In February, I participated in an international conference titled Are we losing memory? Forgotten sites of Nazi forced labor in Central Europe. The event organized by the Terezin Initiative Institute and the North Bohemian Museum in Liberec brought together educators, researchers, archeologists and other experts from the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany to examine the disconnect between history of forced labor and regional history caused by the ethnic cleansing and population transfers after WWII in regions that were part of the German Reich.
The fact that most of the forced laborers were not locals but persons regarded as foreigners, only facilitates the erasure of memory and adds memorialization issues. The historical, industrial and formerly top-secret underground structures that witnessed the events of WWII were preserved by lack of investment funds and interest in Czechoslovakia, Poland and the German Democratic Republic, but the current development of the region poses a mortal threat to many, a unique authentic site and the original artefacts. Gaps in the current historical knowledge that demand intensive research were discussed, as were the preservation and archeological protection of authentic sites and ways of curating and narrating the visitor experiences. My contribution was showcasing relevant content from the Visual History Archive and its value for both research and education.
After the conclusion of the conference participants visited some of the former forced labor camp locations on the Czech side of the border. Our expert guide was Ivan Rous of the North Bohemian Museum in Liberec who was personally involved in the discovery and documentation of many of these authentic sites. The forced labor camps operated by major war industry conglomerates such as Spreewerk, Getewent, FAB Zeiss Jena and AEG carried the German location names that are not in use anymore. Gablonz was a camp near Jablonec nad Nisou, the locations of three camps called Kratzau could be found in the small town called Chrastava today, the camp called Reichenau was near the city of Rychnov u Jablonce nad Nisou. It is on the location of the Reichenau forced labor camp where the efforts to properly document the site while preserving it for the future receive quite an unusual level of support from the local authorities, and not only because major discoveries could still be made here. The Getewent owned facility was involved in the development of radio-locator and radar technologies, the skilled forced labor was also utilized for top secret submarine communications technology research. The underground part of the factory may be the largest undocumented space of its kind in Bohemia. The city mayor, Tomáš Levinský, joined the tour and explained the current ownership issues as well as reasons for the city’s support of documentation efforts. Probes are being dug into the underground tunnel system, he also shared plans for creating a proper memorial and a museum highlighting the unique technologies and prisoner tales connected with this locality.
"Did you check whether there are any testimonies about this place, Reichenau, in the Visual History Archive", I asked. "There would not be any I guess, the majority of the skilled forced labor came here only after the failed Polish Warsaw uprising, some French civilians... thus there could not have been any Jews imprisoned here" was the answer. I searched the Visual History Archive when the tour stopped for a lunch. There are four testimonies discussing experiences at Reichenau. Two prisoners arrived to Reichenau at the very end of the war, with evacuation death marches. But two other testimonies do capture memories of Jews posing as Poles, working at the Reichenau facility under false identities. Yitzchok Pressman was posing as Mihal Guszynski, Abram Rozenbach adopted the identity of Roman Smigielski. They actually knew each other and recognized one other in the camp, deciding to keep their identities hidden from the others. Smigielski kept his false name even after the war ended. Both men were liberated at Reichenau and eventually left Europe. "You see, one can always find a piece of relevant testimony in the Visual History Archive," I exclaimed. And it is true. There are quite impressive testimonies that talk about Kratzau, Gablonz, Zittau, Liberec... and even Reichenau, the facility where no Jews were supposed to be employed. I actually do believe that there is a relevant clip of testimony for almost every event of 20th century history in the Visual History Archive.
These audio visual testimonies, capturing the memory of small forced labor camps in the region divided between Germany, Czech republic and Poland today, chronicling their daily routines and their liberation, crucial moments of local modern history, were recorded all over the world, in 11 languages. Thanks to activists and enthusiasts such as Rous and Levinský, at least some of the local memory loss could be countered with data, images and facts. It is not only the big, famous camps and places of mass murder in faraway lands that matter in education. Often it is the small forced labor camp on the outskirts of your town that makes one realize how close the abstract history of WWII and the Nazi genocidal dictatorship is to home.