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Remembering the liberation of Bergen-Belsen from home

As the spectre of covid-19 advances and the most solemn and emotional events are cancelled throughout the world to limit the ability of the virus to spread, we reflect on the meaning of memory and the practice of commemorating in a dimension where everything is still very much open: the online world, with its new normal ways of working, celebrating and even grieving.

2020 will be remembered as the covid-19 year, but also as the year when the technological and mediatic turn advance its pace.  It can be argued that this disembodied world was always the outcome of our increasing reliance on digital technology. However, in the transition between ‘before’ and ‘after’, the digital world reveals its technocratic face and highlights that memorialization and commemoration are especially difficult to replicate online. The difficulty in getting used to digital commemoration is experienced particularly by our community of Holocaust survivors and refugees – a group of people who rely intensively on human contact, friendship and community support. This difficulty also underlies a sense of injustice, which derives from the fact that 2020 also represents the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the vast majority of the concentrations camps where they were held.

In non-suspicious times, we had could commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz at the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre, as part of a national and international calendar dense with commemorative events in the UK and abroad. Back in January, different generations came together in a delicate balance between our local commemoration and the global opportunity of following commemorations elsewhere, including those at Auschwitz. It will be more difficult to achieve this on the occasion of the upcoming anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen on the 15th of April.

However, as we wait for a time when we will be able to commemorate again at our premises, we have worked in collaboration with Kirkless TV to mark the anniversary by embracing some of the opportunities that only the digital can offer. The outcome has been this dialogue between Bergen-Belsen survivor Eugene Black and his daughter, Lilian Black. We used old and new footage, old and new interviews and archival photographs, feeling closer to Eugene, who is sadly no longer with us.

Eugene Black (centre) photographed with fellow British Army servicemen after his liberation from Bergen-Belsen

While we do not mean this production as a substitution of the commemoration to come, our aim is to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and the specific circumstances in which this commemoration is taking place today. Meanwhile, while we commemorate far from one another, the message that we want to send is that we have not forgotten, and that we seek a contact zone with Bergen-Belsen survivors in the things that we have in common in the now – the prospect of meeting again soon, a busy digital world where nothing is closed, and a beautifully sunny week which echoes the warmth of the days when the ‘hellhole’ was liberated.