Where is Grandpa’s name? Wasn’t he a prisoner here?
The question by a grandchild of a survivor of the Neuengamme concentration camp illustrates that if the name of a former prisoner is not displayed where he or she had been held captive by the Nazis it causes confusion, especially when some survivors‘ names are displayed, but not all, as is the case in the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial. Besides publicly restating the fact that a prisoner had indeed been held captive in a specific camp, the visibility of the names of all former prisoners of a concentration camp fulfills important purposes.
The 14 people who participated in the workshop „Making the names of survivors visible at the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial“ on May 6, 2015 first explored the reasons for the visualization of the former prisoners‘ names and then drew up ideas for projects that could be implemented to show the names of all the former Neuengamme Concentration Camp prisoners.
Before looking at the pro side of showing the names of the former prisoners, the group consisting of relatives of former concentration camp prisoners from Germany and the Netherlands, Memorial staff, high school students and interested individuals addressed concerns held by some about publicly displaying the names of the former prisoners.
They discussed at length the possibility that some former prisoners would prefer to protect their privacy. The participants considered the possibility that prisoners who belong to the group of the so-called “forgotten prisoners” a might not want others to know that they had even been prisoners of a concentration camp.
In addition, the report about one family’s silence about their relative’s time in the concentration camp made it clear that it is not always easy for family members of former prisoners to commemorate this aspect of their family history.
These different thoughts enriched the subsequent discussions about reasons for making the names of the former prisoners visible.
- It is a symbolic reversal of the prisoners’ having been robbed of their names upon arrival in the camps where they were replaced with a number (see the temporary exhibition at the Dutch Resistance Museum).
- For the relatives it is important that the plight of the former prisoners receives recognition which in turn will mean recognition for the relatives.
- The names make it easier for the Memorial’s visitors, especially for students, to form an understanding of what happened in the Neuengamme concentration camp. Students who see the names of the prisoners will find it easier to grasp that the prisoners were people with individual stories when they see the names.
With the pros in mind, the workshop participants set out to develop proposals for the making visible of the former prisoners‘ names. Here is what they came up with:
The six proposals
Glass sheets with names of former prisoners in black (visualization of the name in the former prisoners‘ camp area)
Where once the camp’s fence led around the prisoners’ camp during the time of the Neuengamme concentration camp, today metal poles serve as a symbol.
This proposal envisions that placing glass sheets with a black inscription of the name of one prisoner per sheet between the poles.
The reasoning behind this proposal is that every visitor would immediately realize that the prisoners were actual people, not an abstract number. In addition, the names would also be seen from the Jean-Dolidier-Weg running alongside of the Memorial. Any passerby or driver would be reminded of the history of the place.
Stones with names of former prisoners (visualization of the name in the former prisoners‘ camp area)
In the former prisoners’ camp area of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial gabions show the locations of the barracks. The names of former prisoners will be written.
Behind this proposal is the idea that where the prisoners had to live under horrible conditions one should remember them as individuals.
Monuments (visualization of names in the memorial grove)
Smaller monuments in the vicinity of the International Memorial in the Memorial Grove commemorate specific groups of prisoners and individual former prisoners.
In most cases, corresponding organizations and family members have carried out these projects. The grove could be used as a site for many more small monuments.
To assist members who do not have the means to shoulder the financial burden of a small monument, the proposal suggests that private individuals can sponsor them. An example for such a sponsorship are the Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) by Gunter Demning. Individuals, especially students, could research the story of the former prisoner whose monument they are sponsoring. This would allow for them to take a more personal approach to the history of prisoners of the Neuengamme concentration camp. They could even learn about the effects the prisoner’s experiences had on his or her family by getting in touch with the relatives.
Bank with name plaques (visualization of names in the memorial grove)
The inspiration for this proposal is the „Public Bench“ by the German artist Jochen Gerz in Coventry, England. On the 45 meter long bench citizens and visitors to the city were able to have plaques with their names and that of another person along with a date affixed to the back of the back of the bench. Accordingly, the proposal suggests setting up a simple long bench. On its back the relatives can put up commemorative plaques. They can even add their own names or the names of their entire family to visualize the impact the camp experiences had on the family.
The proposal includes that new orders for plaques can be submitted throughout the year. Yet, each year there will be a ceremony to attach all the new plaques in the presence of the relatives of former prisoners. This ceremony should ideally be organized in the context of the commemorative events in May.
Remembrance continues to grow“ (visualization of names in the memorial grove)
The proposal envisions planting a tree for each former prisoner of the concentration camp Neuengamme. Each tree will be adorned with a small plaque for the respective former prisoner.
The idea to plant trees was explained by alluding to the positive connotation of the image of a tree that grows. A tree planted where the prisoners had suffered would be life-affirming. In addition, the trees could be used by relatives to commemorate their family member in a peaceful setting.
NeuengammeLinkedin“ (Remember online)
Unlike the other proposals the idea to create a kind of „NeuengammeLinkedIn“ is not an actual visualization of the names of the former prisoners. Rather, it would create a searchable online database. An expandable list of the names could be provided by the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial. An international blog would facilitate networking among relatives. They could find out which other prisoners were in the camp at the same time as their own relative. They could get in touch with the family of the other prisoner then. A „Biography Toolbox“ with information about and memories of individual former prisoners could be published under the names of the respective authors. This information would not be additionally verified by the memorial.
What ideas do you have for making visible the names of the survivors? We invite you to come to the working group meeting held on September 17, 2015 at 6 p.m.. Just send us an e-mail and we will send you the details of the meeting.
My special thanks go to Alyn Bessmann with whom I facilitated the workshop. She was kind enough to supplement my minutes