Bodies and Borders. 26th Workshop on the History and Memory of National Socialist Camps and Killing Sites

Bodies and Borders. 26th Workshop on the History and Memory of National Socialist Camps and Killing Sites

Ella Falldorf, Jena University; Hana Green, Clark University; Daan de Leeuw, Clark University; Théophile Leroy, EHESS Paris/Sciences Po Strasbourg; Jesse E. Lillefjeld, European University Viadrina; Paweł Michna, Jagiellonian University Kraków; Esther Renee Selman, Holocaust Memorial Day Trust
Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Łódź
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
04.09.2023 - 10.09.2023
Hannah Sprute, Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten; Aliena Stürzer, Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten

The 26th Workshop on the History and Memory of National Socialist Camps and Killing Sites, uniting emerging scholars of the field, focused on the categories of “Bodies and Borders”, exploring the topics in a variety of individual papers and panel discussions as well as by excursions to the former Łódź and Piotrków Trybunalski ghettos, to the Chełmno Death Camp and during a conversation with Holocaust survivor Mala Tribich MBE.

The workshop took off with a walking keynote by ADAM SITAREK (Łódź) who introduced the participants to the history of the Łódź ghetto. The group followed the former borders of the ghetto, thereby reflecting on the racial line drawn between the Jewish and non-Jewish population of Łódź during the German occupation. Sitarek pointed to aspects of the perpetrators’ administration of the ghetto as well as inhabitants’ everyday life and self-organization. Through the keynote, the focus on the spatial dimension and the materiality of genocidal violence shaped the workshop from the outset.

Opening the first panel on “Sealing, Crossing, Transcending Borders” with a paper on the earliest concentration camps in Germany, CORINNA BITTNER (Cologne) elaborated on how the figure of the peat bog soldier, also memorized in the song “Die Moorsoldaten”, became a central iconic motive for the inmates of the Emsland concentration camps during (and after) their imprisonment. She stressed that the peat bog soldier was imagined as an unscathed and idealized male body, thus representing the prisoners’ human and masculine integrity and resilience. Regarding ego documents, she drew attention to the fact that this figure nevertheless allowed for vulnerability, though this was highly dependent on the social, political, or economic situations of the respective narrators.

LAUREN FEDEWA (Toronto) presented on Polish Jewish women’s “performance” as non-Jewish civilian laborers in German transit camps in occupied Poland from 1941 to 1943. By adapting their behavior, religious practice, looks and language, these women partly succeeded in passing as non-Jewish, thus being transferred to the Reich which paradoxically had become a safe place for them compared to German-occupied territories. Based on surviving women’s testimonies, Fedewa pointed out that the transit camps thereby turned out to be decisive spaces of survival/non-survival, though only being a first stop on a journey under constant risk of being discovered either by former neighbors or the Gestapo searching for Jews who thus tried to cross the border to the Reich.

Moving over to the postwar period MARJOLEIN UITTENBOGAARD (Amsterdam) showcased how the memorialization of Soviet POWs evolved at the Bergen-Belsen Memorial after 1945. She first emphasized how the “forgotten genocide” of 3,3 million Soviet POWs was obscured in the archives, marginalized within the Soviet Union, and neglected in postwar Germany. Uittenbogaard then argued that at Bergen-Belsen, remembrance of the Soviet POW camp changed from being reduced to a single underdetermined monument to a focus on individual stories in the updated memorial’s exhibition. The exhibition thus functions as an archive of memory, reinvesting cultural memory with individual biographies. She also pointed to the disentanglement of Soviet identities and political mobilization of memory, especially since the Russian war against Ukraine, as a continuing challenge.

Concluding the first panel, DMITRI ABRAHAMS (Cape Town) elaborated on how the Holocaust and National Socialist atrocities were reported in the South African press at the end of the Second World War. Relying on vast archives of different newspapers, he emphasized different lines of argumentation: While the Liberal/Centrist Press with a predominantly British audience reinforced the perception of Germany as the enemy in a “righteous war”, the Black press underlined the general danger of Nazism and racism, alluding to racial discrimination in South Africa. The Afrikaner/nationalist press, however, diminished news from liberated Europe as propaganda, by deflecting to the danger of communism instead. The press coverage of the Holocaust was thus translated into contemporary domestic political positioning.

NATALIA JUDZINSKA’s (Warsaw) keynote investigated the connections between the current humanitarian crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border and the Holocaust, drawing from her experience as both a historian and activist. She discussed the renewal of Holocaust scripts in the context of this crisis, emphasizing the significance of belongings and hideouts left behind by people on the move. In conclusion, Judzińska raised questions about preserving, mapping and documenting these spaces.

The second panel on “Materialities of Bodies” was opened by JULIE FITZPATRICK (London), who presented on the relationship between German Jewish women and food in Eastern European ghettos and camps. Focusing on the Łódź ghetto, she explored how middle-class women, upon their arrival in 1941, responded to food supply challenges. Unaccustomed to hunger, they resorted to selling their possessions to secure food, contributing to both a currency devaluation and a deteriorating food supply for the entire ghetto population, leading to inter-group conflicts. Fitzpatrick, drawing from multiple testimonies, highlighted the agency and self-reliance of these women in employing various coping strategies, while underscoring the persistence of traditional gender roles in food provisioning for their families.

