“We have to bend and we have to stand straight. We must not forget that what is being negotiated here is our history”, Walter Kempowski wrote in the 1970s.
Serbian artist Selman Trtovac had been searching for his history. He had been trying to find information about his grandfather, whom the Nazis had brought to a big farm in Bavaria to be a forced labourer. When we met in Belgrade, Selman told me a deeply affecting story. A forced labourer from Belgrade had been mistreated by a certain villager in Gestratz, a village in the region of Allgäu, not far from the municipality of Ruderatshofen where I live. They had an argument, the villager reported the forced labourer to the authorities, and he was punished by being sent to the Dachau concentration camp. He survived the camp and after the liberation went back to Gestratz to get his revenge on the villager. He hanged him from a beam in the church in Gestratz and did not leave for Belgrade until the next day. No one recognized him.
Selman’s story leaves a lasting impression. It shows how little we know about what had been going on in the villages we live in during the Second World War. Admittedly, it is a known fact that Hitler’s power structures had at one point spread out as far as to the remotest of villages, but in the villages themselves this is a topic that is practically not discussed. There are no village memories of life under Nazis, probably because they would disrupt the peaceful atmosphere and good neighbourly relations for generations. In spite of this, owing to Selman’s story an awareness of past crimes lives on even after 74 years have passed.
Research has shown that in his story Selman brought together three events, skilfully condensing them in the process. The villager was probably not hanged, but killed with a firearm through a locked door. This may have been done by a Serb, but it could also have been done by a French soldier. Witnesses claim that after the Second World War a Serbian Orthodox Christian dirge was held in the church in Gestratz, involving numerous flowers and sweets, but that nobody was hanged in it.
It is a certain fact, however, that the villager mistreated the forced labourer. He did file a complaint against a worker from Serbia, who was then most probably returned to the central camp (Stammlager, Stalag) in Memmingen as punishment. After the war he briefly returned to Gestratz, and the villager died a violent death. The identity of the forced labourer from Serbia remains unknown.
Selman did not manage to find information about his grandfather in Gestratz, but the story of the villager’s murder interconnected with his family history and merged with it.
“The family is a segment of humanity destined for us to get to know it better”, the author Jenny Erpenbeck wrote. By looking for his grandfather, Selman tried to unearth the foundations of his own identity. On this topic Jenny Erpenbeck also wrote: “Memory works against transience. And we work with it in the fight against our own fear that we will get lost in the world. With the help of memory, we try to establish a continuity, precisely because we know that this continuity does not exist. In this process, however, we encounter cracks and modifications that make us think hard, at least if we are decisive in our endeavour. To truly remember is never to simply open a drawer, it is a process of contemplation. Often a very painful one.”
Gestratz-Belgrade-Ruderatshofen: memory moves in mysterious ways, often surfacing only after long years of silence.
The Shaping of Memory
During the period of Nazism, solely within the borders of the Third Reich there were around thirteen million forced labourers. These men, women and children came from different parts of Europe and were used to do different types of work, often against their own will and under conditions not fit for people. Since their labour was necessary both for the production of armaments and for supplying the German population with provisions, they were present in both state and privately owned companies.
The authorities did not hide the forced labourers from the German public. They were present everywhere, even in the most remote rural areas. Farmers brought in forced labourers to help them with the harvest and to herd their cattle. They looked after children and repaired railroad tracks or cleaned the snow off the roadways. The forced labourers worked on numerous farms in the region of Allgäu in southern Germany as well, where people at the time, as they do today, mainly made a living off agriculture, which means that they were part of the everyday lives of the local population.
In the past decades, historians mainly focused on the forced labourers who worked in the industry, concentrating in the process on the memories of the victims themselves, whom they interviewed. I, however, opted for a different focus in a paper that I, as a historian, wrote for the state exam at the University of Augsburg in 2015.
I myself hail from a small village in the west of the region of Allgäu, where forced labourers were a daily occurrence during the Second World War. In spite of this, memories of them do not play a significant role in the stories of the local population. Instead, witness accounts mainly deal with partaking in the war or young villagers who got killed, the severe shortage of goods towards the end of the war or the occupation. If someone does mention forced labourers, it is by rule only as part of the story about male and female servants in the countryside, an occurrence much wider in span that has a very long tradition. Nobody truly engages with the severely harsh circumstances that the forced labourers experienced. It is my conclusion that up to this day the village population perceives forced labour as some kind of side effect of war and Nazism. In this process – sometimes in the details, and sometimes in the different versions of memories of the same event – one can clearly see the manner in which memories pass through the filters of our recollection and the transformations they undergo.
In the course of this research, while spending a lot of time in the village archives and in talks with the interviewees, I met the visual artist Selman Trtovac. He was spending a few months in Augsburg, as an artist in residence. During his stay, he was also trying to find information about his grandfather, who had been a forced labourer in a Bavarian village in the course of the Second World War. In order to get an idea of the circumstances surrounding their ancestor who had been engaged in forced labour, Selman and his family paid me a visit in the region of Allgäu. I showed them all the places where the forced labourers – though not necessarily his grandfather – worked, where they were staying and which reports on them can be found in the documents dating from that period. Not long afterwards, Trtovac ended his art project, I finished the paper I had been writing for the state exam, relying in the course of the process primarily on the recollections of German witnesses, and then I concentrated on passing the state exam, and later on other research projects, too.
Some four years later, in the spring of 2019, I was contacted by the artist Christian Hörl, who also resides in the region of Allgäu. While staying in Belgrade he had met Selman Trtovac and was now looking for additional information on a story he told him. The story sounded very interesting to me, because it brought together several events I had recounted to Trtovac at the time of our meetings.
