“The story isn’t over”
For five years now, the #StolenMemory project has been doing extraordinary work in coming to terms with Nazi injustice.
A purse, a fountain pen, a pair of earrings: these are everyday objects that were snatched away from their owners by the National Socialists and are now being kept by the Arolsen Archives, with the aim of returning, if possible, all of the 2,500 remaining so-called “effects” to the descendants of the Nazis’ victims. The effects belonged to those persecuted by the Nazis in over 30 countries, mainly Poland, Germany and the former Soviet Union. Five years ago, the Arolsen Archives launched the #StolenMemory campaign for return, whose creative, multimedia memory work has recently received an award. Floriane Azoulay, the French director of the Arolsen Archives, talks here in an interview about the international impact of the campaign and the sensitive handling of facts and fiction.
Ms Azoulay, why was it important to you to start the #StolenMemory campaign five years ago?
In 2016, I took up my position as director of the Arolsen Archives with the commission to open up the institution further. The descendants of the victims of National Socialism were too little in the focus of our work. When I came across over 3,000 envelopes containing personal effects from Nazi victims, it was clear to me: they don’t belong here. They were just being kept. The search for their origins had been discontinued, among other reasons because over the years it’s become more and more difficult to identify owners and descendants. In 2016, however, fresh opportunities appeared: in many places, the records of registry offices and other sources were digitized, and social media channels could be used to engage volunteers.
How has that affected your work?
We realized very quickly that the search results get better as soon as we engage volunteers in our work or make journalists aware of the research opportunities. As early as 2016, the work of Dutch journalists resulted in numerous effects being handed over to relatives. The starting point is our research in the Arolsen Archives, but once stations of the Nazi persecution and place names are identified, we often receive valuable support from the media and volunteers. For example, volunteers help us with questions about the correct spelling of names; also there are very effective calls on social media that lead to people contacting us.
How international is #StolenMemory?
Very international. Volunteers from many countries, such as Poland, the Netherlands, France, Spain and even New Zealand, support us with helpful tips or extensive searches on site. In Italy and Poland we used exhibitions to promote #StolenMemory. After the successful premiere in small German towns, a traveling exhibition in a shipping container on searches and returns will now be shown in Poland and, if possible, also in France.
What do you experience when effects are returned to family members?
It’s very emotional, very touching. Recently, for example, during the corona pandemic, we sent the Frenchman Michel Loncar his father’s wristwatch and fountain pen. He wrote us a thank you note, but also said that he would need time before opening the package. Another example is the story of the Spaniard Braulia Cánovas Mulero, who at the age of twenty joined the French resistance against the Nazis. She survived several concentration camps, but a wristwatch and a ring were taken from her when she was arrested. We were able to return both to her children and grandchildren at the end of 2018; no fewer than ten family members travelled to Bad Arolsen from France and Spain for the occasion. It was very moving how they described their mother and grandmother as a true European who worked for reconciliation all her life. We’ve been able to return more than 500 effects in the past few years, but in addition to the mere numbers, we want to make it clear that the process of coming to terms with the Nazi crimes is not yet done with in Germany. We’re sticking to it and want to help fill in the gaps in the various family histories. Often only when the effects are returned do the families begin to talk about their relatives’ painful experiences during the Nazi era.
In 2021 #StolenMemory has been nominated for the renowned Grimme Online Award, and in May the campaign won the Grand Prix of the Art Directors Club Germany, one of the highest awards in the creative industry. What does that mean to you?
The awards mean a lot to me because they show that our work is being noticed and that we’re on the right track. You know, memory work is often at risk of becoming too stiff. In Germany in particular there are many fears when dealing with the Nazi history: Are we really working precisely enough? Are we making mistakes? Are certain forms of representation perhaps trivializing? This makes low-threshold access difficult.
The Art Directors Club has praised not only the thorough research but also the careful use of fictional elements for the #StolenMemory website and the videos about the former concentration camp inmates Helena, István and Johannes.
With all due respect to treating the facts correctly, we also want to tell stories. For example, we discussed the case of the former police officer Johannes for hours. We know from our records that he liked to dance, there are indications that he was apparently a heartthrob with women - and that's how we tell it then in his video. There’s no Holy Grail; memory work is changing. But we have to be empathetic, tell stories emotionally and make it clear: the story isn’t over; it can still touch us.