20th Workshop in Minsk: Occupation – Forced Labor – Extermination (2015)

Organizers: Anke Binnewerg (Dresden), Frédéric Bonnesoeur (Berlin), Philipp Dinkelaker (Berlin), Sarah Kleinmann (Stuttgart), Jens Kolata (Tübingen), Anja Reuss (Berlin)

Place, Date: Minsk, 7 April – 12 April 2015

Report written by: Paula A. Oppermann (Hamburg, Uppsala)

The “Workshop on History and Memory of the National Socialist Concentration Camps” has been organized annually by young scholars for young scholars since 1994. It is the idea of the workshop to create a forum of interdisciplinary and international exchange between graduate students, PhD candidates, and young scholars and freelancers, and to give them the possibility to present and discuss their work in a non-hierarchical, helpful atmosphere. The organisers as well as the venue and the main topic of each workshop are elected by the participants.

The 20th workshop took place in Minsk from 7 April to 12 April 2015 under the main topic “Occupation, Forced Labor, Extermination”. The workshop was organised in cooperation with the International Education and Meeting Center (IBB) “Johannes Rau” in Minsk, KONTAKTE- контакты e.V., the Center for Research on Antisemitism (ZfA) at the Technical University Berlin, and the History Workshop Minsk. The workshop was funded by the “Foundation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah”, the “Fritz Thyssen Stiftung”, the foundation “Erinnerung, Verantworung, Zukunft (EVZ)”, and the Auswärtiges Amt der Bundesrepublik Deutschland.

26 participants from Germany, France, Russia, Belarus, and the Netherlands presented results of their research. Taking place at Minsk, the venue of this year’s workshop was closely connected to its main topic “Occupation, Forced Labor, Extermination”. As the capital of Belarus, Minsk was a central location of the National Socialist murderous occupation and annihilation policy; next to the killing of Belarussian people, thousands of Jews were brutally murdered at the Minsk ghetto or the nearby killing site of Maly Trostenec. The workshop focussed on the analysis of the German occupation policy of the Eastern European countries, since it differed immensely from the occupation policy implemented in Western Europe. Not only was the killing of civilians implemented in a much higher and more direct scale; the treatment of Prisoners of War and the use of Forced Labor varied in the two parts of Europe. Also, researchers neglected this area for many years. The lectures related to the reasons for the differences in the occupation policy, to the question of collaboration, and to the memory of the National Socialist crimes and how this plays a role in processes of nation building in the area today.

Next to the academic discussions, the workshop contained external activities as the visit of the Chatyn and Maly Trostenec Memorials, where the participants talked to main architects of the Maly Trostenec Memorial, and to the director of the Chatyn Memorial Complex. Next to a guided tour related to forced labor in the city of Minsk, a second tour dealt with the history of Jewish life and the Minsk ghetto. Employees of the Minsk History Workshop talked to the participants about commemoration activities and research conducted today. The participants also met a survivor of the Minsk ghetto, and talked to Angelika Anoschko, who presented the work of the Belorussian NGO “Взаимопонимание” (“Communication”) which supports victims of WWII.

The workshop was introduced by ANJA REUSS (Berlin). In her keynote lecture she presented the overall German occupation policy in Belarus. Reuss described how economic goals and ideological intentions mixed in Belarus. She emphasised the country’s pivotal role as a centre of the Holocaust, especially as a testing area for new killing methods which were later adopted in other occupied areas. This “transfer of knowledge” among the perpetrators was one of the main foci of the discussion subsiding Reuss’ lecture.

In the presentation of her MA-thesis, ANNE-LISE BOBELDIJK (Amsterdam) elaborated the role of the three temporary camps near the village of Ozarichi. In March 1944, the Wehrmacht incarcerated approximately 40 000 Belarusians in these camps for about eight days. Bobeldijk pointed out existing gaps in research and argued for a more extensive use of eye witness accounts in research about the camps. She concluded with the remark that the Ozarichi Camps have until now be seen mainly in the context of the crimes against Soviet civilians of the retreating Wehrmacht (known as “Rückzugsverbrechen”), but should be rather seen in comparison to the “Death Marches”, and the transfer of POWs at earlier stages of the war.

JULIETTE CONSTANTIN (Lyon, Tübingen) gave a lecture about the commemoration of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp in France between 1945 and 1965. She argued that commemoration is a process influenced by present aims of the commemorating group, and elaborated her argument based on the presentation of the Association française Buchenwald-Dora et Kommandos, the organ of former Communist inmates of Buchenwald. Buchenwald plays an important role in the national memory in France since most of the French resistance fighters were interned here and the resistance was and is the main focus of commemoration in official France. The Communist resistance, however, was for a long time excluded from this commemoration. Analysing the Association’s magazine, Constantin delineated the Association’s discussions with the French authorities and other survivor associations, especially in the context of the Cold War.

In his lecture ROBERT PARZER (Berlin) presented how the National Socialists killed more than 20 000 patients of psychiatric hospitals and other care institutions in occupied Poland in the first two years of WWII. According to Parzer, the crimes in Poland were not – as research has presumed so far – connected to the T4 programme taking place in the Reich, but took place independently and on regional initiative. He argued that the introduction of gas chambers and gas vans as tools of methodological mass killing shows rather a direct connection to the Holocaust. This is also reflected in the personnel of the killing, a fact also leading to the involvement of Poles in the euthanasia programme; Parzer emphasized the necessity to further research this question.

