A conversation with author Mirna Funk about remembrance culture and the future
Volkswagen Heritage spoke to the author and journalist Mirna Funk about the expectations, requirements, opportunities and wishes associated with this. Mirna Funk grew up with a Jewish family in East Berlin and today devotes a large part of her work to the topics of Jewish life and remembrance. At the same time, she herself is a visible representative of modern Jewish life. In the interview, she talks about the triad of memory that is so important for the future and about what we can learn from Jewish culture:
Ms Funk, you are Jewish and grew up in Germany. How did you experience the topic of remembrance in your childhood and youth?
I grew up in East Berlin, in a very normal German setting at the time. I went to a completely normal German school, to a completely normal German kindergarten. That’s a bit different from what it was normally like for Jews in West Germany. They often grew up in the Jewish community. In the GDR, Judaism was not really relevant; there were other social issues that were in the forefront.
Did you nevertheless have a personal approach to memory culture as a young person?
I have a Jewish and a non-Jewish family. In the Jewish family, of course, there was a lot of talk about the persecution. About how parts of our family survived. There are and were many stories there that I grew up with. On the other hand, there was the “normal” German side, which I experienced as a kind of tension.
How did you experience these cultural differences?
Remembrance plays a huge role in Judaism. A lot is based on it, every single holiday is a reminder of something that happened thousands of years ago. This means that this mindset of “it must be good now” or “why do we have to remember at all?” is quite strange from a Jewish perspective. In Judaism, there is no problem with remembrance. We don’t really know why one should forget at all, because this is woven into all traditions. For example, a glass is crushed during the wedding ceremony. This custom serves to commemorate the destruction of the second temple 2,000 years ago. A symbol that there are always broken pieces in life, that there were and are always breaks in life – in personal life but also in the life of the Jewish people.
Which role does remembrance culture play in your life today?
In fact, it has become my profession. I honestly didn’t work towards it becoming my profession, but it just happened. And now I deal with it professionally and write articles about it. I mean, the culture of remembrance is not finished and many things are still not sufficiently known. For example, that there was a 2,000-year-old history of persecution before the Third Reich and that the ideas of the National Socialists fell on very fertile ground.
From your point of view, what is currently changing in this field?
There is a lot to observe right now. How has social memory evolved in recent decades, what changes have the fall of the Berlin Wall, globalisation, the end of the Cold War brought? What does memory culture mean in the wake of current post-colonial studies? Everything is in a constant state of change, including the perspective on these 12 years of the Holocaust. Contemporary witnesses are dying, which brings with it new questions, and accordingly this is a highly topical issue.
Which of these issues are most significant for you and your work?
The most important thing would indeed be to understand that history does not end with the contemporary witnesses. This is so anchored in current debates and the discussion of remembrance culture: what do we do now, will the Holocaust be gone? The fact that there is such a central perspective on contemporary witnesses is due to the fact that there is no awareness of the fact that traumatisation was also passed on to the second and third generations. I would not be sitting here now without the event of the Holocaust, my daughter would not bear the name she bears today. There is really a lot that is not dealt with. A change in thinking would be so important, then there wouldn’t be this feeling in the sense of “How can we keep the Holocaust alive when everyone is dead?”. We are not dead! And the effects have not gone away either.
What needs to change in society in this regard?
First of all, it’s about understanding, which needs to be brought to a broader public. Then maybe people would be a bit more empathetic towards the second and third generation and realise that we exist at all. I work a lot with children and young people and do workshops with them. And when you ask how many Jews there actually are left in Germany, there are always only two fantasies: none or 80 million. It’s like a ghost. This idea that there are actually no German Jews left in Germany, because they are all already dead.
Currently, the problem of Holocaust relativisation is very present again, e.g. by Corona deniers who see themselves as the successors of the persecuted Jews.
Holocaust relativisation takes place all the time. Whether it’s climate activists saying that animals live in concentration camps, or people claiming that European refugee policy is another Holocaust. We also see this in America and in other European countries, it is not specific to Germany. What I find much more threatening than lateral thinkers is what has been happening in the academic establishment for some time. Historians like Dirk Moses or Per Leo who think that if we keep talking about the Holocaust, all the other genocides will go under. No one, no Jewish historian or Holocaust researcher would ever say that the Holocaust is the most important thing and that one should not talk about other genocides. Something is taking place that is, of course, Holocaust relativisation and is above all intended to serve one’s own defence against guilt.
So the main thing is a lack of education?
I think what is missing is a school-based examination of the development from anti-Judaism to anti-Semitism and then beyond that to anti-Zionism. We are dealing here, so to speak, with three stages of development of hatred of Jews and these stages of development must be taught in order to understand at all that anti-Semitism is not something that came with Hitler and left with Hitler. This narrative of the German people being seduced by Hitler must first be removed from people’s minds in order to roll out the actual remembrance work. The big question is: has memory work taken place at all in the last 80 years? Less in the political arena, I mean really deep in the core of German society.
What has to change in remembrance work so that it actually reaches the centre of society?
In Germany, remembering is always somehow hard and difficult, and that’s why you don’t reach many people. Who does that voluntarily? I think you can reflect on the culture of remembrance and at the same time integrate it into life and into something positive. Just look at how the Jews live remembrance, what the remembrance culture specialists of the last 5,000 years have come up with. We celebrated this to some extent last year: 1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany. The focus was very much on the present, and that’s right. I think it would be important to combine certain commemorative events with Jewish culture. Or to celebrate high public holidays together. People still know far too little about Judaism. Everyone has seen the Jew as a victim of the Holocaust. But the Jew sitting at the table and laughing, that doesn’t happen at all. In American society, we are further along, it is totally normal for some family to celebrate Hanukkah in Hollywood films. But Jewish culture has been largely eliminated from the German consciousness, from the German public.
How should companies make a contribution to this?
Perhaps the responsibility also lies with such large corporations as Volkswagen to see how we can promote and raise awareness of this Jewish culture, which is always claimed to be gone now. Where is Volkswagen’s big music and literature prize for Jewish musicians and writers today? We can’t spend all our time lamenting and mourning something and not concern ourselves at all with how we actually promote what is left. It can’t end with interviewing contemporary witnesses and projecting them as holograms in the future, just so that we can remain in 1945. There is also the second and the third generation, my daughter is the fourth. We live here and now, and we are still dealing with the effects of the Holocaust today. If companies have a responsibility for the past, then they also have a responsibility for the present and a responsibility for the future. Remembrance culture cannot only take place in yesterday, but it must be lived in the now and in the tomorrow at the same time.
Ms Funk, thank you for this interesting interview.