Memorial Sites in Lower Saxony: Reminders of German Crimes During the Nazi Era.
In the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp more than 50,000 people from more than 20 countries were the victims of mass murder. Most of them were Jews. On 15 April 1946, the first anniversary of the liberation, Jewish survivors erected a memorial in remembrance of the dead. It had the same inscription in Hebrew and English: "EARTH CONCEAL NOT THE BLOOD SHED ON THEE." The imploring force of its demand continues still today and in the present is even more effective than at other times in the past.
What happened before the liberation and on 15 April 1946? In October 1945, Bergen-Belsen's British liberators expressed the concern that the mass graves at the site of the concentration camp were in danger of being forgotten. In order to counteract this, they ordered that a suitable garden should be designed and a memorial erected by the appropriate German authorities. It might be thought that the establishment of a garden at Bergen-Belsen could be interpreted as a conscious attempt to shape the area in an aesthetic way in direct contrast to the violation of all the rules of civilization that had taken place there. However, the danger of forgetting, which existed in the removal of the remains of the camp buildings, ought to have been foreseen. At that time, the Central Committee of the Liberated Jews in the British Zone pointed to precisely this danger. It had developed its own ideas on the shaping of the memorial and had done all it could to have the remains of the camp buildings--watchtowers, camp fences, camp streets, and the crematorium -- left standing as a warning reminder.
The Central Committee was unable to push through its concept. Instead, the provisional government appointed by the British military government was largely given a free hand. It commissioned a landscape architect to draw up a design plan, which was very quickly put into action and has determined the look of the memorial to the present day. After the remains of the buildings had been removed or covered over, a large open area in the shape of an oval was created and planted with heather. The mass graves at the edge of the oval were connected by a circular path, and the entire oval was demarcated from the surrounding countryside by the planting of trees. Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn was the first to mention the not accidental similarity of this design with the SS memorial in Sachsenhain. The landscape architect Wilhelm Hubotter, who produced the design for the Bergen-Belsen memorial, had created a similar landscape concept for Sachsenhain near Verden -- an SS cult site -- commissioned by Heinrich Himmler in 1935. One must agree with Wolschke-Bulmahn, who criticizes the subjugation of the aesthetics of the Bergen-Belsen memorial to the "ideal landscape" of the culprits as a gross lack of respect for the victims.
After the remains of the camp buildings had been removed, covered over, and planted, there was no visible support left for memory. Only the survivors and the relatives of the victims could now grieve with their hearts at Bergen-Belsen and link the place in their minds with the events of history. Other visitors, and, above all, the generations that came later could find no information at Bergen-Belsen. Nor was there any information to be found elsewhere -- no information at Dachau, or at Ahlem.
It was only at the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960, when the daubing of swastikas and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries made the continued presence of the Nazi spirit very obvious, that politicians began to take action. The then Federal Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, gave a speech at the Bergen-Belsen memorial on 2 February 1960, in which, renewing the memory of the persecution of the Jews during the Nazi era, he guaranteed to give the few remaining Jews a secure existence and protection against antisemitic acts.
At that time, those responsible for politics in Lower Saxony were also aware of the fact that there was absolutely no information available about what had taken place at Bergen-Belsen, and -- even worse -- instead, legends were circulating that played down these historical events. Research was commissioned, and an exhibition, opening in 1966, was prepared in order to counteract these legends. Thus, 21 years after the liberation of the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen, visitors to the memorial were finally able to obtain information about the history of the camp in a small document hall at the edge of the former concentration camp site. The focal point of the exhibition was directed toward the fate of the Jews in the Bergen-Belsen camp. However, the State of Lower Saxony refrained from employing people to see to the needs of the visitors, so that no historical guided tours took place, and even the former prisoners were given no support during their visits.
Only years later was pressure increased on the State of Lower Saxony to improve the provision of information and support. During the 1980s, various people, dissatisfied with the state practice of remembrance, founded citizens' action groups on history and memorials with the aim of complementing the public culture of remembrance, which had largely been reduced to symbols, by means of historical and critical discourses based on facts. Citizens from Lower Saxony founded an action group -- the "Bergen-Belsen Working Group"--and demanded an extension to the memorial by the provision of additional historical information and support for the visitors by employees who would be continuously on duty. In April 1985, the Lower Saxony State Parliament took up the idea and made the decision to redesign the memorial.
The new building for the documentation center, with rooms for permanent and special exhibitions, a library, an auditorium for film screenings, and support for the visitors was completed in April 1990. Since then, more than two-and-a-half million visitors from many countries have taken advantage of the information provided by the memorial in the form of conferences, guided tours for visitors, and films on contemporary history. More than one thousand former prisoners and their relatives have been given support during their visits to the memorial. Their trust in the work of the facility has grown, as is illustrated by their donation of documents, diaries, eyewitness reports, and other personal documents. The state-employed staff has been aided in many different ways in support for the visitors and in the gathering and evaluation of source material. The "Bergen-Belsen Working Group" has helped, as have university professors, students, schoolchildren, and trainees.
Increasingly, since the beginning of the 1990s, the form of the memorial has been criticized. Initially, the remains of the camp, which had been taken down and covered over in 1945 and 1946, was the focal point of the criticism. In 1992, the Landesjugendring (State Youth Association), an organization of all the youth groups in the State of Lower Saxony, urged the state government to include all of the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in the memorial and to enable the remains of the buildings to be uncovered and maintained.
