This week marked the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany. Between 1937 and 1945, 280,000 people were imprisoned there. 56,000 of them lost their lives to torture and cruelty. It was a place of deep inhumanity and suffering. A place where people were murdered because of (amongst other things) their religion, their ethnicity, their sexuality.
Since 1957, Buchenwald has been a memorial site, and is somewhere I spent a year of my life almost 20 years ago. Having studied German and History, I spent a year volunteering full time at the Memorial alongside fellow volunteers from 9 other European countries. It was a year of my life that profoundly influenced me and shaped me into the person I am now. It was a year in which I met and worked with brilliant people, developed a much more international outlook on life and became absolutely convinced that one of the most important things you could do in life is to tackle intolerance and social injustice.
I’ve seen where intolerance leads. I’ve shown people the ‘labels’ prisoners were forced to wear to mark them out as a homosexual or a Jew or a Jehovah’s Witness or a Gypsy (amongst other ‘categories’). I’ve met some of the camp’s survivors (without exception, some of the warmest and kindest people you could ever wish to know). I’ve also guided people through the crematorium where people’s bodies were burned, shown them the hooks where people were hanged and the fake doctor’s room where prisoners were shot in the back of the neck by a concealed SS man, thinking they were about to undergo a medical examination.
The core of the work of the Memorial was, however, not to just memorialise the past, but also to think about the present and the future, to tackle intolerance by showing us the dark path down which intolerance leads. We worked then with diverse international groups of all ages (one mixed group of German, Israeli and Palestinian teenagers particularly sticks in my mind) to use this site of cruelty and terror to promote democracy, tolerance, equality and understanding.
Of course a place like Buchenwald lends itself to this type of work, but it is my firm conviction that all museum and heritage sites can contribute to a more socially just world too. They can do this in many different ways, but perhaps best of all through diverse and inclusive storytelling. A museum should be a place truly representative of its communities, a place that allows diverse voices to be heard and that takes a stand for what is right. None of that really requires a special project or a big budget or a large workforce, it just involves a little bit of extra thought, a little bit of care, and sometime a little bit of bravery too.
I often think about the people I met and worked with at Buchenwald. I often think about the people who lost their lives there. I hope that in the work I do, I am still helping, in some small way, to make the world a slightly better, more tolerant place. It feels like an uphill struggle sometimes, but I won’t give up. If I did, I’d be letting them all down.