ALEXANDER WILLIAMS (Groningen) then turned to the Treblinka extermination camp, exploring perceptions of life and death by the camps’ inmates. Based on survivors’ testimonies such as Richard Glazar’s, he suggested that ordinary standards for emotions were not working within an extermination camp. Based on several narrated experiences, he argued that the dichotomy of life and death had been put into question, as the prisoners were always under the threat of being killed very soon which led to an in-between state, living liminally or existing as “ghosts” without connection to the starkly differing outside world. Questioning the inmates’ perception of time, Williams pointed out an ontological uncertainty, the period between present (life) and future (death) being undetermined.

EVA SAMADDAR (Paris) explored how the embodied suffering of persecuted Roma in Serbia under German occupation between 1941 and 1944 has been conveyed through arts and oral testimonies until today. She presented the main narratives of oral testimonies concerning physical violence experienced by Roma, the othering of Roma bodies in Serbian society at the time and the ongoing separation of Roma in Serbia after the war. Showcasing the song and lyrics “Gelem Gelem” (1949), the movie “Ko to Tamo Peva?” (1980) and contemporary art, Samaddar concluded that representations of Roma bodies have become less stereotypical and that gender implications have become stronger, while the memory of the Porajmos is neither unified nor collective today.

In the last paper of the panel, MAELLE LEPTIRE (Jena) outlined how the bodies of victims of racial persecution, especially Jewish victims, were represented at Buchenwald Memorial after the German reunification in 1989/90. With the end of the GDR giving rise to new memory narratives, the memorial’s strong focus on political prisoners ceased. The Memorial took the 3,500 Roma and 75,000 Jews who were deported to Buchenwald into view. Exploring how this memory shift was represented in exhibitions, Lepitre stated that the overall purpose was to give back names, faces and dignity to victims who had hardly been represented as part of the antifascist GDR state narrative after 1945.

The influence of the underlying social dynamics on the bodily experience in the camps was explored in the third panel. Kickstarting the discussion, ALEXANDRA KUMALA (Kraków) investigated the transcending border between victimhood and perpetratorship in the descriptions of so-called pipels in accounts of former Polish political prisoners. The term refers to young male prisoners allegedly participating in practices of sexual barter with functional prisoners. Tracing the evolvement of the figure of a Jewish pipel in Majdanek concentration camp referred to as “Bubi” who was described as brutal and insidious, Kumala argued that the figure of “Bubi” allowed the testifying Polish political prisoners to disaffiliate male sexual desire from their own experience and externalize it on the deceitful “other” by using antisemitic and homophobic tropes.

Further exploring the complex issue of sexual violence during the Holocaust, JOCELYN BARRETT (Fairfax) started her paper by noting the lack of a single comprehensive theory to explain the occurrence of such phenomena. Introducing the concept of social identity theory to the discussion, the paper emphasized its potential to better explain behaviors, group dynamics and self-perceptions on factors such as gender, political affiliation, and race. While previous research often viewed sexual violence as a method of dominance, the paper argued it should also be analyzed as a tool for social cohesion and identity formation, shaping and shifting social boundaries, either through fostering ingroup self-esteem or through the destruction of the social fabric, stigmatization, and humiliation of the victim.

The panel was concluded by SYLWERIUSZ KRÓLAK (Warsaw), who focused on the exploration of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw through methods of spatial and sensorial analysis. Drawing inspiration from anthropologist David Le Breton's work, the paper investigated the intricate interplay of space and senses, raising questions about the relation of sensory and social modalities and the role of aromas and smells in the formation of a complex sensory landscape within the Warsaw ghetto. The paper explored various accounts, including written testimonies from residents, and narratives from touristic excursions by Germans to the ghetto, emphasizing the overwhelming sensory experiences and the absence of nature within the ghetto's landscape as distinctive features of the inhabitants’ experience.

Taking the discussion to the realm of curatorial studies, the second keynote lecture by NATALIA ROMIK (Warsaw) presented an exhibition on Jewish survival architecture during the Holocaust, showcasing casts of hide-outs in hollow trees, wardrobes, sewers, caves, and graves. Romik argued that sculptural forms, backed by preliminary interdisciplinary research, challenge the invisibility of former shelters while delving into the resourcefulness of the creators in times of existential threat. Discussing the fusion of art, architecture, and social sciences as tools for contemplating community dynamics in precarious contexts, she stressed the role of the public historian in the current political discourse.

Opening the final panel, which explored various dimensions of proximities to violence, KATARZYNA GRZYBOWSKA (Kraków) challenged the assumption of the Holocaust by Bullets being an “event without witnesses” by introducing the case study of the peripheral Krępiecki forest close to Lublin, a site of mass shooting of both ghetto and concentration camp inmates. Applying the concept of a non-site of memory to the rural environment, Gryzbowska shed light on the translucence of borders for local bystanders during the occupation and the transmission of knowledge about the events in local communities. Until today, the memory of such peripheral killing sites is shaped by the presence of human remains and traces of bystanders’ looting.

