Understanding the Meaning of Loss

Katinka Corts
7. July 2021
Photo: Markus Gröteke © Stiftung Flucht, Vertreibung, Versöhnung

June 20th marked the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Convention on Refugees coming into force. It offers millions of people protection and a life in safety — things that people who have not suffered war or displacement take for granted. To remember history, but also to perpetuate it, the Documentation Centre for Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation has been inaugurated in the Deutschlandhaus in Berlin.

Anyone who currently thinks of people seeking refuge may have images in their mind’s eye of people crossing the Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece in overcrowded rubber dinghies — a defining image in Europe in recent years. But this form of escape, which is most present to Europeans, is only a small and very limited view of what affects millions of people every day. According to the United Nations, more people are currently fleeing war, conflict and persecution than ever before. Their number was estimated at 82.4 million at the end of last year, 42% of whom were minors. The UN lists Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar as the main countries of origin.

View to the first floor (Photo: Markus Gröteke © Stiftung Flucht, Vertreibung, Versöhnung)
Spiral staircase to the first floor of the permanent exhibition (Photo: Markus Gröteke © Stiftung Flucht, Vertreibung, Versöhnung)

After the precarious situation of the refugees seemed clear in 2015 and Angela Merkel’s “We can do it!” promised hope, memories faded over the years. Only when the refugee camp in Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos burned down did we remember — with quite a shock! — that the problem of refugees still exists: no home, a life in the camp, and children who in some cases only knew this place as home. Although money was provided by Brussels after the fire, Greece, as the country of first entry, continued to be left alone to manage European migration and process asylum applications in accordance with the Dublin Regulation.

On top of that, while people in Central Europe were going through pandemic anxieties and there was uncertainty about the delivery of correctly certified FFP2 masks, thousands of undersupplied camp inmates — yes, I take the liberty of calling them inmates — also feared the coronavirus pandemic and tried to protect themselves with simple masks made of tent fabric. Europe also feared COVID-19 in the camps, but at least partly with ulterior motives: What if the virus becomes rampant and mutates in the camp? Will the new variants, which are perhaps even more infectious, get out of the camp and infect us?

Last March, Barbara Wesel wrote an article worth reading that clearly summarized how we arrived at today’s refugee policy. The European “refugee problem” still exists, and Turkey continues to take in more than half of the fugitives. People are still waiting for a clear EU asylum policy. In the film “Miraggio”, which I saw last year at the Zurich Film Festival, Swiss director Nina Stefanka and translator Balkissa Maiga portray six young men who fled Mali for different reasons and have been waiting in Italy for years for the new life they long for. This mental state of desperate waiting that Stefanka depicts in her film is probably common to all refugees worldwide.

Room of Silence according to a design by Königs Architekten, Cologne (Photo: Königs Architekten)
Photo: Königs Architekten

When confronted with people seeking refuge today, the topic seems foreign to us. We think it’s terrible, we feel sorry for the people. The fact that a large proportion of Germans were also fleeing at the end of the Second World War is likewise distant and foreign to us. Seventy-seven years ago, millions of people fled from Silesia, Pomerania and the Sudetenland to escape the advancing Red Army, hoping for a new home without ever forgetting their old one. Some of us still have grandparents who were refugees themselves. Listening to their stories of expulsion — of the panic packing of carts, of nighttime marches across the frozen Baltic Sea, of hiding in forests, of the fear of this army from the East that was tremendously hurt and offended after Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and the murder of 27 million people, of the difficult beginnings west of the Oder River — can we really imagine that? What is it like to try to like a new place when you never wanted to leave the old one and you keep the key of your actual home all your life?

View into the library (Photo: Markus Gröteke © Stiftung Flucht, Vertreibung, Versöhnung)

To ensure that the accounts of eyewitnesses from that time are not forgotten, their stories have been diligently documented for decades. On June 23, the Documentation Centre for Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation opened at the Deutschlandhaus in Berlin. Eleven years ago, Austrian architecture firm Marte.Marte won the competition for the redesign and expansion of the 1930s building. As a place of learning and remembrance, the exhibition portrays the European history of forced migrations from the 20th century to the present. The focus is on the flight and expulsion of around 14 million Germans in the historical context of the Second World War and the National Socialist policy, which was aggressively oriented towards war from the very beginning.

In addition to the permanent exhibition, the more than 5,000-square-meter space also houses special exhibitions, a library with an archive of contemporary witness accounts, and a Room of Silence. The latter was designed by the German office Königs Architekten from Cologne. The redesign of the building preserves the listed facade; inside, a light gap separates the existing building from the extension. The visually calm atmosphere of exposed concrete and white walls is appropriate for the demanding content of the exhibition, which was designed by Stuttgart's Atelier Brückner. Equally impressive is the 30-by-30-meter exposed concrete ceiling that spans the main space and is only supported by three staircases and a lift shaft in the four corners.

The Documentation Centre is about the flight and displacement of Germans, but also about the many other people who had to experience forced migration and still do today. In the spirit of reconciliation, we are closing a gap in the German culture of remembrance. Our message is that expulsions are an injustice and we name the perpetrators of this suffering. Our empathy goes out to all refugees and displaced persons. Historical and political phenomena are explained objectively and on the basis of science. In this way, we counter polarization and relativization. The new house sees itself as an offer for discussion for all those interested.

Director Dr. Gundula Bavendamm

The center can be visited free of charge every day except Mondays. A special feature is the library, where visitors can trace their own family history and view documents about the routes taken by their ancestors in networked digital archives. Yet the center is not only a place of the past; visitors will be able to contribute more and more of their own stories over the years to come. Many of the exhibits were given to the foundation by contemporary witnesses, together with the history associated with them. This will also be the case in the future, because the history of the current refugee movement around the Mediterranean Sea will continue to find its way into the exhibition. A powerful image is a digital world map on which visitors to the museum can enter the routes taken by their families — as traces of their own displacement or as the routes their fleeing relatives took. And the museum will stir people up. Once they have seen the precious objects that people took with them as reminders of the homelands they fled, they will inevitably ask themselves: What would I never leave behind? What are my memories attached to?

Objects from a local Sudetenland museum (Photo: Markus Gröteke © Stiftung Flucht, Vertreibung, Versöhnung)
Project: Documentation Centre for Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation
Location: Stresemannstrasse 90, 10963 Berlin
Client: Stiftung Flucht, Vertreibung, Versöhnung
Architecture: Marte.Marte Architekten, Feldkirch (A)
Room of Silence: Königs Architekten, Cologne
Exhibition design: Atelier Brückner, Stuttgart
Project management: tp management GmbH, Berlin
Interior fittings & library: Raumkonzepte + Interior Design | Zauleck, Berlin together with art vos (NL)

This article was originally published as "Verstehen, was Verlust bedeutet" on German-Architects. Translation by Bianca Murphy.

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