not one heavy enough to deny them the necessary distance needed to work pragmatically on the project.
"We're the third generation, we are not the ones directly affected and that simply changes the way you think about it," said Stefan Unholtz, who created an anti-fascist sticker that one can put over neo-Nazi graffiti.
There are still a number of questions that remain, such as what the souvenirs will look like in their final form and where and how they will be displayed. The biggest question of them all -- will anyone buy them -- won't get answered before next year.
But Theuerkauf is optimistic.
"Maybe one person will put the souvenir on their desk, another person will put in a drawer, yet another may carry it out around with them in their pocket," said Theuerkauf. "I think everyone has a different way of looking at this."