In her presentation “Occupation and forced labor in the memory of the eyewitnesses of the events” OLGA KULINCHENKO (Voronezh) presented the work of the Centre for Oral History in Voronezh. While research conducted so far is mainly based on the analysis of documents stored at local archives, the centre tries to analyse the regional specifics of occupation of the Voronezh region through the individual experiences of survivors by collecting interviews. Presenting excerpts of interviews, Kulinchenko argued that the seven months of occupation were characterized by violence and hard forced labor. In order to survive, the local population had to adapt to the occupation policy which was why many civilians were after the war accused of collaboration by the Soviet regime.

ANGELIKA LAUMER (Gießen) presented her oral history project researching the commemoration of National Socialist forced labor in rural Bavaria. Interviewing former forced laborers and their descendants as well as the families they worked for, Laumer analysed how these two groups remember and communicate their memories to the next generation. Based on her fieldwork she advocated to broaden the concept of memory by including the factor of forgetting; while many forced laborers’ families glorified the coexistence at the farms, they often could not remember laborers who escaped, because they were not relevant for them or because they were negatively connoted. Laumer’s argument that these subconscious patterns of memory influence also people’s current perception of foreign laborers in the region was a major point of discussion after the presentation.

Forced labor was also the focus of VERENA MEIER’s (Heidelberg) lecture. Presenting a case study of the powder factory Liebenau in Lower Saxony, she analysed the employment of Soviet Prisoners of War (POW) within the National Socialist economic exploitation policy. Beyond the role Soviet POW played as objects of for the National Socialist economy, Meier focussed on the POW as active subjects using their framework of activity in order to survive. Here, she advocated a stronger use of survivors’ testimonies. According to Meier, a regional study can shed more light on the general living conditions of this victim group and their role in the armament industry of the time.

MAREIKE OTTERS (Berlin) presented how the National Socialist propaganda used photographs of Soviet Prisoners of War in order to create the negative image of the Soviet enemy among the German population. Analysing photographs taken at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in 1941 for the anti-Soviet exhibition “Das Sowjetparadies”, Otters elaborated how propagandistic elements are transferred through the pictures. She argued that rather than the photographs themselves, it was more the context of publication and their presentation in exhibitions, on posters, or in books that intensified the propagandistic impact of the pictures.

In her presentation of Soviet Prisoners of War in the occupied territory of Belarus HELEN MOGH (Minsk) focussed on survival strategies of the prisoners which were not only dependent on the conditions of the prisoners. Also the level of limitations introduced by the camp administration played an important role and varied from camp to camp, and throughout the duration of the war. Mogh emphasised to consider the framework of activity of the prisoners, giving the example of a prisoners’ songbook or magazine. Her main sources were files the Soviet administration created about every prisoner who managed to escape or was released from the camps; these files have only been accessible for researchers since 2009. Methods and limitations of research were topics addressed in the discussion following the presentation.

With reference to the battle of the Brest Fortress CHRISTIAN GANZER (Leipzig) documented the commemoration of the fate of Soviet prisoners of war in the Soviet and post-soviet narrative. According to him, the number of Soviet soldiers taken into captivity was much higher than estimated and propagated by Soviet officials in order to use the battle for propagandistic purposes. Ganzer argued that historical research is even today strongly influenced by this narrative, still containing the general suspicion of having collaborated with the enemy; an accusation many former Soviet prisoners met after the war. According to Ganzer, pursuing this narrative is still preventing an appropriate commemoration of the prisoners’ fate who were in his words among the first victims of National Socialism.

In her presentation about the history of the Rumbula Memorial between 1945 and 1967, PAULA A. OPPERMANN (Hamburg, Uppsala) documented how members of the Jewish community in Soviet Latvia created the memorial to commemorate the biggest mass killing the National Socialists committed against Jews in the country. According to her, the Rumbula Memorial is an example that commemoration of the Jewish Holocaust began already in the early Soviet period. She also presented discussions within the Jewish community on how to create this memorial which was for some Jews not only a place of commemoration, but also a way to gain back and present Jewish self-esteem after the destruction of the majority of the country’s Jewry.

PHILIPP DINKELAKER (Berlin) gave an overview on the topics he plans to incorporate in his recently started PhD project about Jewish honour court and judicial trials against survivors of the Holocaust in post-war Germany. He aims to analyse how the trials were conducted and perceived by different actors in the German speaking and international community and what they meant for Germany’s coming to terms with its past. Here he argued that the trials show that aspects of National Socialist Antisemitism were transformed into a new acceptable Antisemitism making the Jews themselves partly responsible for the crimes committed against them.

Broadening the initial title “Workshop on History and Memory of the National Socialist Concentration Camps”, the lectures of this year’s workshop addressed a variety of topics dealing with the processes and impacts of the National Socialist occupation of Europe, and several parallels revealed during the workshop. The big disparity between the occupation policy implemented in Eastern and Western Europe was emphasised with reference to various Eastern European countries and different aspects of occupation, such as the killing of Jews, Non-Jews, and other civilian victims groups. The peculiarities of occupation policy in the East and their impact on forced laborers and exploitation of Prisoners of War in these countries as well as in the German Reich were also reflected in the papers. Regional disparities as well as structural parallels in Eastern and Western Europe revealed in papers about commemoration. The visits of the memorials in the Minsk region enriched these lectures. In connection to the experience at the memorial sites, the papers presented and discussions emerging at the workshop showed process in current research on occupation, forced labor, and extermination in Eastern Europe, but also proved the necessity for further research.

The organisers of the workshop plan to publish a collective volume of the papers.

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