The Holocaust, Viewed Not From Then but From the Here and Now
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
BERGEN-BELSEN, Germany — Habbo Knoch, who runs the new Bergen-Belsen Memorial at the former concentration camp, invited various scholars and museum directors to a four-day conference here last week called “Witnessing: Sites of Destruction and the Representation of the Holocaust.” He asked a question one evening during a break: “Will people in 20 years look back and say we built a museum that focuses on Nazi genocide while Darfur was happening? Will they ask whether anyone raised this issue?”
Consider it raised.
The new memorial is an immense concrete and glass museum emerging from a copse of trees beside the cemetery of mass graves (there are more than 70,000 bodies buried there), which had been the camp site. The permanent exhibition is a model of its kind, focused on the meticulous and sober reconstruction of the past. From time to time the present literally intrudes with a bang, though, when practice rounds of tank fire from the British military base next door boom over the treetops.
Otherwise you might be struck by how ordinary the whole area seems. During the war, prisoners — at first Soviet soldiers, later Jews — used to be marched several miles from a railway terminal beyond the base, which was then for the Wehrmacht, and past fields, farms and houses. Some survivors have said they were struck by the pretty scenery.
At the camp, corpses lay in piles and thousands were dying of starvation and disease, from genocide by neglect. The farmers and villagers who had watched the prisoners go by afterward mostly claimed they knew nothing about it.
Times change. Some of the children of those farmers and villagers recall on videotaped interviews the endless lines of walking dead. It was impossible not to see what was plainly in front of them. Along these lines, the constant television broadcasts during the conference of grieving parents and wounded children in Gaza reminded a few conferees of the emotions stirred up by video testimonies of Holocaust survivors (there are dozens of these in the museum), and the comparison made several scholars uneasy.
Videos are only one form of evidence, a French researcher ventured, inadequate by themselves as history.
That said, the Holocaust has become what one expert here called the “master narrative” for suffering, shaping discussions about every present conflict over genocide and human rights even as comparisons distort history and can serve the purposes of propaganda as often as the truth. “Every generation gets the stories it wants to hear,” is how Heidemarie Uhl, an Austrian scholar, put it, which is to say that the master narrative of the Shoah itself has evolved to suit different eras. She pointed out that the memorial at the former Mauthausen concentration camp in northern Austria was for several years after the war controlled by the Soviets, who put up a monument to Communist resistance but none to the Jews.
Today the message at Mauthausen has come to reflect Austria’s “negative memory,” Ms. Uhl said, referring to the collective sentiment of Austrians (many of them, she might have added, but alas, still not enough) who admit their country willingly committed genocide. As at Bergen-Belsen, the permanent exhibition there now speaks to a kind of post-ideological, post-cold-war world that prizes victimhood and individual resilience, just as the Communist memorial spoke to Soviet priorities.
History keeps moving, in other words. Here at Bergen-Belsen, after liberation in April 1945, the military training barracks became a camp for displaced persons. Jews awaited transport to America, Australia and to the new Israel, a flashpoint with British authorities who also controlled Palestine. Some Jewish survivors inaugurated a theater company called Kazet (the name played on the German KZ, for concentration camp). Life started over in other ways, too. Henri Lustiger-Thaler, who helped organize the conference, recalled that his mother, a former prisoner, returned from Paris to give birth at the camp hospital because her friends were here.
Then Bergen-Belsen fell into neglect. Ronald Reagan was responsible (inadvertently) for its revival. The announcement that he would visit Nazi graves at Bitburg in 1985 resulted in an uproar that forced his staff to scramble, and Bergen-Belsen was suddenly added to his itinerary. Embarrassed Germans, who preferred to forget the site, threw together a small documentation center. It soon became inadequate to the accumulating archives, to the general liberalizing process of German identity building after the wall fell, and to the growing public appetite abroad for Holocaust museums, along with the tourist economy they generated.
Nothing about the present museum dramatizes information for visitors the way, say, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington apparently feels it needs to. Divorced as it is from the sites of persecution, it turns relics of genocide like a Zyklon B canister and a cattle car that transported Jews to Auschwitz into props.
Bergen-Belsen has the camp as evidence, or what’s left of it. After liberation, the British burned down the prisoners’ barracks to stem the spread of typhus, and hired an architect to turn bulldozed graves into a pastoral cemetery. The architect turned out to be a favorite of the Nazis, adding insult to injury, but by the time that scandal broke it was already too late, and the graves today look like Teutonic mounds, covered in lavender.
In the absence of original buildings, the aura of Bergen-Belsen now, as at all haunted places, can be linked to the superstition people tend to bring to it — the vague hope that our presence might somehow help renew the ground. Meanwhile the sheer emptiness of the landscape, never mind the graves, speaks clearly to loss.
Of course, there are still the photographs and films made by arriving British troops to show what once was here. Various camps liberated before Bergen-Belsen had been evacuated or destroyed, but the Germans turned this place over as it had been. Circulated worldwide in newspapers, magazines and movie theaters, the pictures made unconditional surrender obligatory and the site forever synonymous with the worst Nazi atrocities.
In a sense, the images have become too familiar, too loaded. The museum stresses the survivor testimonies instead. These run silently on monitors throughout the galleries, accompanied by subtitles in German and English. As Geoffrey Hartman, the literary scholar who helped start the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale, remarked after walking through the museum, the quiet promotes a space in which “to think that thinking is important.”
But you can also wear headphones to hear the voices. Mr. Hartman borrowed Paul Celan’s famous phrase about bottles in the ocean tossed at “the shoreline of a heart” to describe the effect.
One survivor is Robert Rijxman. “I was sitting on a rock,” he recalls on screen. “It was sunny, in winter. I just prayed to die, but it didn’t work.”
Without sound, he’s the picture of defiance, elfin and smiling, clutching a pipe like an old Swiss mountaineer after a walk in the Alps. But listening to him, you hear that he needs a moment to collect himself and it suddenly becomes clear that Mr. Rijxman wishes to convey a thought darker and more complicated than simple defiance.
Praying for death “didn’t work,” is what he said.
“Not to this day,” he added.
Another reminder of history’s relentlessness.