When prisoners arrived in Dachau — the first Nazi concentration camp — they gave up more than their clothing and possessions. Their names were taken from them and replaced with a string of numbers.
Opened in March 1933 and intended to house political prisoners and dissidents, Dachau was designed to strip its inmates of their identity and dignity. Dressed in striped uniforms with only their numbers to define them, the inmates faced hunger, overcrowding, torture, arbitrary punishments and hard physical labour on a daily basis. Of the 200,000 prisoners who lived in the camp over its 12 years of operation, at least 41,500 died at Dachau.
Now an international travelling exhibition to be staged at The University of Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre aims to give Dachau’s prisoners their names and identities back. Names Instead of Numbers features biographies of camp prisoners, collected as part of an international education project.
The Remembrance Book for the Prisoners of Dachau Concentration Camp has collected more than 100 biographies since 1999, both from the survivors themselves and from the friends and families of those who either died in the camp or in the years following.
Daniel Lewis, a student of German and history at the University, worked on the project as part of his year abroad. He interviewed a camp survivor as part of his work and helped to bring the exhibition to Nottingham with Dr Magnus Brechtken, Associate Professor in German History and Politics.
“Rather than remembering people as statistics and numbers we’re trying to give names and histories to as many people as possible,” Daniel said. “And we’re not just focusing on their lives in Dachau. We look at their whole lives, instead of defining them purely by their lives in the camp.”
The biographies make inspiring reading. One prisoner, Ernst Federn, was punished using ‘pole hanging’ — his hands were tied behind his back and he was hung by his hands from a pole, causing excruciating pain. When he later returned to his block and his fellow prisoners asked how he was, he replied, “You know, coming down is so nice that it makes up for the hanging.” His answer inspired and motivated the other prisoners, increasing their will to survive.
Ernst was in Dachau for five months before being sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he remained until its liberation in 1945. In 1948, he and his wife emigrated to New York. Ernst died in 2007.
“The aim of the camp was to erase individuality — to streamline people,” added Dr Brechtken. “What this exhibition does if give people back their individuality, their identity through remembrance.”
The 22 biographies featured in the exhibition have been chosen to reflect the range of nationalities interned in the camp. Former prisoners now living in Austria, Germany, Poland, Holland, France, the UK and the Ukraine are included, and their biographies have already been exhibited across many of these countries. The intention is for the exhibition to continue travelling around Europe as a means of educating people about the camp and encouraging others to contribute their own biographies to the project.
“Europe is built on the foundation of an active remembrance of the horrors of national socialism,” said Dr Max Mannheimer, exhibition patron and former Dachau and Auschwitz inmate. “I hope that this exhibition will enable the establishment of more connections between the countries of Europe. People today are not responsible for what happened then. But they are responsible for what happens today in an active and democratic Europe.”
The exhibition begins on Wednesday 11 November and will be accompanied by a series of public lectures. Names not Numbers will be located in the University’s Angear Visitors Centre, next to the Djanogly Gallery at the Lakeside Arts Centre at University Park’s South Entrance. For more information on the exhibition and the public lecture programme email firstname.lastname@example.org, for opening times visit www.lakesidearts.org.uk and click on the ‘about us’ section.
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