2009 Conway Scholarship Report - Pride and Palpable Silence: Expectations Reconsidered on my Journey through Bavaria by Kelly Cairns

Although this was not my first trip to Germany, it differed from those that came before in that I began with a set of concrete expectations based on two years of Masters Thesis research and writing. My plan was to visit locations relevant to my thesis, places where Sudeten refugees settled or lived temporarily in camps in the postwar period to witness firsthand the contemporary public representations and cultural reflections of that era. In some cases the history was represented just as I had expected. However, I found the instances in which the history was not represented publicly at all far more interesting. The trip served as a reminder to read into the silences, to look beyond what is readily available for public consumption.

First I visited the Alpine village of Mittenwald in the southernmost tip of Bavaria. A community that thrives on tourism, nearly every third house was designated as a Gastehaus (Bed and Breakfast Inn), and elaborately decorated with religious frescoes. It was immediately evident that Mittenwalders pride themselves on alpine traditions and hospitality. The curator of the museum invited me to a live performance of traditional alpine folk music and dance. Although I told him that I was a researcher interested in the postwar period in Mittenwald, he was far more interested in my role as tourist. He was the curator of the one and only museum in town, the Geigenbau Museum (Violin-Making Museum). Possibly the most exuberant curator I had ever encountered, he insisted on showing me the museum’s film. The founders and benefactors of the museum clearly intended the film as a focal point, dedicating a large floor space as a screening room complete with top-of-the-line projector technology. It was a film that showcased the Mittenwald violin-making tradition that had thrived for two centuries, a film produced by the Nazi Party in the 1930s as a way of promoting and reviving the then financially-strapped violin industry. In a dusty workshop father and son share in the daily tasks, as the film leads the viewer through the crafting process, emphasizing the technical and artistic merits of the trade.

The people of Mittenwald take great pride in their violin making tradition and industry, supporting an apprenticeship school and recently-renovated museum. Students at the Geigenbauschule (Violin-Making School) are held to the highest standards of both craft and musical performance and aptitude, crafting and playing their violins to perfection. Though the curator was jovial, the practice of violin making itself was clearly a serious, rather intense undertaking. Exploring the village, seeing some of the violin makers’ homes with their violin-shaped business signs hung outside, visiting the local bookstores and speaking with a local violin retailer were valuable experiences for me, and yet I found the silences regarding the war and postwar periods evident throughout my stay.

Primo Levi, in his autobiographical work The Truce remembers "€œWe passed through Garmish-Partenkirchen and in the evening reached the fantastically disordered transit camp of Mittenwald"€ (452). For Levi, a man whose journey from Auschwitz to Italy was long and fraught with obstacles, the mention of Mittenwald as "€œa fantastically disordered transit camp"€ denotes a level of chaos great enough to hold a place in his memory, and yet the orderly Alpine tourist town of today retains very little of that past in public memory.

The museum displayed a single paragraph on Sudeten resettlement and listed the family names of those who stayed in Mittenwald and continued their craft and the bookstore offered nothing beyond the early years of the twentieth century. Where was the history of the period that transformed this village from a small agricultural and craft community to one overwhelmed with the arrival of Displaced Persons of Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Sudeten-German decent? Did Mittenwalders view the postwar period as one of hardship better forgotten? Or did the history of a ten year period seem insignificant considering the history and continued practice of centuries-old local traditions? Is the postwar period too recent to be considered history or simply too painful? Perhaps Mittenwalders wish to market their glory years in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to tell tourists a story arc with a happy ending, leaving out all the dicey bits in the middle. That said I do not believe that Mittenwalders'€™ representations of folk culture, tradition and history are all constructed solely for tourist dollars. I understood the pride in tradition and the outward expression of it in dress, manner and art (including violins and the museum itself) to be genuine and unyielding to contemporary and past hardships. Perhaps pride alone is the principle reason for what struck me as palpable silences in public memory.

One of my expectations noted in my application was that I would recognize and learn about the distinct sub-cultures that compose Germany. While this is true of recent migrants in Munich, Nurnberg and Berlin, I can hardly say that there is any public recognition of separate Sudeten communities, at least in the smaller centres of Mittenwald, Erlangen and Bubenreuth. This may be the product of locality and the necessity to assimilate into smaller communities versus the co-existence of disparate enclaves in larger centers or of a broader, more general public assimilation of the Sudeten expellees. Sudeten distinctiveness it seems is largely enacted at annual gatherings and conferences or in the private home. But what is one to make of the lack of representation of a distinctive Sudeten history?

What separates Sudeten-Germans and many other Displaced Persons from the local German population are their postwar experiences of camp life. Many of these groups lived in makeshift camps for up to ten years. Surely the locations of these former camps would carry the mark of the expellees'€™ distinctive postwar experiences? My expectations of Erlangen and Bubenreuth were influenced by the sources which related tales of the notorious Möhrendorf camp, a large camp known for its harsh conditions. Although this camp housed thousands and existed for ten years just on the other side of the tracks, traces of its impact on the surrounding area were non-existent in public representations of that region'€™s history. In fact, the museum, like many others in Bavaria housed great exhibitions on various aspects of the Baroque, but only minimal displays of the twentieth century and early postwar years and often discussed these years in the larger context of the Cold War. The museum curators in Erlangen were apologetic and yet somewhat baffled by my desire to learn about DP camps in the area.

Upon my return I wondered, what is history to the average German, to the museum curator, to the student of German history residing in these towns? Are representations of history in public memory (museums, architecture, book stores, everyday topics of discussion and behavior) based on pride, nostalgia, a deeper belief about what can be considered history or is there intentionality to the silences? Does it just depend on who is running the show? One tour guide that I encountered in Munich recalled how when giving a tour from a double-decker bus through the various Nazi-related sites in the city, an older, local woman walked beside the bus shouting at him. She was outraged by the fact that all the tour guides seemed to emphasize the Nazi period over all others, a misrepresentation of Munich and of Germany in her opinion. Of course, this was an American ex-patriot tour guide working for a largely American audience. The way in which history is represented in public memory is a matter of one’s position and perspective. In the town of Waldkraiburg (which I visited on a previous trip to Germany), there is a museum that discusses the arrival of DPs and Sudeten Germans. Also notable in that town, were fliers advertising Sudeten gatherings and assemblies, and a prominent memorial. Also not far from the town’s center lay old concrete bunkers which acted as homes for many expellees in the 1940s. The overwhelming voice of Sudetens in the public memory of Waldkraiburg is the direct result of demographics, as the town was a major site of resettlement in the postwar era. I was reminded through various manifestations on this and other journeys to be aware of the various subjectivities and power involved in public memory and representation.

Although my expectations were often met with disappointment, it was a healthy disappointment in that it forced me to ask questions while feeding my curiosity and interest in the postwar period. I will now continue to research asking; where does the postwar fit in Germany history and memory? Where does the history of expelled and resettled groups appear? Why? Projected by and for whom? How will the history I write contribute to an understanding of the role that the postwar period played and continues to play in German culture?


Conway Scholarship Report
Kelly Cairns
August 13, 2009