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Keeping Holocaust survivors' memory alive

Julia Hitz
July 7, 2022

What will follow when the last survivors of the Holocaust have died? An exhibition in Berlin looks into how their legacy can be handled responsibly.

Auschwitz concentration camp prisoners look towards the camera, from a crowded bed structure.
Auschwitz concentration camp survivors shortly after their liberation in January 1945Image: picture-alliance / akg-images

They endured immeasurable suffering and cruelty: As Holocaust survivors, they went on to serve as eyewitnesses, fulfilling an essential role in Germany since the end of World War II.

Now the last Holocaust survivors are dying of old age. Responsibility for their legacy is gradually moving into the hands of various institutions. This is not an easy process.

Even though eyewitnesses offer only one of many perspectives on history, their first-hand accounts have a corrective function and they remain important reminders of the past, on a personal level.

"Never again!" This oath is carved in stone in various languages at the memorial site of the former concentration camp Dachau. It is the central guideline of German domestic and foreign policy: to counter antisemitism, to defend Israel's right to exist, to remember the cruel decisions and deeds of the Nazis, and the many who supported them.

The exhibition "End of Testimony?" held from July 7, 2022 to January 8, 2023 at the New Synagogue in Berlin addresses the question of how museums, memorial sites and other institutions can responsibly handle the literary testimonies and video interviews of survivors. It is the result of a collaboration between the Jewish Museum Hohenems and the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp Memorial, in collaboration with the New Synagogue Foundation Berlin. The exhibition also places the eyewitnesses in a historical context: in Germany, the survivors only began to speak out more prominently in the 1980s.

exhibition display case a decorated box and another one with a book. the words 'perpetrators, victims, witnesses' can be read on a green wall.
A display from the exhibition 'End of Testimony?'Image: Anna Fischer

Holocaust survivors on the witness stand

Some eyewitnesses did share their testimonies directly after the war.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, in her twenties at the time, spoke in an interview with the BBC in 1945 as one of only a few Holocaust survivors.

Very important groundwork was also done around the end of the war by the Central Jewish Commission, which was founded in Lodz in 1944: Between 1944 and 1947, it conducted hundreds of interviews with survivors and also prepared instructions and questionnaires for dealing with the traumatized interviewees.

The horrors of the concentration camps in Eastern Europe were documented primarily by the Red Army, the armed forces of the former Soviet Union, which liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, among others.

Nazi concentration camp doctor Fritz Klein standing among a huge pit of corpses at Bergen-Belsen, April 1945
Photos show the scale of atrocities: Concentration camp doctor Fritz Klein standing on corpses at Bergen-Belsen, April 1945Image: akg-images/picture-alliance

Some Western photojournalists also contributed important pictorial documents. Very well known, for example, are the photos taken after the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp by Eric Schwab and Meyer Levin for the French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP).

But until well into the 1960s, eyewitnesses and their reports primarily served as legal evidence, whether at the Nuremberg trials of 1945-1949, the Majdanek trials of 1944-1981, the Jerusalem trials of 1961, or the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt from 1963 to 1968.

Contemporary witnesses as moral authorities

While there was a great deal of focus on the perpetrators in the 1970s — for example, on the former naval officer Karl Dönitz, one of the defendants in the Nuremberg trial of the main war criminals — it was not until 1979 that the US TV series "Holocaust" triggered a widespread societal debate in Germany.

A still from the TV series 'Holocaust': a group of people wearing a Jewish armband, holding suitcases and standing next to a train.
Fritz Weaver's TV series 'Holocaust' led to a shift in Germany's approach to remembrance workImage: American Pictorial/Cinema Publishers Collection/imago

From then on, eyewitnesses were heard more often — not only by the public, but also in the writing of history.

Survivors such as Margot Friedländer, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and Esther Bejerano became moral authorities, speaking out to counteract a false history of the Holocaust created by right-wing circles.

New responsibility for institutions

Historians are aware of the great challenges involved in evaluating eyewitness testimonies. They hold valuable information, important classifications, but also some stumbling blocks. For example, factual knowledge sometimes does not match the memories of witnesses. Memory is fallible, and witnesses and testimonies can also be manipulated under certain circumstances.

In order to counteract abuse, a broader knowledge is needed. This is another reason why the exhibition addresses the question of what role was ascribed to the survivors on the part of the public, the listeners or the institutions. It looks at the intentions of the eyewitnesses and at the same time questions the "manufacturedness" of the interviews, the role of the interviewers and the social expectations.

New interviews with Holocaust survivors were also conducted for the exhibition: In addition to selected recordings, it is also possible to listen to uncut versions of the original interviews. In this way, too, the exhibition attempts to raise awareness of the fact that excerpts cannot stand for the whole — and are highly dependent on the respective intention of their use.

And what happens next?

The exhibition cannot provide this answer, but it does make clear how much memory and its respective social context are interrelated.

an exhibition hall featuring series of small screens mounted on glass panels.
The new interviews with the Holocaust survivors can be listened to at these stations at the exhibitionImage: Anna Fischer

Today's remembrance of the Holocaust is influenced by a wide variety of perspectives, some of which are presented in the exhibition.

Among other things, it lets young people have their say in interviews.

For example, Artur Bakaev, a 31-year-old Berliner from Tajikistan, criticizes the fact that Jews are still portrayed as victims today. Remembrance is instrumentalized, he says: "It's supposed to serve a purpose, to somehow exonerate Germany or whatever, and the people it's all about aren't really looked at or listened to."

The exhibition thus also points to an uncertain future: New generations will hear the voices of the deceased, but will still have to find their own answers.

This article was originally written in German.

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