Cultivating Remembrance – European Conference Puts Poland at the Centre of Europe

November 28, 2013

November 15 and 16, nine scientists from five European countries met at the “Evangelische Studierendengemeinde” (student community) Muenster (ESG). Pastor Laqueur (ESG) and pastor Franzenburg had sent out the invitation to the conference titled “Cultivating Remembrance“ to find out which challenges are involved when working with remembrance and what chances there are for the future of such a process. At the end of the conference, a network was founded unanimously to make not yet published knowledge accessible and deal with new tasks for research and interdisciplinary projects using a virtual classroom for discussion.

In his introduction Winfried Nachtwei, former member of the German Bundestag and co-founder of the Riga-committee Muenster, spoke of his experience and research of the last 30 years. He said that collective recollections of societies need a lot of time and distance in order that Europe, formerly a continent of wars, can become a continent of peaceful coexistence. Muenster, the city of the Peace of Westphalia, shows – as Berlin does – the huge ambivalence connected with building bridges of remembrance from the past into the future. There is still so much to do! A great many “we should…” and “never again”– affirmations hinder real recollection and reconciliation processes, but Nachtwei believes that especially the young generation will keep on building these bridges.

The lectures of this conference deal with three topics: “Reconciliation”, “Ethnic groups and diaspora”, and “Culture and remembrance”. All talks focus on overcoming prejudice and stereotypes.

At the beginning though, on Friday the focus was on the question: Which role does moral conscience play in the processes involved in remembrance?

Professor Przemyslaw Kantyka of the Catholic University of Lublin (Poland) gave a historical overview of the joint initiatives of the churches in the process of reconciliation between Polish, German, Russian and Ukrainian victims and criminals after World War II that were especially successful where politics failed. Especially the Christian religion has the power to heal hate and violent experiences and to reconcile people, as long as at least one person begins asking someone’s forgiveness, as long as only one single person expresses the wish to be forgiven, according to Kantyka.

Dr. Pietr Kopiec complemented and extended Kantyka’s conclusion by saying that the churches in particular keep the process of reconciliation alive, by presenting his research on the Benedictine monastery Padlasic, which is situated near the border to Belarus, and to this day brings about identity concerning the different Christian confessions and traditions in that region.

How can ethnic conflicts become reconciled?

With the help of the example of Ukrainian Oleksandr Svyetlov (Minsk, at the moment LU, Riga) showed in detail how and why killing functions as a means of settling a conflict, how nations become a plaything of politics and war interests, how a nation’s self–confidence, her feeling of solidarity, can be systematically destroyed.

He explained why in comparison to Poland Ukraine makes varying efforts in reconciliation. Moreover, he made clear how limited our knowledge of Eastern European countries is, especially our knowledge of the complexity of the conflicts to be resolved.

Which meaning has identity?

Going on from Dr. Kopiec’s talk, Maarja Merivoo-Parro from Tallinn presented her research on identity. She investigates the “being Estonian” of Estonian emigrants in the USA compared to Estonians in Finland and Estonia with the help of letters, other autobiographical material, and historical documents.

A perplexing variety of self-concepts and definitions dates back to the DP Camps and to this day forms itself into a tolerant and cosmopolitan unity. In a world of cultural diversity, her findings show that the process of “Beheimatung” (in the same way as the development of an ethnic culture) is not necessarily bound to a distinct geographic area but to places of remembrance and symbolic knowledge, songs and tales and – astonishingly so – not necessarily to the language of the ethnic group.

So for example, Estonian emigrants of the second generation born in the USA and Finland feel distinctly “Estonian”, though their mother tongue is English and some of them hardly speak any Estonian at all. They met the challenges of the dialectical processes in between established culture and growing into it, learning it as well as the vivid growth and further development of a culture with their very individual self-concepts and with more open-mindedness and tolerance as their contemporaries in the home country.

