Empowering or overwhelming? International youth work on exclusion and discrimination at memorials to the victims of the Nazis

Steffen Jost is the acting director of the Max Mannheimer Study Center in Dachau. He earned his doctorate at LMU Munich; his dissertation topic was Seville’s culture of memory. Nina Rabuza is an educator at the Max Mannheimer Study Center in Dachau, where she is responsible for international teacher trainings and youth meetings.

By Steffen Jost and Nina Rabuza

Translated by Leslie Kuo

International youth meetings or teacher trainings have long been part of educational work on Nazism, also at memorial sites. In contrast to shorter programs, in international projects, the objective has always been more than just learning how to teach history. The "encounter" should foster intercultural exchange, reconciliation, or the reduction of stereotypes and prejudices. With the new dominance of human rights education, there have also been more calls for making connections to present-day problems. Discrimination should not be seen as just a historical phenomenon; instead, connections should be drawn to the world of the participants’ daily lives. Thus, in this text, we will discuss the following question: what does it mean to work, at memorials to the victims of the Nazis, with "marginalized" groups, or groups who have experienced individual or collective discrimination? The question will be discussed here by considering the example of two youth meetings that were different in many ways, which both included one-week seminars at the Max Mannheimer Study Center in Dachau and at which completely different group dynamics developed.

"Narratives of injustice" — Sinti and Roma in Germany and Serbia in the 20th and 21st centuries (Project dates: 2012-2013)

The project addressed the discrimination against, and persecution of, Sinti and Roma in Germany and Serbia in history and in the present. Between two one-week seminars in Dachau and Belgrade, the participants conducted interviews, from which they produced four short films during the course of the second seminar. The films have since been posted on Youtube.

The group was extremely heterogeneous in many ways. The age and education level of the participants varied significantly, ranging from 14 to 23 years and from special-needs students to university students. From each country, there were Sinti and Roma participants as well as participants from the respective social majorities. As the meeting progressed, it became clear that there were very different interests and goals. It became apparent that the participants’ experiences during the meeting was strongly affected by the collective group to which they belonged, but social status and education level also played a large role.

For the German Sinti, it was unusual to have to act as the group's experts on "their" culture and, at the former site of the concentration camp, on history, as well. However, after some time, they took on this role with a certain "pride." All of the Serbian Roma were already working in NGO contexts and were much more used to this role. They spoke less from the perspective of individual experience, acting instead as experts on the situation of the Roma in Serbia in general. Meeting a German Sinti survivor led to a stronger sense of connectedness between the participating Sinti and Roma. After the official discussion, the German and Serbian Sinti and Roma again initiated a discussion (partially in Romani) outside the official program, i.e. without the participants from the social majorities. At the end of the one-week seminar in Dachau, the German Sinti visited the concentration camp memorial again and held their own memorial ceremony. All in all, it became clear that the historical site of the concentration camp memorial had a different meaning for them than for the other participants. Speaking about historical persecution offered a framework in which personal experiences with discrimination could also be expressed. Subsequently, the German Sinti organized interviews with their families, visited the memorial with their parents, and began asking their relatives questions about history. This created a stronger connection between the Nazi period and the present, which had indeed been formulated as a goal as the project was conceived, but not one that should be forced. The intention was to let the participants determine to what extent the meeting should become a space for addressing personal experiences with discrimination.

"Memory Lab Junior" – History and memory in Bosnia, France, Germany and Serbia (project dates: 2014-2016)

In the project "Memory Lab Junior," adolescents and young adults discussed how history, memory and identity are related to each other. In three seminars, the participants from Bosnia, Germany, France, and Serbia considered memories of the Nazi period, the way that the Yugoslav Wars are being dealt with in Bosnia and Serbia, and issues of colonial history. The aim of the project was to stimulate interest in questioning history and national/nationalist narratives, both from a historical and a contemporary perspective. The first segment in Dachau was concerned with the history of the concentration camp and the founding of the memorial site. During the first two days of the workshop, the participants got to know each other through different, playful activities. This created a pleasant group atmosphere. With the visit to the memorial site, the group dynamic changed. The Bosnian participants wanted to spend time together as a group without the other participants. They expressed their grief over the atrocities in Dachau and empathized strongly with the victims and their families. At the same time, they made a direct connection between the suffering of the victims of the Nazis with the war crimes experienced by them personally, by their families, and by what they saw as the Bosnians collectively. One participant said that she was already familiar with everything that she saw at Dachau. She felt that the camps in Bosnia during the Yugoslav Wars were the same, and that she and the Bosnian participants were thus better able to empathize with the prisoners than the other participants were. 

Speaking of personal suffering "among themselves"

Thus, the visit to the memorial site elicited different reactions from the Bosnian participants than from the other groups. For them, there was hardly any difference between the concentration camps and the camps during the Yugoslav Wars This equivalency made it difficult to critically analyze both topics, because the discussion was perceived by the Bosnian group as cynical or "cold-blooded," as a participant wrote later. In their eyes, regarding the atrocities, there was nothing to be discussed; their focus was on expressing grief. Their own experience with suffering was challenging, so a nuanced discussion of the Nazis’ crimes was hardly possible for them. The other participants had not had any comparable collective experience of suffering themselves. Confronting and discussing Nazi crimes was, for the rest of the group, primarily an intellectual issue, and only secondarily an emotional one. Thus, a conflict developed: the Bosnian participants felt the need to talk about the Bosnians’ painful experiences "amongst themselves," while the other groups were interested in a discursive exchange of ideas about the history of the Nazi era and the culture of remembrance and commemoration. At this point, the whole group was reaching their breaking points; communication within the group became problematic. Only after the topic was changed to the question of how to deal with sites of atrocities, and after the meeting moved on to a different place, did the tension diffuse. 


Up to this point, there have been few studies on the effect of international youth meetings. In the two projects described here, it is also difficult to gauge whether participation had a lasting impact on the young people, and how the work at, and with, the memorial site affects the longer-term development process. However, we consider it a success that the young people from the project "Narratives of Injustice" engaged intensively with histories, including family histories, and that the Sinti participants were able to experience the memorial site as a place relevant to them. The example of the project "Memory Lab Junior" shows, however, that visiting a memorial site can also present an obstacle for a meeting. The Bosnian participants were overwhelmed by visiting the memorial, due to their personal experiences, and withdrew somewhat from the group. For the cultural contact aspect, a seminar on a different topic would have been easier. Moreover, with both groups, it was seen that during the course of the project, the identity as Sinti in Germany, or as Bosnians, respectively, became increasingly important. Thus, it would be desirable, in future research on international youth meetings, that investigating the connections between the identity development processes and work at historical sites remains a relevant research question.


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