About Our Summer School
by Magdalena Waligorska
The idea for this summer school was to speak of “difficult heritage” that is both intangible, or takes the form of an absence, and tangible, taking the form of spaces and objects that unsettle us, haunt us, pose a challenge to our memory. Its immediate goal was not only to explore the new methodological approaches to so-called “dissonant heritage”, but also to provide the young scholars with an interdisciplinary set of research tools and experience that would enhance and facilitate their further research.
It was our guiding principle to start this summer school in the so-called “periphery of Europe”, and try to export some of the lessons learned there into the much more theorized context of Western Europe. The German leg of the school was therefore to take place only after we had explored the Lithuanian-Belarusian borderlands.
The first edition of the summer school included field research in the Lithuanian town of Medininkai and the Belarusian Halšany, where young scholars carried out oral-history interviews with local inhabitants, as well as used ethnographical tools to examine the way local people related to the absent or abandoned heritage of other ethnic groups (in particular, related to the Holocaust, WWII, and the Jewish and Polish minorities).
In 2016, we were tracing absences and silences, trying to figure out why certain pasts were not pictured in the local memorial landscape. In 2017 we dealt with places and objects that were very prominent, or even dominating the surroundings, but left us helpless, struggling to factor them into the collective memory, engage with them, speak about them. We spent some time in two places that symbolize the darkest chapters in Germany’s history: Bunker Valentin, built with the hands of forced labourers which was supposed host Hitler’s secret submarine factory and which remained an eyesore to the local community for 70 years to come, and the Jewish Museum in Berlin, a highly contested and controversial structure, built in the center of Berlin to symbolize the void that Jews left in the country’s life. But we also spent some time on the other difficult heritage of Germany: the legacy of the GDR and the way its material presence not only poses a challenge but also triggers nostalgia and becomes commodified. By working with objects and places, we attempted a wider reflection about how memory takes place and is articulated in space.
We aimed for an interdisciplinary exchange about difficult memory that would not simply follow the conventional style of top-down lectures, or seminars, but be hands-on and democratic. Each of us, with our individual, unique expertise and experience contributed to this forum. It was our interaction, discussions and creativity that generated knowledge. The final product, however, was not only purely academic. We did not only want to study memory, but to make memory too. In 2017 we were working on two such projects: a crowdfunding platform to save and revitalize a synagogue in Ašmiany that finds itself in a severe state of disrepair, and on an artistic intervention of “bringing back Jewish memory” to the town of Halšany. Both projects were inspired by 2016 summer school and will probably grow into further transborder cooperations.