In cooperation with the Russian organization "Memorial"/St. Petersburg, the European Youth Education and Meeting Centre (EJBW) is carrying out an intercultural and oral history project for German and Russian youth. During their encounter in Germany, the participants are taught basic facts of German and Russian/Soviet history. Together, they visit the Buchenwald and Dora-Mittelbau concentration camps and develop an interview method with which they interview former Russian war prisoners in St. Petersburg who have survived German concentration camps.
"Living with the Memory!" This ambiguous sentence seems best suited to describe both the starting point and the objective of a multi-faceted project carried out in 2001 under the title "Lange her und nicht vorbei...." ("Long ago and not over yet...") as a German-Russian youth encounter in Weimar and St. Petersburg. Organized by the European Youth Education and Meeting Centre (EJBW), the idea was developed together with adolescent participants of the human rights program at the Russian organization "Memorial"/ St. Petersburg. The project was supervised by a German historian, whose main focus was to conduct eyewitness interviews.
The Course of the Project
In the course of the two-part project, 20 Russian and German youth and young adults prepared to travel to St. Petersburg, where they interviewed former Russian war prisoners who had survived German concentration camps. Although the life and destiny of Soviet war prisoners in German concentration camps has received relatively little attention so far, the participants also focused on other topics. Because almost none of the participants was a professional historian, non-historiographic questions played quite an important role.
In their discussions with eyewitnesses, the participants focused on the following questions: What does the interviewee remember? What do these memories mean to him/her today? Why is he/she willing to talk? Did he/she draw any personal conclusions from these life experiences? And they asked themselves: Is it legitimate to revive these painful memories? Do I want to hear about such experiences, and why? Does all this have any meaning for my personal life? And: do we have a different perspective because we are from Germany or Russia?
The motive of the joint project was a connecting factor: an overlap of German and Russian history. The grandparents (and/or great-grandparents) of the participants had personally experienced these events either as members of the German "nation of perpetrators" or of the Soviet "society of war victims", they had been educated to hate each other, and they passed on their respective view points to their families. Does this necessarily mean that German and Russian grandchildren (and great-grandchildren) differ in their historical interests, in their questions, in their judgment, in their attitudes, and in their "concernment"?
Before jointly exploring these questions, the participants were given ample time to get to know each other personally. In Weimar, they visited the Buchenwald and Dora-Mittelbau Memorials and were taught basic facts on German and Soviet/Russian history; in St. Petersburg, they learned about the "Leningrad blockade" and visited a monument marking this event. [See document: Implementation of the Weimar and St. Petersburg project parts].
The eyewitness interviews [See document: "Oral History and Youth Education")]
The contact with interview partners was established with the help of "SPROBUFKL", a St. Petersburg organization of former concentration camp prisoners. As many of these eyewitnesses are no longer alive, or are unwilling (or unable) to talk, the sole "selection criterion" that interviewees had to "fulfill" was to have been imprisoned either in the Buchenwald concentration camp or in one of the branch camps, because those were the places with which the seminar was engaged. For eyewitness interviews, a method had been developed to enable participants to conduct their interviews independently and to solve possible problems themselves. [See document: Questionnaire]. The interviews were conducted in the domiciles of the eyewitnesses in St. Petersburg. Where possible, the interviews were preceded by preliminary discussions introducing the interview partners to the project and interview methods, as well as providing them with an outline of its content. During the interviews themselves, the interviewers asked their questions in their respective mother tongue. The answers of the eyewitnesses were given in Russian and were then translated into German by the interpreter, section by section.
The planning and conduct of the eyewitness interviews was a very valuable experience. In the course of these conversations, the participants learned that there is no such thing as "history", but rather that historiography offers many perspectives on the same events [See document: Excerpts from the interview with Anatolij Kuleschow]. They became aware of the fact that each representation depends to a great extent on the asker's motives, on the interviewee's life situation (for instance his position in the compensation debate in Russia), on the subsequent interpretation of his/her narrative, and on other factors. The participants also experienced that narratives can reveal more about the meaning of memory in the present than about the historic events themselves. But uncertainties remained. Many participants had difficulties in coping with the rational interview technique because the work released strong emotions. Furthermore, moral and ethical concerns regarding the interviews troubled certain participants throughout the whole project.
Both the organizers and the participants had begun this project with numerous questions, and during the two project weeks many of them struck out on totally new paths, not all of which led to satisfying results. Altogether, however, the conviction prevailed that the attempt to engage with such a difficult topic and with participants with widely varying cultural, historical and social backgrounds turned out beneficial for everyone, and that the conceptual orientation of the projects was ground-breaking - also against the backdrop of European unification. The current change of cultural paradigms also includes coming to terms with history. The project group achieved this by encouraging Russian and German participants seek to mutually understand their approaches and points of view. More than that, the project helped them to jointly explore and find their own paths.
"Leben mit der Erinnerung!" ("Living with the Memory!")
In this project, 28 youth and adults juxtaposed remembering and forgetting. They formulated questions (and answers) for the present. The experiences and results of this project were documented in a bilingual, German-Russian book that appeared in January 2003 [See literature].