The last chapter: Art and the preservation of memory

We’ve been to some memorable places and turned some dark pages in the history of the 20th century during this seminar. We ended it with a day emphasizing the role of artists in defining how that history is remembered.

After several days of what the Germans call “Sturm und Drang,” studying the turbulent eras of the Third Reich, followed by the Cold War, it was good to have a chance to contemplate it all in a cozy art studio called the K-Salon in the Kreuzberg area of Berlin.

(As I found out later, the peace and quiet of this neighborhood belies its own turbulent past as a center for radical left activities in the Sixties and Seventies.)

So what’s the role of art in forming a national identity or national memory?

Several artists and writers working in Berlin gave us their thoughts on this subject, displaying work related to the topics we’ve been talking about for the past week-and-a-half.

I was impressed with the work of Roman Kroke, with whom I had a good conversation about the changing media world and its role in all this. His work draws on historical sources, including the story of the four Bielski brothers.

The brothers provided a forest sanctuary for a group of Jews in what is now Belarus, helping them survive the last three years of World War II. A 1994 documentary aired on The History Channel has helped keep their story alive.

Another historical inspiration was a former Dutch law student named Etty Hillesum (1914-1943), whose diaries from 1941 until her death in Auschwitz detailed the plight of Jews in The Netherlands.

“She knew that what was going on was important, and she wanted to record it for future generations,” Kroke said.

One of his most striking images shows Hillesum writing at a desk, spider webs extending over her head, a symbol of “spinning” her tale into the future.

Gunther Schaefer, who led us on the East Side Gallery tour just a couple days before, related his work to his personal history. He grew up on the border between East and West Germany and his family lived for a time in the “no man’s land” between East and West Berlin where his family wrote messages on bedsheets for relatives on either side of the Wall.

“If families are close, borders mean nothing,” said Schafer, who says he has tried to literally and metaphorically cross borders in his work.

“What’s it like to live in a country that for 40 years had two different systems?” he said. “it’s hard to describe, but it happened and it’s important to speak about it. I don’t think it’s really over.”

Michael Cullen
, a New York-born writer who has lived in Berlin since 1964, agrees, saying there’s a psychological legacy to the Wall.

“The former East Germans feel that they were on the losing side of history,” he said. The socialist/capitalist divide created some differences in attitudes.

“Some old East Germans will tell you they never had unemployment,” he said. “But it was unemployment on the job. You got a paycheck but you didn’t produce anything, there was nothing to sell. It ruined the work ethic.”

He also had a couple of interesting observations on memory, noting that Washington, D.C.’s monuments are the best examples of how memory takes time to become “official” — it took nearly 100 years to complete the Washington Monument, after all.

“But there are different ways to make a monument,” he said. “They don’t have to all be in stone. Even then, you will never get all the people to agree on what something means.”

After a lunch break at a neighborhood Indian restaurant — I love German food, but it was a nice break from the carbohydrate fest of the last couple of days — we finished up with presentations from Annemieke Hendriks, a Dutch journalist, and Markus Hartwich, a Polish journalist and historian living in Berlin.

This was another opportunity for me to ask the question that was central to me in studying this topic: what role do the media play in
forming national memory and identity. I hadn’t felt up to now that I got a serious answer to this question, but Hendriks gave a thoughtful response, using the example of relations between the Poles and Germans.

“Poles know a lot about Germany, Germany not so much about the Poles, and that’s because of media coverage,” Hendriks said. “But a lot of it is wrong. There aren’t many Polish journalists in Germany. They’ll read German newspapers, talk to their newspaper colleagues and write it down. But it’s not the real story.”

Hendriks ended her presentation with a real story, a real-time interview with a woman named Kathinka Rebling, who was asked about her remembrances of World War II and Cold War era East Germany. She was born in The Netherlands and holds Dutch citizenship.

The interview was challenging to follow as she shifted seamlessly in her answers from a little English, to German, to Dutch. But we learned that her mother was a cabaret singer, her father a musician and she was also a musical prodigy. Her uncle and grandparents were murdered at Auschwitz. Her sense of humor shines through it all.

So finally we’re at the end of a week-and-a-half of what the Germans called Vergangenheitsbewahltigung, a struggle to come to terms with the past. It’s taken a lot of forms, and, as I’ve noted in these posts, not every Pole or German sees the value in it. But it’s been an eye-opening experience.

We close the seminar with a dinner in another of those interesting venues seminar leader Benajmin Lorch has picked out — an elegant dining room in the gleaming and still fairly new Hauptbahnhof (Berlin’s main train station), an appropriate point of departure for us to our homes or to still other destinations.


About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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