Conference diary

Posted on July 18, 2013

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

We finished setting up the archives yesterday afternoon. Now we are waiting for people to arrive. The CSUCI staff worked alongside us, getting rooms set up, making sure box lunches were put out.

Since attendees showed up throughout the day, “The Walk” was postponed till next year. We settled into a breezy space with more than enough sandwiches and cookies – and talked. CSUCI history students drifted in and out. Conversations centered on their interest in White Rose, what made them want to know more. Next year perhaps we can engage more of these young adults on a deeper level.

IMG_6297Lisa had assigned us to the Bell Tower Courtyard for the evening meal. We knew it was a lovely space, but the CSUCI crew had made it lovelier still.

In addition, Mark Pierce assembled a team that filmed the Thursday and Saturday events. (We’re working on editing the footage down to manageable size.) As people arrived, Mike de Martino (pictured here behind the camera, with Igor at the microphone) taped their comments: Why they study White Rose or other resistance, the projects they’re working on, what they wish to learn.

I would later embarrass Kim Kartinen by asking her to repeat her fascinating life story. I won’t give it away here. She will share it in a subsequent newsletter. Let’s just say: She has been a real part of history.

Around 7:30, we retired to a classroom for the presentations by Dr. Igor Khramov and Domenic Saller. Dilya Rakhmatullina (Igor’s wife) had translated his documentary on the life of Alexander Schmorell into English. We were treated to the world premiere of the English-language version!

Igor explained that his work on Alexander Schmorell’s biography originated in a larger project. As a member of the city government in Orenburg, Russia, he and his colleagues sought to build bridges to other countries by highlighting the lives of renowned individuals who had called Orenburg home. When he saw a White Rose exhibit that included Alexander Schmorell, noting his hometown as Orenburg, Igor initially thought the exhibit was incorrect. If Alex had been born in Orenburg, he felt sure he would have heard about him already.

During the Q&A, we talked about the immense contribution Dr. Erich Schmorell had made to White Rose memory. As half-brother of Alexander, Erich had a knack for encouraging the right people to keep digging. He was instrumental in Igor’s work, and in our own.

Igor directly addressed the canonization of Alex Schmorell by the Russian Orthodox Church. He admitted that both Erich and Alex would have laughed at (and been uncomfortable with) the notion of Alex as a saint. But Igor said he also saw it as a good thing, because it raised awareness of Alexander Schmorell’s deeds, and made Alex an “official” hero in Russia.

We discussed two additional things during Igor’s segment: First, whether the White Rose movies are good or bad for the study of German resistance. Some noted that they raise awareness, even if flawed. I wondered out loud if the inaccuracies were not dangerous by becoming too entrenched as “fact” in some people’s minds, especially by making the Scholl siblings central, when they were merely among equals. Patrick Miller (16), who was the youngest person taking part this day, stated that he thought that was because Sophie was the only young woman among White Rose students who was executed.

Finally, we examined Alex’s role as conscience of the White Rose. We took a couple of the leaflets apart, comparing his words to the more philosophical (less direct) text penned by Hans Scholl. Since several people in attendance knew little about the White Rose, it was good for all of us to hear these strong words as if for the very first time.

Domenic then presented his grandmother’s life story on the basis of photographs and letters he had unearthed while cleaning out her apartment after her (recent) death. He pointed to the depth of the friendship between Lieselotte Fürst-Ramdohr (his grandmother) and Alex Schmorell, and how their relationship affected so much of White Rose growth.

He showed how Lilo’s friendship with Alex opened the door to the Harnack circle, which represented the beginning of more serious resistance efforts. Domenic repeatedly emphasized the validity of his claims, going out of his way to prove and double-prove every statement based on documents in his possession.

Tracy Lehr then asked why he wasn’t just telling his grandmother’s story, why he seemed to feel compelled to back everything up with multiple evidence. Her question sparked intense discussion regarding the current status of White Rose “research”, especially in Germany. Domenic explained how he grieved over the manner in which his grandmother’s memory was treated in Germany, how many writers dismiss her story out of hand without looking at the papers.

