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Erinnerungskultur: Cultivating a Culture of Memory

By Paige Saskia Harouse | Published: January 27, 2020

Today, January 27th, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This date was chosen by the United Nations in 2005 as it is the date of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s liberation in 1945. In the 75 years since, the camp, once the largest extermination camp built by the Nazis as part of their plan to exterminate the Jewish people, has become synonymous with the systemic and widespread evil that was the Shoah.

For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1940-1945.
The English-language memorial in the Auschwitz-Birkenau
concentration camp in Oświęcim, Poland.

The German expression “Erinnerungskultur” could be translated as memorial, or commemorative, culture. It refers to the societal steps that the post-war Germanys—including West Germany, East Germany, and reunified Germany—have taken to address the legacy of the Nazi crimes and hatred that defined the country, and much of Europe, from 1933 to 1945. Yet Erinnerungskultur refers, more importantly, to the continual act of bearing witness to the crimes and destruction of the Nazi party and its allies. An unstated premise, though an often challenged one, of Erinnerungskultur is the necessity of group belonging in order to remember. In essence, modern Germans must remember because their grandparents and great-grandparents overwhelmingly acted in the interest of the Nazi party and therefore assisted in the murder of some estimated 6 million Jews, in addition to millions of members of other persecuted groups who were outside what the Nazis called the “Volksgemeinschaft,” the so-called “community of the people.”

It is this term, used by the Nazis to denote the ideal Aryan society that they planned to establish, that presents significant issues for the memorial culture of the 21st century. How can people cultivate a culture of memory when they and their families were either a part of a targeted group or then living in a different society? This question gets to the issue of inherited guilt and the potential limitations of forgiveness, a framework that makes more sense to those with a family connection to the perpetrators, rather than someone born to an immigrant family to Germany. Furthermore, for those groups, such as Jewish immigrants from the former USSR or Syrian refugees, is participation in Erinnerungskultur necessary to “integrate” and become German?        

The nuances of Erinnerungskultur are helpful in understanding how the Language Villages, particularly Waldsee, must grapple with the history and politics that accompany the languages taught. Each language comes with multiple narratives and histories from its native countries. A challenge that the German Language Village faces is how to address the changing idea of what it has meant to be “German.” Waldsee must embody the multitudes and questions of German-speaking experience and identity. In light of Erinnerungskultur, this means talking about the destruction of German-Jewish society by the Nazis. It also means talking about what post-war Germans have done to welcome migrants and refugees, as well as discussing discrimination against Turkish and other immigrants to Germany and the perpetual question of the ability of refugees to successfully “integrate” into German society.  This is essential not only to have a broad definition of identity, but to fight the societal groups that actively threaten and challenge the validity of minority identities in countries around the world, including in Germany.

Quote featured at the Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg 
concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany. 

Yet, what Erinnerungskultur often fails to address is the experiences and challenges facing those once-persecuted minority groups today. Just a month after Europe marked the 80th anniversary of Germany invading Poland, a neo-Nazi attacked a packed synagogue in Halle, Germany on Yom Kippur. Miraculously, the perpetrator failed to shoot his way into the synagogue and turned his anger towards another “foreign” location in the town: the nearest Turkish Döner-Kebab shop. Two people died that day, many others were psychologically wounded. Throughout Germany many began to ask themselves how this could happen in a country intent on “never forgetting.”

As the Concordia Language Villages and Waldsee communities continue to grapple with the 2018 realization that the name “Waldsee” was used by the Nazis as part of a ploy to deceive Jews being brought to Auschwitz, we must balance the significance of this coincidence with the ongoing reality of hatred today. To let our actions be rooted only in the past would be a rejection of the past’s impact today. At every Language Village we must prioritize teaching about the customs and cultures of minority groups alongside the majority. At Waldsee, that means educating our villagers about the history and evolution of Erinnerungskultur alongside the stories and narratives of German-speaking Jews and other minority groups in Germany. Above all, we should honor the lives of those who died in the Shoah by inspiring villagers and staff to be global citizens who realize that history continues to impact the present and that we must continue to fight hatred, so that pluralism and tolerance can prevail. 

About the Author

Paige Saskia Harouse is a 5 year staff member and 4 year villager at Waldsee, where she helps facilitate inter-village and minority-focused programs. She graduated from Georgetown University and is currently completing a volunteer service year at the Memorial and Museum Sachsenhausen, a former concentration camp, with Action Reconciliation Services. 

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