The State supported the demand, so that since 1993 work has been carried out on the areas of the former concentration camp situated outside the cemetery. This has been done in more than 50 national and international youth work camps. In this way, the work of the memorial was given important new impulses. Roughly 50 years after the decision to tear down or cover up the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp it has once again been possible to view the remains of buildings. The foundations of the huts, prisoners' barracks, reservoirs containing water for firefighting, and the remains of paths that have been uncovered break up the memorial's landscape architecture by making the contradiction between the landscape planning and the newly visible history of the place tangible in the true sense of the word.
It is particularly important for the memorial that the organizers of the youth work camps have been regularly able to include former prisoners from Bergen-Belsen in teaching the young. Meetings with witnesses from those days have made deep impressions on young people and have further strengthened their motives in finding out about the history of the place. For the witnesses themselves, meeting young people has also been of great importance. Their efforts to keep alive for all time, at the Bergen-Belsen memorial, memory of the mass death in the concentration camp as well as of their own suffering, and to pass this on to each new generation, has been fulfilled in the best possible way in their conversations with young people.
More than 50 years have passed since the survivors of Bergen-Belsen chiseled in stone their demand, "EARTH CONCEAL NOT THE BLOOD SHED ON THEE," thus protesting against the suppression and covering up of memory. Today the Bergen-Belsen memorial is focusing its work upon this historical demand.
Unlike the case of Bergen-Belsen, where in 1945 its British liberators ordered the setting up of a memorial because of the monstrous nature of the crimes committed there, the deeds committed at Ahlem were at first not noted in any particular way.
It is certain that the survivors of Ahlem, as well as the relatives of the victims, had not lost their clarity of perception, but, initially, and for a long while thereafter, they formed only a small minority when compared to the large majority in the population of those who had participated in the Nazi regime. The latter had, however, at a fairly early stage, together with the British occupying power, given highest priority to the alleviation of the need and suffering caused by the war. This is why no memorial was erected at Ahlem, but the building of the former Israelite School of Horticulture was used as emergency accommodation for citizens of Hanover who had been bombed out of their homes, and for German refugees from the east.
Since most of the Jews who had survived the Shoah were of the opinion that for a long time to come there would be no place for Jews in Germany, their representatives sold the land of the Ahlem School of Horticulture, together with the buildings standing on it, to the Hanover Chamber of Agriculture. Thus they drew the consequences from the almost total destruction of German Jewry, but they nevertheless secured at least a tradition for the soil that had been used for agriculture and horticulture, and this tradition still exists today.
In 1977, 32 years after the end of the Nazi era, was demonstrated the first sign of recognition for the memory of the tradition of the Israelite School of Horticulture. However, one can hardly talk of a public sign of remembrance, for the plaque was put up inside the building.
It was a further ten years later -- on 3 August 1987--that the Landkreis Hannover, which is the regional authority responsible for Ahlem, opened the Ahlem Memorial, thus recognizing its responsibility to keep alive in the public mind the memory of the crimes of the Nazi era. Information for remembrance is provided in front of the memorial. It deals with the history of the site as a place of Jewish culture and as a place of the persecution and murder of many people. An exhibition shows both the heyday and the destruction of the School of Horticulture, and the subsequent time when Ahlem became a place of persecution and murder. Many thousands of adults, young people, and schoolchildren have now visited the memorial and have learned about these historical events.
The setting up of the Ahlem Memorial in the mid-1980s corresponded to a change in the culture of remembrance that has left its traces throughout western Germany. The time-parallel with the redesigning of the Bergen-Belsen memorial is obvious. During this period, social groups in other places in Lower Saxony joined together also with the goal of establishing memorials at the sites of Nazi crimes, along with providing detailed reports on the history of these sites by means of exhibitions, lectures, and the publication of books.
The reasons for this change in the culture of remembrance in Germany are extremely varied. One cause deserves particular attention: In 1985, 40 years had passed since the end of the war. It takes at least 40 years to completely change the nature of the social and political leadership of a society. It was thus only after 40 years that the last persons with certain functions under the Nazi regime had left positions of responsibility. With the retirement of the generation tainted by Nazi ideology from leading positions in the state and society, most of the considerable and extremely effective obstacles to the access to historical information were removed.
Using the example of Bergen-Belsen, I have indicated the importance of citizens' action groups for the culture of remembrance in Germany in the last 15 years or so. For a long time the memorial project in Ahlem has been supported by the German-Israeli Society, but in the last year, pressure on the authorities to extend the memorial in Ahlem has been further increased by the founding of a new citizens' action group. The goal of this group is to extend the representation of the history of Ahlem as a place of Jewish culture and as a place of persecution, and to improve the quality of the work of the memorial.
However, the increasing trust of the former prisoners and of the Jews driven out of Germany has become extraordinarily important for the research into and the presentation of the history of the concentration camps and other places of persecution. Pictures and texts, including diaries, letters, notes, and photographs that they have made available in order to preserve memory not only help to fill gaps in the historical record, but these mementos help direct one's perspective to the individual human being. Thus they do not only facilitate historical understanding, but they also open up our awareness to the values of human existence.
All these efforts and projects will hopefully bring about a better understanding of the past, even at the present late stage. Perhaps the wise desperation of a Jewish proverb also applies here: the longer a blind man lives, the more he sees!
WILFRIED WIEDEMANN is the director of the Memorial and Museum of Bergen-Belsen.