This is a guest blog post written by the Future Memory project coordinator, Prof Paul Verschure
“We only know that when we get out of here, we must shout out into the world about everything that we have experienced here. Otherwise one cannot live.”
These are the words of Charlotte Grunow recorded on April 20, 1945 by BBC reporter Patrick Gordon Walker. Charlotte Grunow was arrested in Berlin in April 1943, transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and moved with a large group of female prisoners in November 1944 to Bergen-Belsen. She was liberated on April 15, 1945 with about 55000 other prisoners, 10000 of which were dead and a further 15000 would die after the liberation from disease and starvation due to a deliberate SS policy of neglect. The gruesome reality the Charlotte Grunow of April 1945 wants us to know about was largely unknown and unimagined by the liberating countries and was described by the BBC reporter Richard Dimbleby as "the world of a nightmare". This reality at the collapse of the Third Reich, could be found in over 42000 identified collection, concentration and killing centers and sites, transports and death marches across the Europe created by the Nazis. But is Charlotte being heard, then after the liberation, now seventy years later and in the future?
We are facing a transition in the commemoration of the Holocaust. The authentic voices reporting on the horrendous crimes humans are capable of will soon fall silent. Just for Bergen Belsen, key witnesses such as ex-prisoners Gyorgy Denes and Arieh Koretz and liberators Maj. Leonard Berney and Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown have all died in the last year. How to deliver on the solemn pledge we have repeated for the last 70 years, that “we must never forget”? Have we succeeded to transform these testimonies into understanding, meaning or a society the victims hoped for? The answer unfortunately is “No”. For instance, although few systematic surveys exist a recent UK survey among 8000 high-school students showed that the majority only has a cursory understanding of the Holocaust. The same holds for the rest of Europe. Hence, at the end of the period of the witness, we face a memory crisis in terms of the conservation and presentation of the events and experiences at the heart of European history and identity.
We have developed a novel approach towards answering the memory crisis: the Future Memory project. At the start of Future Memory stands a personal experience when I visited the Bergen Belsen campsite where my grandfather Jan Verschure, a Dutch resistance fighter died: I found an empty landscape. The chirping birds provided a score to this peaceful and well-kept heath park that had integrated the elevated tops of the known mass-graves. Note that in 1945 birds avoided the place and the mass graves containing the remains of about 20000 victims are still not localized. However, behind this pastoral façade with no intrinsic footholds to assist in understanding and commemorating resides the ultimate “witness”: space itself. Future Memory aims at reclaiming this space in the service of the preservation of history and the shaping of collective memory now and in the future. Future Memory digitally enhances space so that it becomes a medium though which historical sources and narratives can be discovered. The Future Memory project has started in 2010, in collaboration with the Bergen Belsen memorial site and was partially supported through the FET project CEEDS.
Future Memory builds historical learning on a twofold use of physical space. First, it acknowledges the fundamental role that space and action play in the formation of memory and experience. A scientific discovery worthy of a 2014 Nobel price. We have build on this link in our exhibitions and performances and the advanced neurorehabilitation technologies we have developed and deployed. Secondly, physical space is a permanent source for the authentication of historical knowledge: “this happened here”. Through the right use of technologies, spaces can be physically and virtually explored and discovered now and in the future, because they are laden with historical sources and reflections of the experiences of those who have been there. We have installed a number of integrated systems at the memorial site Bergen Belsen under the name “Here: Space of Memory” that implement these considerations. At the heart of this approach stands a 3D reconstruction of the former camp together with a database with geo-localized source material including diary fragments, images, drawings, video and audio clips. Visitors can access this physical/virtual space through an immersive virtual reality environment or by walking on the terrain itself using an augmented reality tablet App. By wandering among the reconstructed buildings, visitors explore historical sources in situ. Lastly, we have installed a sound installation that presents visitors with voices, including that of Charlotte Grunow, as they walk from the museum to the former campsite, creating a personal encounter with the fleeting past. The effectiveness of Future Memory can is evidenced through the associated educational program that is intensely used by visiting school classes and booked out for many months to come. After this important validation of the Future Memory approach, our goal is to digitally reconstruct, enhance and link together at least 100 sites across Europe, to show the system level organization of the murder machine created by the Nazi’s. We have started the Future Memory Foundation with the purpose to realize a neutral ground from which we can support this objective through both private and public support.
How close are we to our target? The UK holocaust education survey makes it painfully clear that at best there is a modest impact and we have to ask why the approaches followed over the last 70 years such as professionalizing commemoration, archiving and researching of historical sources, monumentalizing historical sites and offering museums has not translated into more societal impact? Possibly we still have not identified en effective way to link historical information to understanding. The Future Memory project builds a bridge between history, experience and meaning by advancing an integrated approach comprising science, technology, humanities and the arts, that not only investigates and presents “what happened here” but also how we can narrate this central chapter of European history to its citizens now and in the future as a source for continuous learning and reflection. This is a new and complementary approach to existing ones that can assist us in overcoming the memory crisis.
Today as the age of the witness is coming to a close, an enormous amount of work still needs to be done. We only have a few years left to conserve the living memory of the sites of the Holocaust, while for some sites it is already too late. It is true that Europe has supported some important initiatives such as the EHRI network and Europeana. But what has been done so far has not been enough, as the current state of Europe’s response to global humanitarian crises and rising anti-Semitism shows. There is a belief that enough is being done, but this is not supported by fact. Also in our case, despite the great interest that our project inspires, including at the level of the European Commission and their staff members, their requests for information have not translated into action, rather into “I have no time”. However, urgent action is required and a large-scale no holds barred European initiative must be undertaken, circumventing old habits and inertia in order to salvage the past to help us shape our European future.
Future Memory answers and propagates Charlotte’s Grunow’s rallying cry. We, the descendants of the victims, perpetrators, traitors, bystanders, survivors and resisters have an obligation to conserve the memory we risk to loose through the mortality of the survivor. To honor the victims, to safe guard and elaborate our European identity and to reflect on the darkest crevasses of the human soul, so that we may transcend them and find meaning and virtue in a deep understanding of who we have been, are and can become.
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