Stumbling Over Memory
The Museum of the History of National Socialism in Cologne
‘Greetings to you, my wife, from far away / your husband writes. / Far away on the other side of the Wall, with the Gestapo / He tortures himself by looking out of the window. / But freedom and his beloved little daughter are far from him now. / In vain he stains the walls / Writing letters to his beloved wife (…)’
A group of young schoolchildren walks past. They study this text, and others behind the glass door and on the information panels, and listen to the museum guide. A few boys and girls whisper together, laugh quietly, look sheepish, and glance surreptitiously at their mobile phones – clearly trying to distance themselves from what the guide is saying, and from the words in the more than 1,800 inscriptions and drawings here on the walls of the prison cells in the basement of the EL-DE-Haus in Cologne. These poems and letters, written in chalk, charcoal, lipstick or pencil, scratched with nails, screws, or fingernails, bear witness to the fears and hopes of those who were imprisoned here. In many cases, these are their final messages to the outside world. Often the prisoners are addressing us anonymously, because we know the names of very few of the thousands of inmates who were held here by the Gestapo, some for days, some for months, right up until the end of the Nazi regime in 1945. Many were taken from here straight to deportation or – from 1944 on – to execution.
But let’s begin at the beginning. 1933.
Terror in Cologne
Following the seizure of power by Hitler, the Gestapo – an abbreviation of ‘Geheime Staatspolizei’, or ‘state secret police’ – was extended to become one of the most feared and powerful instruments of the Nazi tyranny. Its remit included surveillance of individuals as well as combating and hunting down opponents of the Nazi regime. From 1935 onwards, this building in the centre of Cologne – known as the ‘EL-DE-Haus’, after the initials of its founder, Cologne wholesaler Leopold Dahmen – was the Gestapo’s headquarters in the city. The basement was extended and turned into a prison consisting of 10 cells, one windowless cell, an air-raid bunker, a washroom, and various rooms for use by the guards. A door led into the inner courtyard of the complex. Executions were carried out on a portable gallows. More than 400 people died here in the final stages of the war.
The Gestapo relied heavily on denunciation by ordinary citizens. Gestapo officers carried out interrogations, imprisoned people, tortured and deported them. Their targets were not only people directly suspected of involvement in resistance activities against the regime, but also other groups who were subjected to violent racist persecution during the Nazi period, including Jews and ‘anti-social elements’. The Cologne Gestapo was responsible for the deportation of thousands of Jews and members of the resistance from the city. Throughout the 1930s the Nazi regime constructed hundreds of concentration and extermination camps. From 1941 on the first mass deportations from Cologne began, taking people eastwards.
The inscriptions on the walls of the cells, written in German, Polish, Russian, French, and other languages, are often prisoners’ last messages to relatives – messages that were concealed for decades under a layer of paint. It was only in 1979 that they were finally exposed, painstakingly restored and deciphered.
Establishing a memorial site
By sheer chance, the EL-DE-Haus was one of the few buildings in Cologne city centre that survived the war undamaged. The rooms were soon rented out. Some were taken over by the local administration: the building housed a registry office as well as the office that processed people’s pension payments. It was some time before people were ready to deal with Cologne’s recent history, and that of the EL-DE-Haus.
Finally, in the 1970s, several factors combined to encourage this. These included the television broadcast of the American series Holocaust, and the trials of Kurt Lischka – an SS Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant-colonel) who was head of the Cologne Gestapo – and other Nazi perpetrators. There was increasing popular pressure to address the city’s history under National Socialism, as well as calls to establish a memorial in the former Gestapo building. In 1979, the city council not only voted in favour of establishing the memorial, it also decided to set up a documentation centre and a Museum of the History of National Socialism in Cologne.
In 1981 the former Gestapo prison, now a small-scale memorial, was opened to the public. It took until 1987 for it to become a proper museum, but it soon became an important local memorial to the victims of Nazism.
Standing next to the bare walls with their exposed plaster, the stone floor, the ancient radiators and overhead lights, a visitor entering the EL-DE-Haus today is immediately plunged into a very similar atmosphere to that of seventy years ago. Since 1997 the historic part of the building has been home to an extensive permanent exhibition entitled ‘Cologne under National Socialism’. These rooms are intended to be viewed as part of the whole. They too reflect the history of the building, just as intensively as the numerous photos, information panels and media stations: the effect is vivid and above all immediate, tangible. But in these top two storeys, which were the centre of operations for the bureaucratic side of the Gestapo’s terrorisation of the people, the authenticity of the site is not as overpowering, as inescapable, as it is in the basement and the prison cells. Here the visitor can really sense the physical dimension of that terror: it is palpable; it can be read on the walls.