On Saturday – beginning with further information on projects and research findings – the main focus was on the question: What do the presented results and findings mean, concerning building bridges into the future? How does remembrance become a future capability? How can an “against each other”, and a “side by side” change into a lasting “together”?

Seta Guetsoyan of Bochum University asked, how despite suppression and oblivion, how among silence, aimless talk and media commercialisation, up-todate remembrance work could look like – especially if it was done by theatre: Not in the sense of a didactic play, but as a contribution to find the truth, as a complex frame of reference.

The example of E. Jelinek’s play “Rechnitz (Der Würgeengel)” from 2008 shows that theatre has the opportunity to present transparency (and catharsis) considering the overkill of pictures in the media. The play charges the mass execution of 180 forced labour convicts shortly before the end of the war. The massacre, that has not been cleared yet and is unattoned for, took place when there was a party on the premises of Thyssen’s sister Margit Batthyáni’s castle, and the play puts the criminal act in a context of cannibalism and a frenzy of blood lust. Jelinek’s choir of messengers, who report on what is happening, creates a polyphony of voices and perspectives that causes confusion, explores and crosses borders, and shakes and upsets the audience badly – intensified by referring to Euripides’ drama “The Bacchae”.

Based on the analysis of camp newspapers and interviews, Dr. Thomas Rahe, from the memorial site Bergen-Belsen, gave a very concrete insight into the everyday life of the Jewish refugees in the DP-camp very close to the former concentration camp. The DPs there were mostly young Jewish men (ca. 60 %) who for the time being could not depart for Israel, because no country wanted to assist the forming of a Jewish state. Besides being frightened of the future and being without any perspective, the camp inmates had to cope with their personal traumatic experiences. In addition, the feeling of deep guilt tormented them because they had survived and were also haunted by the predicaments used in the concentration camp to torture them. Additionally, a lot of them experienced even more, new bereavements as ca. 20% of the freed (and often their relatives too) died as the result of the time spent in the concentration camp or of typhoid fever that raged in the camp. Because of the rigid medical and hygienic measures (burning all things and clothes from the camps), they even lost their very last pieces of remembrance.

Out of the misery, a unique community of remembrance was formed in the camp, a community that made processes of self-understanding, therapy and even healing possible, that organised itself and politicized, and that could experience the time in the camp as a time of transition because it was rooted in the Jewish belief.

How does a culture of remembrance develop, how do rituals form? Laila Moreina from Ventspils University also dealt with this question. With the help of the example of the recent controversy over the Soviet Victory Monument in Riga, she compared the histories of meaning of different Latvian monuments since the First World War. In the course of Latvia’s history, which is full of changes, there are very controversial monuments and celebrations of remembrance (and counter celebrations) that are still holding a lot of tension and are filled ideologically. She advocated the preserving of the hotly debated monument mentioned above because it offers an opportunity of identification for the Russian minority in Latvia and therefore a chance to deideologise.

At the end of the conference Geert Franzenburg summarized once more the overall concern of the participants: each lecture, as well as the ensuing discussions had shown a distinct commitment, especially concerning the overcoming of stereotypes. So it became obvious, for example, how limited our knowledge of Eastern European countries is, and that more than 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall many people still think that Poland is situated “in the East” instead of in the middle of Europe!

In his lecture, Franzenburg indicated different possibilities of actualization and – like Dr. Rahe before – mentioned points of contact for the practical remembrance work with young people. The refugee fate of emigrant children or the fate of street children in Germany, as well as the everyday social exclusion in schools and at work, experiences with mobbing, role plays in the internet can be witnessed and reflected from the perspective of communication and reconciliation, postwar Germany being in the background. In addition, the fear of assimilation, of the disappearance of one’s own culture in the new home country can be overcome – when past as well as present are perceived.

The examples and research findings of this conference (weekend) showed that an intercultural discourse lets remembrance work become reconciliation work, that communication and narration are key instruments to success in being rooted and feeling at home anew – and at the same time a powerful instrument against manipulation.

A. Diehl