Readings about memory work: With the voices of the past

The present needs memory. But how does it succeed? In the Munich Kammerspiele three women read from memories of concentration camps.

Auschwitz concentration camp

Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp Photo: Karsten Thielker

In the beginning there should be the end: “Patience, passion and rigor” are necessary to engage with the memory. These are the last words that will be read out in Munich that evening. And they reverberate. The evening is entitled “Is that a human being?”, a book title by Primo Levi. Three contemporary personalities are set in a dialogue with storytellers from contemporary history that spans space and time. Author Carolin Emcke, actress Maryam Zaree and journalist Lena Gorelik read texts by Primo Levi, Jean Améry, Ruth Klüger, Charlotte Delbo, Imre Kertész and Jorge Semprún.

The event is part of Festival “Remembrance as work on the present” at the Munich Kammerspiele. Until mid-December it confronts the history and present of different fascisms. And explores the question of which forms of artistic realization a theater can choose to commemorate crimes like those that happened in Nazi Germany in November 1938.

The three readers are professionals in memory work. Carolin Emcke describes in the Collection of essays “Because it can be said” the attempts of concentration camp inmates to preserve human dignity amidst irrational crimes. Lena Gorelik’s parents are Russian Jews who emigrated to Germany with their then eleven-year-old daughter in the early 1990s and initially ended up in a refugee barracks. In the novel “Who we are” she writes about it in 2021.

Maryam Zaree was born in Tehran, in Evin prison. Her mother manages to escape from the Iranian mullah regime to Frankfurt am Main. For a long time, Zaree knew nothing about the circumstances of her birth. 2019 She presented the film “Born in Evin” as a director as an examination of her biography.

The room for maneuver? Listen

The reading in Munich now dispenses with any theatrical exaggeration. She challenges the audience to the maximum. The stage is black. The book titles are faded in, the texts are soulful, factual and hard. It’s cold in the stage area, the heating is turned down. It gets even colder when we hear the reports of humiliation, pain and humiliation suffered.

Caroline Emcke sends a trigger warning ahead of the evening. Because it’s going to be intense. The first tiers are occupied by school classes, you know this type of announcement from social media. heads drop. eyes shut. Scrolling further or clicking back to better understand a passage does not work if the “feed” takes place on a stage. Audio books and podcasts are now a by-product. Here, however, we read quietly for an hour and a half, handing over the word through an exchange of views.

The hands are on the knees. The knees hit the front seat. The room for maneuver on both sides is limited to the maximum. Tears flow on the left. A mask is straightened on the right. Someone is choking. Carolin Emcke climbs off the stage and hands her glass of water to the audience. Remembering is work, she had said at the beginning. It is work when dealing with an unknown story cannot be diluted by parallel activities and horrific images begin to pile up in your head.

Many believe that we didn’t just forget how to really listen during the pandemic.

In the intentionally monotonous way of reading, the collective terror disintegrates into individual voices. Sometimes the monstrous mixes with the imaginable, but often not.

11-year-old Ruth Kluger, she later wrote, in a selection process in which women between the ages of 15 and 45 capable of work were selected, she initially did not want to make herself older out of rebelliousness, as her mother tells her to do – which, however, saves her. Jean Améry, on the other hand, describes the sound of his shoulder joints bursting next to his ears as he is pulled under the covers by a hook. One thing is clear: memories survive in such encounters. Time never heals all wounds. But attitude, not hope, dies last.

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