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'Journey into the unknown' at Auschwitz

Heike Mund ct
June 7, 2018

German rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang have visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, weeks after igniting controversy with their anti-Semitic lyrics. DW was on hand to find out about the preparations for the visit.

Rapper Kollegah and Farid Bang at Auschwitz
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J.Deodat/IAK

The storm had moved on; only a few dark clouds could be seen in the sky over Oświęcim. A brewing midday heat hung in the air in the garden surrounding the International Youth Meeting Center.

Despite the heat, Christoph Heubner, deputy chairman of the International Auschwitz Committee, appeared calm and cool when he greeted our reporter a few days ago. The media response to his spontaneous outreach to the two controversial rappers, Kollegah and Farid Bang — inviting them to tour the memorial — hadn't surprised him.

On June 7, reports emerged that the two rappers had actually visited Auschwitz — or Oświęcim, the name the southern Polish city reclaimed after it was liberated from the Nazis, who Germanized the city's name after invading Poland in 1939.

From the outset, as Heubner explained to DW earlier, it was clear that the visit was going to be a purely private affair. And indeed, the duo arrived without press accompaniment and were not immediately available for comment afterward. 

Kollegah and Farid Bang
The rappers have had some concerts canceled since the controversyImage: Imago/xcitepress

Confronting European history

Heubner knew the journey to Poland could not have been easy for Kollegah and Farid Bang. A cancellation would have been out of the question, as it would have just resulted in new banner headlines, only weeks after the duo caused controversy with their anti-Semitic lyrics

What is clear is that they in no way wanted to make the visit a media circus. "I have the feeling from our discussions to date that they are partaking on this journey with a bit of trepidation," said Heubner before the visit.

A program was drawn up for the visitors, with the two rappers given a private tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial. Just being on-site, encountering the place where people from all over Europe were systematically murdered by the National Socialists and burned in crematoriums, would have had an impact, said Heubner.

"There are many international visitors, people from all over the world," he said. It is impressive "to see that this place is by no means a quiet place on the edge of a forgotten historical world." Rather, it is "a place where very many people come because they want to know something about history."

Oświęcim: A place of exchange

A few days earlier, the garden was filled with groups of young people. Many talked quietly or drank soda while some sat nearby in small groups, lost in thought. Vocational students from Poland and Germany were visiting Oświęcim — young trainees, including those from the Volkswagen factories in the German cities of Wolfsburg and Salzgitter. Together in an exchange with their Polish counterparts, they were working intensively through a past that still haunts both countries today.

The young Germans were in Poland for two weeks. Time enough to also explore the up-and-coming city of Oświęcim, which, despite its burdensome history, is becoming a lively place with a young population. A higher-than-average number of cars advertising driving schools cruise through the streets, and three ice cream parlors, several pizzerias and casual sidewalk cafes liven up the historic market square — known from 1939 to 1945 as Adolf-Hitler-Platz.

Rapper Kollegah and Farid Bang tour Auschwitz
Heubner gave the rappers a personal tourImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Iak/B. Oertwig

The youth meeting center was co-founded by Heubner over 30 years ago as a place of exchange. Auschwitz is something most teens only know from school history lessons; here, the tour through the grounds of the former concentration camp gives the experience another very personal dimension. For half a day, the young people from Germany and Poland also help out in a practical sense, supporting restoration and preservation work at the memorial.

Down the road, just 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) away, is the former concentration and extermination camp of the National Socialists. Although buses travel there, many visitors prefer to walk. Trucks, motorcycles and the normal rush of traffic thunders past the site day after day. Street signs show the way to the Museum Auschwitz.

Clear boundaries for provocation

The scandal around Kollegah and Farid Bang's cynical references about the Auschwitz death camp in their lyrics, and the subsequent uproar after they were awarded an Echo, has also occupied the minds of the young people here; Germany's famous music award was discontinued in the wake of the controversy.

Autokonzern VW Auszubildende
Henk and Kilic, trainees at VW, came to Auschwitz to learn from the pastImage: DW/H. Mund

Niklas Henk and Dogay Kilic, both apprentices at VW and big fans of German rap, came from Salzgitter to spend some time at the International Youth Meeting Center. After the introductory event, both hung out in the garden for a few minutes.

They only became aware of the controversial lyrics in the wake of the Echo scandal, Kilic told DW. He could understand the controversy. "There is no question at all" that a line has been crossed, he said. "I'm not in favor of saying that it was just the one line. It was simply a topic where such a comparison should not have been made."

Calculated provocation is part and parcel of the rap scene, the young men agree. But there are also German rappers who have been writing songs in response to the rise of the nationalist party Alternative for Germany, said Henk. "This could be something similar, something that gives people food for thought. Something where, in the future, anti-Semitic lyrics will no longer be tolerated — or perhaps more harshly judged."

Stacheldrahtzaun am Eingang zum ehemaligen KZ Auschwitz-Birkenau
Millions of people visit the Auschwitz memorial every yearImage: DW/J. Hahn

'Journey into the unknown'

When DW visited Auschwitz, the young men still had their first visit to the former concentration camp ahead of them, and both were showing mixed feelings about the experience. It's important for VW management that the next generation of workers at the company know what the word "Auschwitz" means in real life, and that they learn from history, Heubner explained.

In direct exchange with the young people and through their insights, Heubner has also been inspired in his approach to his work of remembrance. Many of the educational concepts from the 1970s and '80s would not reach today's social media-driven teens. Yet private family histories, or tales told of those deported from their home region, would immediately find an audience, he said.

The question is now whether Kollegah and Farid Bang will be able to restore credibility with their fans. "I find it difficult to interpret what they're thinking. I think this trip will be a journey into the unknown for them, because they're unsure of what awaits them — both the outcome and what they will be confronted with," said Heubner before the visit.

He paused for a moment as he searched for the right words. "Auschwitz is always like looking into a mirror. I always see myself: I am a human being, too. Here, people were tormented. Why Jewish people? Why were Poles imprisoned here? Why were Sinti and Roma killed? Who were the perpetrators?"

In that moment, it was possible to see how he is able to reach the young people of today, by transporting Auschwitz to the modern day and taking young people into mind who frequently ask themselves meaningful questions. "What does that mean today — for me personally and for my attitude? These are the questions Kollegah and Farid Bang will have to face," he added.