I mentioned that the first edition of Lilo’s memoirs had contained date errors, which she recognized and knew had to be changed. She had written down the memories on which her memoirs were based a few years after the war, so noted e.g. that the first leaflets were mailed in March 1942, instead of June. But that while she got dates wrong, her stories seemed to check out. Domenic added that the second edition (currently in production) is correcting those dates and adding scans of his proof.

We briefly discussed the historiography of White Rose history in Germany. Tracy noted that it sounds like there’s a good documentary in there somewhere. Which was met with general agreement!

We kept trying to close down the discussion around 10 or 10:30, but it was closer to midnight before we ate the last of the cake and drank the last cup of decaf. And we knew that as late as it was, we could have kept talking.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Braving Los Angeles traffic, we carpooled to the Shoah Foundation at USC. Karen Jungblut, Dan Leshem, and Crispin Brooks headed up an unforgettable afternoon, focusing on oral history as contained in the video archives of the Shoah Foundation. We learned the basics of their work, how they have collected these testimonies, the technical aspects of the archive. We met about a dozen Shoah Foundation staff who explained their tasks, from indexing to maintaining SF’s vast network.

When we moved to the primary topic of the afternoon, things grew lively indeed. We walked through a couple of specific (non-White-Rose) cases where Shoah Foundation is fully aware that the testimonies they have on tape are false. The people being interviewed made up stories out of whole cloth.

Crispin and Dan stated that this is an ongoing discussion at the Shoah Foundation: What should they do with these testimonies? It’s a two-edged sword. On the one hand, people expect the oral histories to be reliable, because it’s the Shoah Foundation. It’s not any old library or dusty archive. This is a high-profile place that encourages the collection of oral history as a way of preserving history.

On the other hand, Shoah Foundation is just an archive. Dan pointed out that if a respected library has a copy of a book that contains utter nonsense, and is known to contain utter nonsense, the library likely will not discard the book if it is useful to scholars researching that topic.

There’s a second issue too – what would prevent Holocaust deniers from attacking credible testimonies merely to destroy reputations? Who acts as referee? Shoah Foundation’s mission (said Dan) is to collect testimonies. They believe it is up to scholars to verify those testimonies same as they are obligated to verify any other primary source.IMG_6369

Harold Marcuse suggested a Wiki version of the archives, where scholars could annotate the testimonies (so each researcher would not have to reinvent the wheel). Dan and Crispin pointed out that the testimonies are oral, video, not transcribed. Which led to the question: Why doesn’t Shoah Foundation transcribe the video testimonies? And we learned that that is a more complex task than we’d imagined, especially since so many survivors speak English with heavy European accents.

We then addressed the entire question – considered to this point primarily in the abstract – by looking at footage from Wittenstein’s White Rose testimony. The holes in his story and the inaccuracies are disturbing, and clearly evident.

The afternoon at Shoah Foundation was supposed to have ended around 4, but Dan and Crispin gave us an extra hour. We left with a better appreciation of the challenges we face with the use of oral history. It’s easier to see its benefits, but dealing with its “perils” as we apply the historical process? Much work to be done.

After the Shoah Foundation, still July 12

Since we were not sure exactly when we would return from the Shoah Foundation, Lisa (CSUCI) had recommended that we simply eat “off the menu” at Tortilla’s, a Mexican restaurant in the university’s Town Center. I was trying to explain chili rellenos and fajitas and enchiladas to the Russians and Germans in our group, and get orders placed as rationally as possible.

Thinking Dilya was still in line behind me, I turned and asked if she knew what she wanted. Only the person behind me wasn’t Dilya, but a stranger. We laughed, and I told her that if she could speak either German or Russian, she was free to join our group.