Taking the discussion to the issue of temporal proximities, SAM CHURCHILL (London) introduced his ongoing photographic work, which delves into the return of Holocaust survivors to Polish landscapes. The project focuses on the juxtaposition of past and present, direct and indirect violence, as well as the significance of the survivor’s body. The visual exploration of Holocaust landscapes presented encompasses contrasting images, from mundane scenes like dog walkers at Majdanek to powerful survivor portraits, illuminating the contemporary context of these sites. The project's sensitivity to survivor testimonies, and personal resilience is evident in the powerful portrayal of the survivor Arek Hersh, presented as a case study.

JULIANE KUCHARZEWSKI (Potsdam) investigated the often-overlooked period immediately following the liberation of concentration camps and the complex dynamics between liberators, camp inmates, and German civilians. The paper demonstrated that the Allies lacked a comprehensive re-education plan for Germans, then explored the campaigns pursued, including forced tours of the camps, clean-up work and interactions with victims. Case studies from Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau exemplified different forms of mandatory confrontation with the victims’ bodies, hands-on involvement, and civil responses to these efforts. German reactions identified in the research ranged from denial to indifference. Finally, Kucharzewski underscored the significance of these post-war educational efforts for the perception of the camps’ reality.

Concluding the panel, NILS WEIGT (Frankfurt) explored the deportation of Jewish inmates of the Terezín ghetto to the Wulkow camp in Brandenburg in 1944 to construct an alternative site for the Reich Security Main Office due to the disintegrating state of bomb-damaged Berlin. Weigt provided a multi-perspective history of the rural camp and the attached prisoner command, highlighting the shifting dynamics of power, contact between inmates and high-ranking Nazis, and the ideologically inconsistent treatment of so-called “Mischlinge.” The paper contributed to the understanding of Nazi policies in the final phase of the Holocaust and the responses of those affected.

While addressing various temporal and spatial contexts, the presentations provided a wide array of perspectives that fostered a transnational outlook on the categories of "bodies" and “borders” within the field of Holocaust studies. The diverse range of academic disciplines and the democratic structure facilitated a conducive atmosphere for discussion and debate. The next workshop will be held in October 2024 in Utrecht, the Netherlands, exploring the themes of “Proximities & Gaze”.

Conference overview:

Walking Keynote

Adam Sitarek (Łódź): Traces of the Łódź Ghetto

Panel I – Sealing, Crossing, Transcending Borders

Corinna Bittner (Cologne): The ‘Peat Bog Soldiers’ Across Borders. The Inmates’ Bodies in Representations of the Emsland Camps

Lauren Fedewa (Toronto): Polish Jewish Women’s ‘performance’ in German Transit Camps in Occupied Poland, 1941-1943

Marjolein Uittenbogaard (Amsterdam): From Anonymity to Individuality. The Postwar Dynamic of the Memory of Soviet POWs in the Bergen-Belsen Memorial

Dmitri Abrahams (Cape Town): The Destruction European Jewry in the South African Press, April-November 1945

Keynote lecture I

Natalia Judzińska (Warsaw): Materialization of Agency. Asylum Seekers' Hideouts on the Polish-Belarusian Border

Panel II – Materialities of Bodies

Julie Fitzpatrick (London): Weeds as Salad Leaves, Turnip Juice as Sugar Sweets and Rutabagas as Apple Pie: German Jewish Women’s Relationship with Food in the Ghettos and Camps of Eastern Europe

Alexander Williams (Groningen): ‘Ghosts Inside the Fence’: Exploring the Perception of Life and Death within the Borders of the Nazi Extermination Camp Treblinka

Eva Samaddar (Paris): Embodying Sufferance of Roma in Serbia between 1941 and 1944 Through Arts and Oral Testimonies

Maëlle Lepitre (Jena): Representing the Bodies of the Victims of Racial Persecution at the Buchenwald Memorial After 1989/90

Panel III – Negotiating Bodies: Friendship, Sexual Violence, and Social Dynamics in the Holocaust

Alexandra Kumala (Kraków): Sexual Violence, Pipels, and the Victimhood in Question

Jocelyn Barrett (Fairfax): Social Identity Theory and Sexual Violence during the Holocaust

Sylweriusz Królak (Warsaw): Urban Sensory Research in Non-existing Ghetto Space

Keynote lecture II

Natalia Romik (Warsaw): Hideouts. The Architecture of Survival

Panel IV – Proximities to Violence

Katarzyna Grzybowska (Kraków): Translucent Borders of the Wall of Trees. Killing Sites in the Peripheral Forests

Sam Churchill (London): Proximities Photo Book – Case Study: Arek Hersh

Juliane Kucharzewski (Potsdam): Early Re-education: Forced Camp Tours of German Civilians after the War

Nils Weigt (Frankfurt): Disintegrating Center of Power? The Relocation of SS and Gestapo Offices from Berlin to the Periphery 1943-45