The story of Selman Trtovac, but also the stories of witnesses, clearly show that memory does not at all resemble a photograph from the past. It is not a permanent reproduction of what the protagonists have experienced, but is newly formed each time we wish to use it or talk about it. Memories become mixed with what we have experienced, heard, seen or read; they vary and take on a new form at the moment of summoning. “Memory works against transience”, Christian Hörl stated, quoting the author Jenny Erpenbeck. This is also very clearly presented in Hörl’s project “Selman’s Dream”, because it brings into the spotlight the process of facing the multiperspective, filtered components of one’s own memory in the search for what we consider to be our “identity”.
Augsburg, September 2019
The Line of a Transformation
In 2015, the artists’ association “Visoki put” launched an Artist-in-Residence initiative and in that way opened up the possibility for artists to spend a few months in the city of Augsburg, to get acquainted with the city and its surroundings, and to address the topic of the “Utopia of Peace” there, in a city district reserved for creativity. The objective was to present the results of the work process in the “Höhmannhaus” gallery.
During my stay in Augsburg, a series of drawings and photographs came into being after an exciting process, as well as a video piece on the topic of the “Utopia of Peace”. This topic was simultaneously the motto of the Artist-in-Residence project.
My artistic reaction to the topic involved two elements. The first element was the fact that in the period of Nazi terror my grandfather had spent a long time, a few years, somewhere in Bavaria, as a prisoner and forced labourer. He had worked on a large farm. The second element was the complete opposite, the thought of a utopia of peace in exactly that specific place. I was interested in grasping the basic concept of the “line” that connected these two points, the two antipodes. Such a line for me is a metaphor for the process of transformation, for cognition, one of relations between people and the ethics of the time we live in today.
It was clear to me then, and it is especially clear today, that through my artistic work, the line, I did not wish to speak about the private destiny of one man, my grandfather. Instead, I wanted his destiny to serve as more of a starting point for thinking about far more important things: the historical transformation of a society, but even about a wider concept, the possible transformation of the entire human kind. In order to understand this line, I had to take into account the experiences of a few generations – those who had lived before me, but also those who had just been born or were yet to be born. In my opinion, this was the only way for me to envision the entire picture and to derive from it a form that perhaps made sense and from which people could perhaps benefit.
Chance would have it that during a lecture at the University of Augsburg I met the young historian Alexander Weidle. He assisted me in the search for documents that would help me understand what my grandfather had been going through in the course of his stay in Germany. The search was fruitless, but it led me at one point to a small village by the name of Gestratz in the region of Allgäu. This village looked exactly like the place my grandfather could have been staying in. It seemed peaceful, it was rich with greenery, and the weather was also pleasant, sunny. No one would have thought that in that exact place dramatic events had been taking place at a certain point in time. In the local municipal hall I had a chance to view the archive from the period of Nazism, different identity cards, fingerprints, various documents, etc. At one point I suddenly felt that this time was not so far in the past. The atmosphere of that period of evil was not an abstract notion any longer. I was overcome by a feeling of unease, one could almost say that the fear those people must have been feeling had taken hold of me.
It was there that I found out about terrible and dramatic stories. One of the stories concerned the fate of a forced labourer from Belgrade. I believe I remember he had been assigned to help a local Nazi. This Nazi was dissatisfied with his work. For this reason, he often tortured him and mistreated him and in the end reported him to those who had sent him to that post. As a consequence, the man was transferred to the Dachau concentration camp. Since this happened a little before the end of the war, the man somehow managed to survive the terrors of this concentration camp, return from Dachau to Gestratz, find the local Nazi, kill him, drag him to the local church and hang him inside it. Nobody ever looked for this man, nor were any kind of legal proceedings ever instituted against him. Some people with whom I talked to on the spot told me that the Nazi deserved such a fate.
It was exactly at this location that I carried out a performance and recorded a video piece. This performance consisted of me drawing a line from the house, i.e. the place where the forced labourers used to stay, to one of the places where they worked. I created this line by using one arm to pull a cart for marking sports fields, which left a white trace on the ground, a white line, while using my other arm to carry my eight-month-old child. This line, in this context, for me was both a spatial and a temporal line. It was a line coming from the past, passing through the present and leading towards the future, at the same time bringing together two points in space, thus marking transformation, even healing.
Memories of this event today seem like a dream to me.
Belgrade, 23rd August 2019
Selman’s dream (1945-2019)
74 copper plates each 20 x 30 cm; coated with white paint, in screen printing technique, 400×160 cm
The artist Christian Hörl was born in Augsburg in 1961. He studied Sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich in the class of Professor Kornbrust and successfully completed his studies in 1997.
After spending longer periods of time working at the Cité des Artes in Paris and the Reykjavik Sculpture Association in Iceland and after receiving the Deutsch-Französischer Kulturrat grant, which enabled him to spend time in Bordeaux, Christian Hörl took a keener interest in places and their history in his work. In this regard, the topic of his works are both temporal and phycial spaces.
The work titled “Selman’s Dream” came into being after a meeting with the visual artist Selman Trtovac in Belgrade left a lasting impression. Trtovac had been trying to find information about his grandfather who had been a forced labourer during World War II at a country estate in Gestratz, in the region of Allgäu, close to the place where Hörl lives. The coincidental geographic proximity between the village of Gestratz and the municipality of Ruderatshofen, where Hörl lives, sparked intensive thoughts on the potential of personal and collective memory and their consequences.
Christian Hörl lives and works in Ruderatshofen, in the region of Allgäu.