“Well, I speak German,” she said, “and my husband is German. Does that count?” And so began a wonderful conversation with Carol and Wolfgang Paasch, neighbors I just met. Carol is an adjunct professor at CSUCI and works with autistic students in the area. We invited them to join us the next night at the banquet, and they accepted.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

We started the day with a fun trip to the Reagan Presidential Library. It’s really too bad that Mark Pierce’s film crew was not on hand. Between Domenic’s turn in a Reagan TV show, and Oleg Vasilyev as President of the United States, the laughter was long and healthy. We did the obligatory photo shoot before the tour of Air Force One, memorializing the day. Kim and I did a Project Runway commentary stint at the “fashion” section of the museum.IMG_6441

Eating lunch next to the Berlin Wall, conversation alternated between hilarious and more serious matters. When history, politics, and philosophy are discussed without venom, we all grow and learn.

We had originally intended to spend four hours at the library and museum, including lunch. That would have left free time for people to do their own thing – Camarillo Fair, the beach, a walk around campus, swimming.

But once again, the conversations would not stop. The company was too good. We made it back to CSUCI with only enough time to shower and change for the banquet.

The conference theme carried over to the pre-banquet informal discussion. We spoke about stories that had moved us. Terese Winson related her mentor’s story of Holocaust survival, one that has uneasy edges (as most do). Carol told of an experience when they lived in South America (work assignment), and the inability of some to deal with National Socialist past – someone saluting her with the Hitler Gruss because she was blond, and how awful that made her feel.

We wondered about German reactions to the Shoah, and to the people (like Domenic’s grandmother) who had been part of the resistance. Domenic said his grandmother was ostracized by her family after the war, because she had associated with White Rose. Tom Speelhoffer mentioned the changing attitudes he had encountered from his first study abroad program in Germany in 1968, to friends he still has in Germany.

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Anika Young

Harold picked up this thread (it’s his specialty). We were all learning from one another: Wolfgang’s descriptions of life as a student in postwar Germany (he was born in1950); my interviews with White Rose survivors; Tom’s many conversations and contrasts between East and West Germany.

The banquet capped off the week. Over strawberry shortcake, we heard Anika Young (16) explain why she had chosen White Rose and German resistance as her year-long high school research project. We honored Domenic Saller with the 2013 NextGen Award for his work, documenting his grandmother’s life, wishing there were more children and grandchildren who took their legacies as seriously as he. We honored David Green with the 2013 Volunteer of the Year Award, for his indefatigable efforts translating the Davidis 1879 cookbook, a portal into our work.

IMG_6668And we honored Igor Khramov and Michael Kaufmann with the 2013 Johann Forster Prize: Igor for building bridges using Alexander Schmorell’s life story, Michael because he genuinely cares about the White Rose families, about getting the story right, and has done both for a very long time (almost twenty years).

And then we remembered. We remembered Alexander Schmorell, executed July 13, 1943. We remembered Professor Kurt Huber, executed July 13, 1943. We remembered Harald Dohrn, Manfred Eickemeyer, Wilhelm Geyer, and Josef Söhngen, whose trial took place on July 13, 1943. We remembered Gisela Schertling, who had betrayed so many, but who began to redeem herself by recanting her testimony against Geyer et al, on July 13, 1943. We heard their stories, and we sat quietly to honor them.

The banquet ended “officially” on time. But no one would leave. The conversations were too good. Opportunities like this come along too seldom. So we stayed and talked and took pictures and exchanged business cards and teased Domenic and learned more about one another until the CSUCI staff ran us out, so they could clean and go home. And even then, the conversations continued outside. We were loath to leave.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

We had one more semi-serious event planned for the morning. But the day was too pretty. So we ditched the official event, and headed to Mandalay Beach.

The day was winding down, and a small group started placing their blanket next to ours. The grandmother held a tiny girl, maybe a year old, dressed in pink. We waved at the baby, everyone saying hello-hello, the baby waving back (with gramma’s help). Oleg said привет, and in two seconds, the babuschka with the tiny little girl was carrying on a conversation with Igor, Dilya, and Oleg. Of course she was from Russia, from Volgograd!

That had nothing to do with the conference, and yet everything… Days like these bring people together. We need more days like these.

To see more photographs, click here.

Posted in: 2013 conference