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New slants on surviving Nazi persecution

Image of Professor David Cesarani with Professor Paul Shapiro of USHMM

Professor David Cesarani (right) with Professor Paul Shapiro of USHMM at the Beyond camps and forced labour conference held at IWM London, 4-6 January 2012

On 4-6 January 2012, Imperial War Museum London hosted the fourth international conference in the Beyond camps and forced labour series. Professor David Cesarani of Royal Holloway, University of London, co-organiser of Beyond camps and forced labour guest blogs here about the key themes which emerged from the conference:

‘It is hard to sum up the themes that were explored in the conference, let alone find patterns common to all the papers. But I think that some distinct threads did emerge. One was the discovery of new archival sources or the re-examination of neglected collections.

The largest and most important of these is the vast archive of the International Tracing Service of the International Committee of the Red Cross at Bad Arolsen. Thanks largely to the persistence of Professor Paul Shapiro of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum we now have a good idea of the staggering riches that were kept locked away by the ITS for decades, and the process of making them available to researchers is now well underway. The many sub-collections will offer new insights into the existence of inmates in the concentration camps, the death marches, and the experiences of refugees and survivors after liberation. One of the most extraordinary collections was described by the new ITS historian, Susanne Urban. It comprises 1,200 responses to questionnaires sent out to survivors of death marches – amongst the earliest, most immediate testimony every recorded. The ITS records will help historians to map and analyse population movements after 1945, including the influx of former DPs into the UK. It will take decades and many PhD theses to even scrape the surface of this treasure trove.

Another fresh source consists of the records of ‘honour courts’, the trials of Jews accused of collaborating with the German authorities in ghettos and camps or behaving with cruelty in roles such as ghetto police, block elders, and kapos. There were dozens of ‘kapo trials’ in the new State of Israel in the 1950s, but historians are only now probing this sensitive subject. The results are sometimes startling. The ‘honour courts’ held in DP camps reveal that the Jewish survivors were anything but passive and traumatised. They actively sought their ‘moral rehabilitation’ through investigating such cases. The interrogations of perpetrators in Eastern Europe and the early wave of war crimes trials in 1945-47 are also throwing up insights into patterns of collaboration. Much of the research focuses on the question of how the post-war regimes, some short lived, dealt with pro-Nazi elements and native fascists. It sheds new light on what was known about atrocities committed during the war years and how memory was shaped, with enduring consequences, in these first months and years of peace.

The visual arts also represents a new, or revisited source. Sketches from the ghettos and camps, watercolours made by official war artists, still photographs by war correspondents and photo-journalists as well as films are being unearthed or re-evaluated. An entirely new visual history of this era is taking shape.

The more historians ‘drill down’ into the sources, the more they reveal the diversity of experiences, regional variations, and the speed at which things changed. The conference displayed an at times bewildering plethora of case studies devoted to exemplifying what was specific about a particular group, locality or moment. Each conference in this series makes it harder to generalize. And yet certain fixed points do emerge. There is growing interest in material culture and property relations: who owned what at the end of the war, who got compensation, how much, and when? Marginal groups, such as gays and Roma, usually got little in the way of justice or compensation. Another feature of the conference was the attention being paid to marginal groups and marginal places. Children, perhaps surprisingly, fall into this category and several papers explored their difficult, often tragic situation.

Even though this was the fourth in the conference series, there seems to be no end to research and no dearth of enthusiasm. With the support of Imperial War Museums, Beyond Camps and Forced Labour has become an institution and has played a crucial role in shaping an entirely new field of study, the aftermath of the Second World War and the human consequences of persecution and genocide.’

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