So it’s all too understandable that younger visitors in particular, many of whom have only recently been confronted for the first time with the subject of Nazism, will often seize on any welcome distraction, or the possibility to distance themselves from their surroundings by staring at their mobile phones or messing about with their classmates.
This is precisely the intention behind the concept of the exhibition: distance and reduction, if that is what you need; confrontation and proximity, if that is what you are looking for. It does not specifically try to stir up emotions: the museum wants to do more than educate its visitors simply by upsetting them. Nothing is forced upon them; information panels, texts and images remain in the background. Those seeking a sense of proximity to the historical events have at their disposal 31 media stations with more than 300 hours of audio and visual material, including numerous interviews with contemporary witnesses from different population groups.
In addition to the memorial and the museum, the EL-DE-Haus is now an important research and documentation centre. Six historians work here, alongside other employees, evaluating contemporary witness interviews and collections of photographs and documents, researching a wide variety of topics, and publishing items both for general public information and for the purposes of scientific documentation, including the museum’s own series of papers, available from the Cologne publisher Emons Verlag. More than 100 events a year take place in the documentation centre, including readings, discussion groups, lectures, workshops and cultural events. The permanent exhibition ‘Cologne Under National Socialism’ is complemented by at least four special exhibitions every year, each examining a different aspect of the period in greater detail.
Place of education and learning
But the work of the documentation centre is not limited to focussing on the past. In addition to its role as a memorial site and research centre, it is important to the organisers that the centre should also be a place of education and learning. It offers teacher-training courses to assist teachers in their efforts to communicate the complex and often problematic topic of National Socialism. The documentation centre has a separate office on site – the IBS – that provides information and education aimed at countering right-wing extremism. It organises free events and workshops in schools, youth clubs and workplaces which aim to inform people about right-wing extremism and violence and have a preventative effect.
If you are interested in doing so, you can prepare for your visit to the museum – and look up information afterwards – by visiting the documentation centre’s website. Here you will find a wide selection of background information about the centre and its various projects and events. There are also databases that make it easy for schoolchildren, students, and interested parties to access source material, including the contents of the EL-DE-Haus library. Another ‘book of remembrance’ database contains the details of numerous Jews from Cologne who fell victim to the Gestapo.
The ‘Experiencing History’ project is a particularly special one. More than a hundred video interviews with contemporary witnesses from Cologne have been uploaded here. The witnesses tell their life stories, and describe their experiences during the war. This project, ‘a kind of collective memory in the form of a video archive’, is a valuable resource for both historians and those with an interest in history. It provides a vivid, emotional glimpse of the experiences of those who survived the Nazi period in Cologne.
The ‘stumbling stones’ project
This is a form of remembrance that takes place outside the walls of a museum or memorial site. It is a permanent part of the townscape in the city where the events actually happened. It is a kind of remembrance designed to make us stumble: over names, over a person’s fate, over history itself.
The authors of many of the inscriptions on the cell walls in the basement of the former Gestapo prison remain nameless, and this leaves us with a degree of uncertainty, a sense of incompletion. The schoolchildren visiting the EL-DE-Haus probably sensed this, too. What happened all those years ago still has relevance for them today; it is still right here beside them, even if seventy years separate them from the events. Perhaps the children have the rest of the day off after this visit to the museum. Or perhaps they have to go back to the classroom. Perhaps their next class is German language. Perhaps they’re glad to be able to change the subject. Perhaps they will immerse themselves in the teacher’s grammar lesson. And perhaps, at the end of this particular day, they will have learned two different truths – one written on the blackboard in the classroom, the other on the walls of the cells in the Gestapo prison:Contrary to the irrefutable rules of German grammar, you will have learned today that there are some sentences which cannot simply be ended with a full stop. It might be an inscription on a cell wall, or it might be a sentence pronounced more than seventy years ago, one that led to this vast anonymity which makes the work of memorial sites and researchers and educators still so urgently necessary today, all across Europe, and especially in Germany.
is a freelance editor, translator and journalist living in Kiel. She holds a degree in History from the University of Bremen.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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