Workshop “Memory Dialogues”, 17. to 26. October 2019 in Gdansk, Riga and Sztutowo
Report by Jan Casper, Sara Elkmann, Linda Graul, Malte Grünkorn, Lily Prollius
After arriving in Gdansk separately and having already had a glimpse of this beautiful city, all members of the workshop met for the first time. First the teachers and students introduced themselves and were divided into five sub-groups. Each group consisted of one student from every country and university – thus, the international and interdisciplinary work could start immediately. In addition, Neuengamme’s representative Sarah Grandke finally answered the big question of what kind of assignment the groups would work on during the 10 days: We were supposed to think about a concept for a wall in the foyer of the future Documentation Center. Sarah gave us some information about the original Hanover station, of which not much is left, as well as some thoughts about the future exhibition and the entrance hall in which “our” wall would be located.
The next morning started with short presentations by us Public History students. The presentation were designed to work as a starting point for the workshop and to make sure that everybody would be on equal footing when it came to the basic historic frameworks concerning the German Occupation politics, the Deportation routes, the history of Camp Jungfernhof, the Riga Ghetto and the concentration camp Stutthof.
Afterwards, we were given assignments for our conclusive visit to the Second World War Museum in Gdansk, which was the next stop for the group. The assignment was to go through the exhibition and find something that either touched us or disturbed us or something we just considered the most beautiful. We had to take photos of the respective objects or installations and then discuss our choices in the concept groups, where we had to decide which photo to present to the other groups on the following day. After getting a good impression of the exhibition, the concept groups came together to share their impressions of the museum. The assignment was a great starting point to discuss what makes an exhibition good, weird, or boring. The discussion of what different objects mean to different visitors and how a museum’s architecture affects the visitor proved fruitful for our further considerations concerning our own concepts.
The next step in the workshop programme brought us to Riga. There we started with a guided tour through the site of the former ghetto. Claus Friede, who joined our group with five of his students from the Latvian Academy of Culture for the following three days, gave us a very elaborate tour. This was especially important because there are hardly any traces of the ghetto in Riga left, and only a few commemorative signs point to its former structure. After Mr. Friede walked us through the remnants of the ghetto, we went to the Riga Ghetto Museum, which is not located in the former ghetto but includes some mock-up fences and gates. There we saw a reconstruction of a typical ghetto house as well as a memorial wall with all the names of the Jews who were forced to live in the ghetto. In the afternoon, we visited the Žanis Lipke memorial. In Latvian memory culture the story of Žanis Lipke (and his wife Johanna) is a striking example of how a family did a good deed and was able to save 56 Jews from the Nazi persecution by hiding them in the basement. At these places, multiple stories we had been tracing converged, as we were now dealing not only with the history of deportations of Jews from within the “Reich”, but also with the history of the Holocaust in Latvia.
The next day was one of the most memorable days, as we went to the memorial sites in the forests of Rumbula and Biķernieki. In Rumbula, about 27 500 people were murdered in the Winter of 1941, for Biķernieki the estimates range between 35 000 and 46 500 people. There we were able to commemorate the victims and contemplate on the monstrosity and scale of the crime that was committed by the Nazis. In the afternoon, Ilya Lensky, Director of the Museum of Jews in Latvia, guided us through the museum.
At the museum that also serves as community center for Riga’s Jewish community, we had the honour to meet Marģers Vestermanis, who is not only a survivor of the Riga Ghetto and Kaiserwald Concentration Campb, but also the founder of the museum. The group felt very privileged to be able to have this opportunity. Meeting Mr. Vestermanis was not only a very personal and emotional experience, but he greatly influenced the workshop participants in the way they would work on the concepts for the memorial in Hamburg. Our last stop in Riga brought us to the site of the former “Gut Jungfernhof”, a camp were all Jews from Hamburg, as well as Deportees from Nuremberg, Vienna and Stuttgart were taken to in December 1941. Currently concepts are being developed to make the places’s history visible at a site that today is a recreational area, which is a similar situation to the Hanover Station in Hamburg. Our last stop in Riga brought us to the Šķirotava station, where the train with the Jews from Hamburg ended. From there they were taken to the Jungfernhof or to the ghetto.
After the emotional and informative stay in Riga, that gave us many new insights into the history of the Nazi atrocities and the way they are remembered, we went back to Gdańsk and from there directly to Sztutowo.
To begin with, the schedule in Sztutowo was far less busy than it was in both Gdańsk and Riga – not only did we have time to work on the concepts, but also to reflect on what we had experienced throughout the previous days. The first item on the Sztutowo agenda consisted in a guided tour through the Stutthof concentration camp memorial. Given to the group by Danuta Ochoka, the focus was put on the final years of the concentration camp’s existence and the link between Riga and Sztutowo. This meant to provide us with another inside look on how historical contents in general, and the Holocaust in particular, are represented and dealt with in Poland. Moreover, we were able to establish a distinction between how Polish commemorative culture takes shape in the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk and in the Stutthof Museum. Last but not least, we were able to focus on the final points of the Hamburg deportations, – and not just the starting and intermediate points – thus coming to a full circle. Back at the accommodation, we were given the opportunity to properly work on our concepts with intense ideation, in-group discussion (sometimes at the brink of serious confrontation) and continuous revision. On the last day in Sztutowo, we presented our final concepts to the fellow participants of the workshop as well as the concentration camp memorial staff; providing the Gedenkort denk.mal Hannoverscher Bahnhof/Hanover Station Memorial with five concepts that are more or less ready to be used.
A short report of the workshop in German can also be found on the Neuengamme Memorial site: