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The digital Shoah Memorial: what is remembered lives

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Published on Wednesday, 26 January 2022

The International Holocaust Remembrance Day is marked worldwide on 27 January to commemorate the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by the Red Army in 1945. The international day is designed to honour the victims of Nazism and keep their memory alive.

The University’s Centre for Contemporary and Digital History of Luxembourg (C²DH) is putting in place a Digital Memorial of the Shoah in Luxembourg, to investigate Luxembourg’s history during the Nazi occupation. The Memorial goes beyond collecting data resources, by restoring and narrating the personal identity, history and life context of each individual, through testimonies from living witnesses and related documentation.

Between the ascension of the Nazi regime to power in Germany in 1933 and the defeat of the German army in 1945, about six million Jews perished at the hands of German forces, their military allies and civilian associates. Even if they existed previously, the words “Holocaust” or “Shoah” in Hebrew are nearly universally understood to refer to the genocidal events in which Jews were by far the largest component of the victims.

The Centre for Contemporary and Digital History of Luxembourg, whose research focuses on contemporary Luxembourgish and European history, has been studying the history of the 20th century wars in Luxembourg, using innovative digital, technological and historiographical research tools.

Among these projects is the Digital Memorial of the Shoah in Luxembourg. It is a participatory project which was initiated to research, identify, tell the stories of members of the Luxembourgish society in the Inter-War period who became the victims of racial anti-Jewish legislation. To achieve that goal, actors of this project will work together with families, associations and heritage institutions, to collect and preserve the memory of the persecutions during World War II.

In an interview, Professor Denis Scuto, Deputy-Director of the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History of Luxembourg, relates to the project from a historical, memorial, scientific and national perspective.

How was the digital Memorial created?

The project was born out of a partnership between the C²DH and the Fondation Luxembourgeoise pour la Mémoire de la Shoah (FLMS) in a common effort to build a biographical, digital cartography of the people later persecuted for being considered Jews under racial laws and reconstitute the life of these people, the environment in which they lived in Luxembourg before the Shoah and describe their fates during the Second World War.

The Memorial was initiated by myself, Marc Gloden, historian and secretary of the FLMS, Blandine Landau, doctoral researcher at both the C²DH and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris), Daniel Thilman, historian at C2 DH and history teacher at Lycée Nic Biever Dudelange, as well as by Ori Elisar, web designer, Daniele Guido, interface developer, and Lars Wieneke, head of digital infrastructure at C2 DH, in charge of the digital part, and based on the guiding principle of « what is remembered of lives », which underlines the importance of identifying and recovering individual itineraries in an approach promoted by microhistory, allowing both scientific analysis and pedagogical understanding of the victims of the persecution.

It is intended to welcome contributions on national and international levels, from families of victims, researchers, academics, scholars, teachers, students, participants from diverse horizons and countries, sharing the central idea of giving back to each victim a face, an identity, a biography.

We try to retrace as far as possible the life of Jewish community members who lived in Luxembourg and were persecuted, deported and assassinated during the Second World War. We seek to study and expose the environment in which they lived and the social groups they were part in Luxembourg before the Shoah, in order to keep the victims’ memory alive in the public and in the education system.

Most importantly, the Memorial is fully coherent with the national Luxembourgish commitment to support remembrance and educational projects related to the persecution and the assassination of people considered Jewish during the Nazi occupation and extend compensation to survivors or relatives. It falls in with the historic Agreement signed exactly one year ago between the Luxembourgish government and the representatives of Jewish Community, aiming at promoting and financing compensation, as well as remembrance, education and research activities on the Shoah in Luxembourg.

Can you describe the digital Memorial’s methodology?

The digital Memorial is built around a digital platform gathering the biographies of the victims and other documents (photographs, clips from documentaries and testimonies, diverse types of images), and opening links to other databases, informational websites as well as archives, making it a large-scale scientific project, open to everyone, including education professionals.

Databases already built thanks to former research projects, which count about 5,000 recorded persons persecuted for being Jewish under racial laws, collect and study testimonies related to Jewish families or individuals by identifying their life history in the specific environment to which they evolved, such as a specific street or neighbourhood.

The graphic design on the opening page shows a moving landscape in which every stone refers to an ancient Jewish tradition of leaving a stone on the grave of a loved one as a symbol for permanence of memory. This page leads to the personal biographies and related documents, but also searching tools, and later maps and other visual supports. This comprehensive approach allows to show the individuals as acting subjects in the general context of their family life and social groups, combining a memorial documenting and research process. In doing so, we also aim at creating an interactive relation with visitors, encouraging them to contribute and become proactive in the project, participate in writing biographies. They will thus add their own stone – figuratively and digitally, as it should be possible for visitors of the website to dedicate a stone and add it in the landscape of the opening page.

How can you describe the Jewish community before the War?

In 1940, the Luxembourgish Jewish community counted between 4,000 and 5,000 Jewish persons. Among them, there were Luxemburgish citizens, long-term foreign residents and refugees from Eastern Europe, Germany, Sarre, Austria and other European countries, fleeing pogroms and persecution.

Luxembourgish cities and sites such as Luxembourg-city, Esch, Differdange, Schifflange, Mondorf, Ettelbruck, Echternach, Medernach, Grevenmacher, Remich were known for their vibrant Jewish communities. They were very active in the local economic life, in many different branches (trade, craftmanship, industrial work), and among them were well-known families, such as the Rosenstiel or the Sternberg.

If we look at members of the “Jewish community” in a religious sense, they were not secluded in specific “ghettos” but were integrated as an element of the social, cultural and religious diversity of the country, along with the Catholic, Protestant and other communities. Yet, the existence of a deeply-rooted Christian antisemitism was tangible throughout the country.

After the invasion of Luxembourg by the German army, racial laws were applied and targeted firstly people considered as Jews, who were then first discriminated, then persecuted, dehumanised and deported to the ghettos and assassination centres. Jewish sites and synagogues in Luxembourg were destroyed. In total, about 1,300 Jews from Luxembourg were murdered by the Nazis.

WWII induced a great loss of the human and cultural diversity which prevailed in Luxembourg before the war. We can only try to reconstitute this past history but the human and cultural wealth which was part of our landscape has been largely destroyed.

The Centre for Contemporary and Digital History is involved in other research projects related to the memory of the Jewish community of Luxembourg. Can you give a few examples?

The history of the Jewish community of Luxembourg is a very significant element of the country’s contemporary history, as reflected in many fields which we have been studying and investigating.

One of the main topics is the history of the spoliation of Jewish property in Luxembourg in the years 1930-50. There are important ongoing research projects focusing on the dispossession of Jewish individuals under Nazi rule in Luxembourg between 1940 and 1945 and on the way this issue was handled by the Luxembourg legislation since 1945 to the present day. This research project, commissioned by the Luxembourgish government, is a strong and highly symbolic milestone and reflects the Government’s commitment to resolve outstanding Holocaust issues, including financial compensation for assets, confiscation and spoliation.

Another project is called the “IWalk”. It consists of a mobile mapping application for learning Jewish history in Luxembourg. It was initiated by Jakub Bronec, doctoral researcher at the C2 DH, in partnership with the Jewish Consistory and the USC Shoah Foundation. The online application is a new way of teaching the history of Jews in Luxembourg and the way it evolved during and after the Second World War. It is an interactive educational programme which connects physical locations with memories of historical events that took place at those locations. Users walking through different city paths with tablet computers can watch clips of Holocaust survivors and witnesses telling personal stories about the role of the locations in their experiences.

In addition, a series of events, conferences and workshops related to the history of the Luxembourgish Jewish community and the Shoah are organised throughout the year. They aim at preserving, studying and disseminating knowledge about the Shoah. These events include the “Forum Z” organised in October 2021 on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the first deportation convoy to Litzmannstadt from Luxembourg train station on the night of 16 to 17 October 1941, and the “Dispossess – Dispossessed” international study days devoted to the mechanisms of dispossession and their representation in Europe during the Second World War last July.

The Digital Memorial of the Shoah in Luxembourg is currently in construction. Further information will be available online: c2dh.uni.lu and fondluxshoah.lu

 

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