Berlin′s Holocaust memorial Nazi villa gets new director | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 01.12.2020
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Berlin's Holocaust memorial Nazi villa gets new director

Tackling anti-Semitism amid a pandemic: Deborah Hartmann takes the helm at the House of the Wannsee Conference, where top Nazis planned the "Final Solution."

Director of the House of the Wannsee Conference Deborah Hartmann

The new director of the House of the Wannsee Conference: Deborah Hartmann

Deborah Hartmann begins her role on December 1 as the new director of the House of the Wannsee Conference, a Berlin Holocaust memorial museum.

The luxury villa in Wannsee, a south-western suburb of Berlin, was where high-ranking Nazi and SS officials met in 1942 to plan the devastating "Final Solution" for Jews that saw some six million systematically murdered during World War II. 

Since the 50th anniversary in 1992 of the infamous conference, the building has served as an official museum and education center.

Hartmann was previously head of the German Desk of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem — Israel's official memorial and organization dedicated to preserving the memory of victims of the Holocaust.

She took on the directorship from historian and lawyer Hans-Christian Jasch, who returned to the Federal Interior Ministry in August, and interim director Elke Gryglewski.

The Wannsee house, which binds National Socialist crimes with the Jewish experience of the Shoah, represented a "particular challenge," Hartmann commented in a statement on her appointment.

She was "looking forward" to working with colleagues to develop further concepts and points of access for research and mediation within both global and local contexts.

House of the Wannsee Conference

In 1942, Nazi officials met in this lakeside villa to discuss their so-called Final Solution to the Jewish Question

Who is Deborah Hartmann?

The Vienna-native has a thorough academic background in politics and history. She was awarded an MA in Political Science from her home university and the Free University of Berlin in 2011, writing her thesis on "Europe and the memory of the Shoah."

Hartmann has applied her knowledge of Jewish history, National Socialism, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in professional settings: Following her work as a guide at the Jewish Museum Vienna, she moved on to positions with the American Jewish Committee in Berlin and with the project "Witnesses of the Shoah" at the Free University.

Between 2011 and 2014, Hartmann was the pedagogical representative of Yad Vashem to German-speaking countries, based in Berlin, before heading to Israel in 2015 to take up her most recent position.

Berlin's cultural community welcomes Hartmann

Klaus Lederer, the senator for Culture and Europe in Berlin, welcomed Hartmann's experience with teaching the Holocaust — vital at a memorial site that provides an extensive educational function. For example, the house offers workshops aimed at professionals, such as police officers or hospital staff, who face current ethical questions such as abuse of power or euthanasia.

"Mrs. Hartmann impressed with her promising, innovative ideas," said Lederer in a statement commenting on her appointment, announced in August. "The house wins a theoretically versed, competent leadership with international ties who carries the task of further developing of the center's educational work close to her heart," he added.

Elke Gryglewski, the acting director of the memorial and educational center, commented that Hartmann was known as "a colleague with extraordinary expertise in remembrance pedagogy."

Combating anti-Semitism amid a pandemic

Despite her experience in engaging people today with the past events, Hartmann's appointment comes at the end of a year that has presented tough challenges to Germany's remembrance culture: measures introduced to combat the COVID-19 pandemic meant memorials and museums were forced to physically close and digitalize their programs.

A yellow 'Jewish star' on a sleeve, with the word 'ungeimpft' (unvaccinated)

Symbols of the horrors of the Holocaust, such as the 'Jewish star,' have been misused in protests against coronavirus restrictions

Still, the rise of anti-Semitism and the far right in Germany means that the role of memorials showing the consequences of these ideologies — such as the House of the Wannsee Conference — are more important now than ever.

Hartmann outlined in an appeal published in the German-language Jewish newspaper, the Jüdische Allgemeine, in November that these challenges should be used "as a chance to reflect and contemplate our well-rehearsed cultural remembrance practice."

"Dealing with the past cannot only be done from a supposedly safe distance," she wrote, adding: "Yet, that does not by implication mean that physical participation in ever-repeating rituals automatically ensures one enters into a relationship with past events."

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