Some memories are burned into your memory, like that of the Jewish woman at the weekly market. This weekly market in Kempten was closed to Jews during the Nazi era. When the Jewish woman in question showed up there anyway, she was chased away. “It bothered people so much, they internalized it,” says Veronika Heilmannseder. “This was also passed on to the next generations within the family.”
The historian is in charge of the contemporary witness project of the city of Kempten. Over the past two years, she has interviewed 16 people who lived in the city in the Allgäu at the time about their experiences under National Socialism. Citizens experienced the NSDAP and its unjust state from 1933 to 1945 very differently. The nine women and seven men talk about direct violence from the state and party organs and about everyday fear and concern about persecution – but also about points of contact with the NSDAP and its institutions that remain positive in the memory.
The contemporary witness project is part of a large-scale reappraisal of the Nazi era in Kempten, which the city has initiated. There is a commission for the culture of remembrance, and there is now also a city tour of important places from the National Socialist era in Kempten. The Institute for Contemporary History Munich-Berlin works to scientifically prepare the city’s Nazi history with a focus on urban society and administration. For example, the researchers also shed light on the role of the then, long-time mayor Otto Merkt, who undoubtedly had a positive influence on the region, but was also a supporter of National Socialist ideas on racial hygiene. For a medium-sized city in Bavaria, the project in Kempten has a “lighthouse character,” emphasized the director of the Institute for Contemporary History, Andreas Wirsching, last year.
“Nobody went through this time sleeping. Everyone had direct contact with National Socialism,” says Heilmannseder. However, the surveys showed that in a city like Kempten with 30,000 inhabitants, residential location and background alone could determine “the extent to which National Socialism was perceived and experienced as attractive, acceptable, wrong or threatening.” This is what it says in the interim report from the cultural office and the Kempten local history association. If a boy grew up in a district with a high density of political and military dignitaries, he will remember the block warden as a friendly man – because he had to behave in the presence of the officials. In other parts of the city there were many families with sons who were drafted into military service – there painful memories were in the foreground.
“You can’t just say, ask the people who lived through that time and you’ll know what it was like.”
The head of the cultural office, Martin Fink, and historian Heilmannseder therefore draw the main conclusion from the surveys that statements from interviews must be combined and, ultimately, the experience of the contemporary witnesses must always be taken into account. “You can’t just say, ask the people who lived through that time and you’ll know what it was like.” The initial aim was to find interview partners – the city continues to welcome contemporary witnesses who come forward – and to document their statements. The interviews with Josef Höß, mayor of Kempten from 1970 to 1990, were filmed, and most of the others were recorded for listening purposes. This made it easier for the seniors to open up. “The conversations were very intensive and demanding for the contemporary witnesses,” says Heilmannseder.
Most of the interviewees were born in Kempten, moved here as children or spent their school days in the city. The daughter of a Catholic craftsman family remembers how her brothers were beaten because of a mass service. One interviewee is the sister of a murdered, disabled girl who died in the Kaufbeuren/Irsee sanatorium. The stories, it says in the interim report, also bear witness to the “growing everydayness of Nazi laws and Nazi organs”, how the Nazi dictatorship spread – and how everyday life was shaped under it.
In a second step, the city also plans to interview contemporary witnesses who experienced the post-war period. Basically, the entire project to come to terms with the Nazi era in Kempten began here: with the case of the former local historian and high school teacher Richard Knussert. A street named after him has since been renamed. His two former students Georg Karg, professor emeritus of economics at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, and the Augsburg theologian Michael Mayr described how Knussert is said to have defended the Nazi regime in class in the 1950s and denied the extermination of the Jews . Others only remember him as a great teacher.
“At first glance, it doesn’t fit together,” says Cultural Affairs Director Fink. “If you look more closely, yes. Memory is very subjective.”