Workshop in Wiesbaden, 26 April 2013
Yesterday marked the 80th anniversary of the Nazi book burnings that started on May 10, 1933 and demonstrated Hitler’s determination to destroy any form of expression that did not conform to his world view. The workshop I attended was aimed at thinking about how to sufficiantly commemorate this tragedy, but it developed into a much broader discussion.
From afar I have been tracking the activities in Wiesbaden for years. Voraciously I’ve read the newspaper articles covering the organized events commemorating the local persecution of the Jews during Hitler’s Third Reich, their humiliation, their banning from professional and civic life, then their eventual deportation to be murdered in concentration camps in the east.
Most of these acts of remembrance have been – and continue to be – planned in conjunction with Wiesbaden’s Aktives Museum Spiegelgasse für Deutsch-Jüdische Geschichte in Wiesbaden (www.am-spiegelgasse.de) (Active Museum Spiegelgasse for German-Jewish History).
This museum does not consider itself just a Jewish museum. Located in one of the city’s most ancient buildings that is situated in the historic center of Jewish life, this museum is not a static place for visitors to passively take in exhibitions, but a smaller space offering changing exhibitions (also often at other venues), archives and a library for research. And it is, as its name states, very active, creating an interface between the communities and organizations that make up Wiesbaden. It functions as an integrating force between varied religious confessions and between the young and old.
One of the museum’s major – and most visible – projects: is the ceremonial laying of Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks), bronze paving stones set in the pavement in front of the houses where deported Jews once lived.
The service held on 4 September 2011 at the cattle ramp aside Wiesbaden’s main train station from where the Jews had to report for deportation. A candle was lit for each of the 1500 deportees. A visiting Israeli said the Kaddish.
As a recipient of the museum’s newsletter, I have kept an eye on their activities without participating. Although my interest in all things involving German-Jewish history is evident in the novel I wrote (The Peace Bridge), I’ve always found many excuses for remaining an observer, not the least of which is that I live a half hour away from Wiesbaden. A pathetic excuse.
When I received an invitation via the Active Museum to a workshop on the culture of remembrance (co-sponsored by six different Wiesbaden organizations), I decided to end my passivity and sign up. On a rainy Friday afternoon a diverse group of seventeen (age span ca. 18 – 70) gathered to talk about how the horrendous events that occurred during the Nazi regime can/should be commemorated. The main focus was on the upcoming eightieth anniversary of the book burnings which began under Hitler on 10 May 1933 (just three months after he came to power).
Could there be a greater symbol of the attempt to ban free thought from the world than the burning of books?
What kind of a commemorative event could sufficiently relate the significance of this act to the internet generation coming of age in the 21st century? Can they even imagine the possibility of losing the right to free expression and publication?
However, the focus of the workshop shifted very quickly to a re-think of the act of commemoration in general. How can it be carried out without it becoming an empty ritual? How can the youth of today be included in remembering historical events that they either don’t know or care about, or would perhaps rather forget? And how do we build a bridge from that past to make it relevant to the present? The afternoon ended with a lot of open questions.
One could denounce such workshops as “debating societies” with little practical use. But as my years of observing the Wiesbaden scene has shown me, there are a lot of people in the sponsoring organizations (including the Active Museum) who go to great lengths to find the ways and means of remembering an infamous past so that it might never happen again. My hat off to them!
We never did get around to talking about the forgetting part of the workshop title. I’ve concluded it isn’t an option.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana