Thomas van de Putte
Reenacting Auschwitz. Coping with memory of occupation, war and genocide for inhabitants of Oswiecim (Auschwitz)
This PhD project investigates a group of 170 inhabitants of the Polish town Oświęcim (Auschwitz), who organize reenactments of the Second World War, German occupation and Holocaust. These reenactments are of various sorts: grand scale Second World War battle field reenactments, small amateur movies reenacting the German occupation and Holocaust in Auschwitz/ Oświęcim, and photoshoots with artefacts on memorial sites connected to the Holocaust in Auschwitz/ Oświęcim. The reenactors are very selective in which particular aspects of war, occupation and Holocaust they reenact. Initial insights in the data show a prevalent choice for reenacting Wehrmacht soldiers during battles, and SS officers during occupation reenactments. When reenacting the extermination aspect of Auschwitz, local reenactors tend to prefer reenacting SS officers and Polish political prisoners. The Jew is seldomly reenacted, but is symbolically present when it comes to the choice of location for reenactments. Jewish memorials, such as the Judenrampe in Birkenau, are often chosen as location for spontaneous local reenactment.
The people living in Oświęcim are socialized into a complex interplay of memory narratives about the Second World War and the Holocaust. The proximity of the former Auschwitz concentration camp, visited by thousands of tourists a day, exposes them to transnational varieties of meaning attributed to the place. But they are also socialized into a narrative of Polish victimhood, of which Auschwitz is a symbol. Finally, a local narrative, which is influenced by family memories and daily engagement with physical remainders of the period, complements the picture. To what extent are inhabitants of Oświęcim influenced by different narratives and material forms of cultural memory about the place in which they live in performing different narratives about the past of their town? Why do inhabitants of Oświęcim choose to reenact the ‘German other’ when reenacting this past, and not the Jewish other? How does this link to the building of a local identity and a striving for recognition and the right to belong to Auschwitz/ Oświęcim? On a broader theoretical level, this project investigates the possibilities of reconciling political and sociological theories of competing memory and memory politics, theories of collective trauma and collective identification in analyzing reenactment of occupation, war, and genocide.