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Exhibition in the Jewish Museum

Picking up the pieces

München, 05/10/2017

Little information on Jewish life in Munich in the decades following the Second World War is available in the historical literature. So the 20 members of Professor Michael Brenner’s history class set out to fill the gap.

Eli Teicher

Professor Brenner’s students set out to reconstruct how Jews in Munich experienced the first quarter-century following the end of the Second World War. Since very little research had previously been done on the topic, they decided to adopt the techniques of oral history: They identified Jewish individuals who had lived through that period in the city, and arranged interviews with them. The project proved to be a more difficult undertaking than might have been expected – as Master’s student Maximilian Weitz explains: “In the case of events that occurred decades ago, witnesses may not always recollect and narrate them in the correct context or sequence. Indeed, they can unwittingly invent incidents that may never have taken place.” One must therefore take great care to phrase one’s inquiries in ways that do not implicitly direct the interviewee’s thoughts in any particular direction. For an interviewer who poses leading questions runs the risk of unduly influencing the witness and eliciting responses that confirm a predetermined thesis.

From transitory migrant to permanent resident
So the students in Professor Brenner’s seminar first had to prepare themselves thoroughly for their meetings with their informants. With Brenner’s aid they collaboratively formulated a list of questions for the interviews. “Each one of us was given the opportunity to conduct an interview – that was really exciting,” says Carolina Oswald. “Not only did we learn a great deal about the practice of historical research, we also got to know some fascinating personalities.” Essentially the same set of questions was put to all the interviewees, so the students were subsequently able to compare and collate the responses, and in this way put together a composite picture of Jewish life in Munich during the period concerned: Many of the Jews who found themselves in Munich in the aftermath of the war regarded it very much as a transit point on the way to somewhere else. Most of them couldn’t imagine living side-by-side with the inhabitants of a city that had played such a prominent role in the rise of the Nazis. But many of them found work, married, had families and stayed. The post-war Jewish community in Munich settled in various locations scattered around the city, but its members came together regularly in the synagogue, and children and adolescents met in the youth club Maon Hanoar. Perhaps not surprisingly, the reaction of the population at large was mixed. Some of the participants in the project remembered encounters with anti-Semitism, while others had no recollection of any overt discrimination. “Each of our interviewees had to come to terms with the events of the recent German past in his or her own way, but over the years the city of Munich became their home,” Carolina says.

From research project to exhibition
Carolina’s remark could stand as a fitting summary of the results of the project, but there was more to come. In the meantime, both the Jewish Museum in Munich and Bavarian Radio and Television (BR) had become aware of the venture. “The Museum then invited us to design an exhibition, and BR asked us to contribute to the making of a documentary based on our findings,” says Professor Brenner. – The students were only too delighted to oblige.

Work on the film and the exhibition – which was of course carried out in parallel with their scheduled courses – would keep them occupied for a further nine months. “We were suddenly confronted with the challenge of developing a compelling form of presentation for our results,” Carolina explains. For the exhibition they came up with the idea of assembling an album of photographs, which were chosen in close cooperation with their original interview partners. “We were given a completely free hand. The selection required a great deal of consultation between ourselves, but the chemistry within the group was fantastic,” says Maximilian.

Not only that, the students were closely involved with every stage of the production of the BR documentary, from the shooting itself to the editing of the final film. “The picture research for the film required a completely different approach to those adopted for the documentation of the interviews and the concept for the exhibition,” says Maximilian. Naturally, both he and Carolina are more than pleased with the outcome of the seminar. “In terms of its practical orientation, it was ideal,” she says, “and we made valuable professional contacts as a result.” Maximilian concurs: “The seminar was worth far more than the ECTS points it brought us!”

The exhibition Jüdisches Leben in München in den 1950er- und 1960er-Jahren at the Jewish Museum in Munich runs until September 30th. The exhibition uses photographs, personal belongings, and video extracts of the interviews to document the everyday life of Munich’s Jewish population during the 1950s and 60s. The BR documentary will be broadcast on ARD Alpha. The date of transmission has yet to be decided.