"Silent Witnesses"


place/state: Brandenburg
INSTITUTION: DGB-Jugendbildungsstätte Flecken Zechlin
AUTHORS: Akim Jah und Michael Thoß
age group: 14 years and older
Country/ Countries: Germany

learning activities
Analyzing propaganda
Creating an exhibition
Encountering eyewitnesses
Resurrecting biographies
Working with art

Combatting violence and racism today
Concentration camps
Death march
Right-wing extremism

In reaction to an arson attack on the Death March Museum and the desecration of the Memorial in the forest of Below in the autumn of 2002, a series of seminars on the topic "The Death March in the Forest of Below" was developed by the Youth Centre Flecken Zechlin, aiming at students from Berlin and Brandenburg. The topic also addressed the ideology and strategy of contemporary right wing extremism. As an outcome of this non-school project, the young people involved developed a travelling exhibition, which has been shown at five different locations in Berlin and Brandenburg so far. Variations of these model seminars continue to be offered by the youth centre.

The historical location

The Death March Museum in the forest of Below is situated in the north of the Land Brandenburg, not far from the small town of Wittstock. Historically this place is closely connected to the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen. The Sachsenhausen camp was dissolved following the rapid progress of the Soviet army towards Berlin, and in April 1945 the majority of prisoners were driven on foot in several columns to the direction of Schwerin. Insufficiently provided with clothes and food, they arrived in the vicinity of Wittstock, where they camped, utterly exhausted, in the forest of Below. The only protection from the weather consisted of self-constructed shelters and burrows which they dug into the ground. After a stay of hardly a week the prisoners were driven further on and finally liberated by allied forces near Schwerin and Ludwigslust (see Doc. 1, 2).

After the war, a memorial stele was erected to commemorate the victims of this death march, and in 1981 a museum was opened, showing testimonials and objects of everyday life of the former prisoners. A broader public became aware of this remote memorial after an arson attack by neo-Nazis in the night of 6 September 2002, in the course of which an exhibition room and part of the exhibits were damaged and the memorial was smeared with swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans.

Project Description

The series of seminars had three different parts, each consisting of three days at the DGB Youth Centre Flecken Zechlin.

The first day of the seminar started by a group discussion about the young people's relationship towards the topic National Socialism and recalled important events and structures of National Socialism, with a focus on the connection between racist theories and setting up the system of concentration camps by the state. Using a time-line, they assigned important events of the National Socialist period 1933-1945 to the goals of National Socialist policy, thus identifying the historical context of the death march. They also dealt with the recourse of right-wing extremists to bits and pieces of Nazi ideology.

Another full day was dedicated to investigating the historical location, talking to a contemporary witness of the death march and interviewing citizens of the region on the neo-Nazi attack. The guided tour of the Below Forest to the traces of the prisoners was documented by the young people using audio and video recordings and photographs. Some of them used the time after the guided tour to return to the forest on their own to take in the atmosphere of the place. Then the group split up. Some of the young people went to a shopping centre in Wittstock to interview citizens of the region about the attack on the museum. Others took a walk along part of the way of the former death march up to the village of Grabow, where there had been an emergency military hospital. This is where the second part of the guided tour took place. Some girls were able to speak with a contemporary witness who still lives in Grabow and had witnessed the march of the prisoners (see Docs 3 and 4).

On the third day, the young people left the merely cognitive level. Guided by the question "What do I think about my visit to the Below Forest Memorial and what would I like to communicate to others?" they had the opportunity to express their feelings and deal with the impressions gained during the excursion day, using a variety of creative methods. The guidelines were kept very loose: it was possible to work alone or in groups, the form could also be freely chosen. The outcome consisted of several small texts, a poem, a poster produced in group work and a number of collages. The creative works showed the intense emotional involvement of the young people. The results were then presented to the plenary (see Doc 5).

In the afternoon, the young people worked on the topic "right-wing extremism today". In small groups and then in a plenary session, they investigated the function and importance of right-wing music for the strategy of right-wing extremists, analysing the lyrics of well-known right-wing rock bands in the light of different questions with respect to content, images and connecting points towards National Socialism. They found out that in large parts of Germany, a youth culture with strong affinities to the ideas of National Socialism has developed which provides a fertile ground for ideologies that glorify attacks like the one in Below as a legitimate means of political strife.

The variety of methods and work forms enabled the young people to approach the seminar topics independently from different angles and to deal with their experiences and emotions. On the evening after the excursion, some of the participants met spontaneously to tell each other about their experiences in Wittstock and in Grabow in front of the rolling camera. This resulted in a text informing about the death march, the attack and the reactions of the citizens of Wittstock, but it also reflected the feelings and the mood of the young people. The idea to organise an exhibition was developed on the background of the arson attack and the works resulting from the seminar.

The first seminar was characterised by four phases:

  • Introduction and forming a group identity
  • Cognitive foundation of knowledge on National Socialism and right-wing extremism
  • Visit to the historical location and interviews
  • Creative and emotional processing of the experience

The Exhibition

The second seminar took place a couple of weeks later and focused on the concept of the exhibition, the editing and discussion of the texts produced, more intensive discussions of the topic and a reflection on the results of the first seminar. In this seminar, the work was divided among four groups, and each participant had to choose one. One working group conducted research on the biographies of prisoners and on the death march, a second worked on right-wing extremism and backgrounds of the attack, a third group edited the audio-visual material, and a fourth developed a concept for the exhibition. The method of group work does not just facilitate an adequate division of labour, it also enables the young people to go for the medium and the content that appeals to them most. They can write texts, conduct research, or do creative, conceptional and technical work. All working groups were backed by professional help. The first two groups were supported by the management team (historian and political scientist) who helped with the research work as well as with the writing of the texts. The media educator of the youth centre provided technical support for the third group, and the concept-group co-operated with a professional exhibition designer. The exhibition produced by this seminar was called "Silent Witnesses – an Exhibition about the Below Forest". Its first part consists of texts and photographs on the history of the death march and on the arson attack which are fixed to stylised trees. The trees form an abstract forest surrounded by black display panels that run funnel-shaped towards a blue screen symbolising the light at the end of a tunnel - the prisoners' hope for liberation. Having crossed the forest, the visitor comes to the reflective and creative works of the young people. So-called guest-trees provide space for visitors' comments.

When the important conceptional decisions had been taken in shared discussions among all working groups, and the bulk of the raw material (photographs, audio recordings, texts) had been processed, the actual realisation could commence. Financial support through the Respektabel-programme made it possible to outsource part of the technical work, e.g. the production of wooden display panels for the presentation of exhibits. Meanwhile, details of the exhibition were clarified in a planning meeting with the exhibition designer. In a third seminar one week before the exhibition started, the young people, supported by the professionals, installed the exhibition at the premises of the Below Forest Museum (see photographs 1 – 7/8).

Part of the preparations was the drafting of a speech for the opening of the exhibition. Two young people came up with a proposal which was then discussed by the group.

The exhibition was opened at the occasion of the annual commemoration ceremony of the death march in April 2003 and the opening speech delivered by the young people. The exhibition was received very positively, especially among the younger visitors. The exhibits stayed at the Below Forest for four months and were then shown at other location in Oranienburg and Berlin. One exhibit was stolen at the Oranienburg Runge-Gymnasium and money taken from the donations cash box.

The theft, but even more the visitors' comments on the "guest-trees" gave the exhibition its own history and triggered off further discussions. An informal evaluation by the young people rounded off the project.

The seminars continue to be offered in a short version not including the development of an exhibition and as five-day seminars.