What Happened Here in Munich: An Interview with Mirjam Zadoff

October 16, 2021   •   By Laurie Winer

IN 2018, Mirjam Zadoff became the head of Munich’s Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism. A white cube-like structure designed by the Berlin architects Georg Scheel Wetzel, the Centre was opened in 2015 on a piece of earth central to its story. It was at this address on Brienner Strasse that, in 1930, Elizabeth Barlow sold her 1829 neoclassical stone mansion to the burgeoning Nazi Party, which made the building its headquarters. Hitler worked closely with architect Paul Troost to convert the residence, and the Nazis moved in on the first day of 1931. It became known as the Brown House. Hans Frank, Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, and Joseph Goebbels maintained offices there. After Hitler seized power in 1933, the basement of the respectable-looking and heavily guarded building became a notorious place of interrogation and torture. It was largely destroyed by Allied bombing in October 1943.

With its multi-story windows looking out on the very locations depicted in the thousands of photos on display, the Centre offers visitors a uniquely visceral educational experience. The teenaged schoolchildren I watched go through its four floors were silent and riveted, leaning forward to hear their guides’ every word. Periodically some would sit down to hold their heads in their hands.

Zadoff is also an author. Her 2011 book, Next Year in Marienbad: The Lost Worlds of Jewish Spa Culture (translated by William Templer), is a fascinating history of the Eastern European health resorts so popular with Jews — a history that foreshadows and sheds light on the catastrophe to come. One story I was unaware of, for instance, concerns the arrival, in the early 1920s, of a new generation of spa clientele, many of them coming from Palestine. These were, in general, a thinner, healthier bunch with a more progressive and proactive stance on combating antisemitism than their elders. They inspired the children of the regular visitors to join them in late-night drinking and philosophizing sessions that made Carlsbad seem, for a brief moment, like a lab for conquering a passive acceptance of the inevitability of Jewish disaster.

Zadoff has taught and lectured all over the world, spending four years at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she held the Alvin H. Rosenfeld Chair in Jewish Studies. I met with her in a wide-windowed room on the Centre’s top floor, where she served coffee and biscuits.

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LAURIE WINER: How did you find yourself in Indiana?

MIRJAM ZADOFF: The Jewish studies program there is one of the biggest in the country, started by Alvin Rosenfeld in the late 1970s. So when we came, there was an established program. Some of our Jewish students came from the coast, as you would expect, but we also taught many Jewish students from the Midwest, as well as many non-Jewish students.

While I hate to ask you to generalize, are there discernible differences between history students here in Germany and in the United States?

The school systems are very different. In general, German students have a higher level of knowledge of history, but that is declining as well. In Indiana, I once taught a course on refugees and migration and I was quite surprised that the students were unfamiliar with many aspects of American history. There was a little knowledge of slavery but not much. They knew almost nothing about the history of American antisemitism. I also learned a great deal; for instance, I had been unaware of the details and consequences of the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South.

Did you like living in Indiana?

We liked it a lot, but after a while we considered going to a different university because we were used to living in big cities, and when suddenly you’re in a college town, it is a completely different social sphere. But we wanted to stay in America. Then, for various reasons, some of them having to do with the coming in of the Trump administration, we decided to go back. There’s lots of things that I miss about American academia, which is such a vivid environment. Here it’s much smaller and more limited in many ways.

Can you outline why you decided to leave?

Coming from Europe and having all this European history over my shoulder, when Trump came in I was in a panic. Some of my colleagues tried to calm me down, saying, “Oh, the American institutions, they weather every storm. It’s a different situation here than in Europe,” and I thought, “Don’t be naïve. Please don’t be naïve.”

Can you say more about how you felt at the time?

It was a big shock I have to say. I remember Obama saying, “Don’t worry, the sun will rise again tomorrow,” and the sun rose. I went outside and looked around and I felt that everyone was looking around, checking everyone else out — Where are you? Where do you stand? How do you feel? In my classroom, some students cried. Others were very happy. Then came the travel ban for people from Muslim countries, and my husband and I thought we might have to leave the country, because we were still on our H-1B visas. Everything got more restrictive, and a Spanish colleague who had been out of the country couldn’t return to teach. And suddenly there was a feeling of enormous insecurity, and we understood that there were so many things about the American system we didn’t know. I found it quite overwhelming.

In the end, I felt I could contribute less to a public discourse in the US because I know too little about the system. I thought that I would need a couple of years to really enter the debate and be a part of it. Whereas here I know the system, although there are similar changes going on, and universities as well as museums are more and more politicized spaces. But I do know the system, and that’s helpful for me. So in the end I wanted to leave the US.

How was the transition from the university to running the Documentation Centre?

We serve a much more diverse audience. In Munich, 40 percent of the population was not born in Germany. So we navigate the challenge of reaching out to people who have no connection to this history. If you decide to live in another country, do you need to deal with the history of that place? And I think, yes, you should, if you have the ability, it’s the best thing to do, and we offer a way to do so. And if we say, look, this is also about German democracy today, and it’s all interconnected, then people get interested. And that’s our challenge — to reach out to various audiences.

The larger context is in the 1980s and ’90s we underwent an enormous transition following German reunification. We’re all aware of the significant amount of “memory work” that you will find in the streets in Berlin related to the Holocaust; there was none of that before 1980. In Munich, it’s the same story, though it starts later.

How was the choice of the Centre’s site made?

Nothing had ever been built on this historic space, and of course this is prime real estate. The question became, what are we going to do with it? Around 2000 the city decided that the Centre should be built, and then there was a long period of discussion: should this be a research center, a museum, a place for education, and, in the end, it became all of those things. My predecessor, Winfried Nerdinger, was in charge of this enormous project, of overseeing the permanent exhibition, which is not a collection, as I’m sure you noticed. There are no artifacts, there is no collection here, there are no original objects [the history is told with the use of facsimile photos and documents].

Also on the site is a university for music and for the arts, in a building that used to be called the “Führerbau,” Hitlers main office in Munich after he seized power. After 1945, it housed the American center for reeducation. It’s often thought that the best way to fill these problematic, contested spaces is with arts and music.

Why did Dr. Nerdinger decide to step down?

Dr. Nerdinger was a professor of architecture and architecture history, and he was already retired when he took the reins of this institution. He, along with a group of four other historians, did an enormous amount of research. Hard as it may be to believe, the specific connection between Munich and National Socialism hadn’t been researched so thoroughly before.

This was a contentious process, as you can imagine. Some groups want to be represented, to have their stories told, and others don’t want to see the names of their predecessors or ancestors mentioned at all, and so on. I think the driving idea was to say, okay, there’s some things we don’t have to discuss anymore. In public discourse, we’ve reached a certain level of collective knowledge and awareness, when it comes to the history of National Socialism.

But then, when the Centre opened in 2015, we found ourselves in the middle of a so-called refugee crisis. It wasn’t a real crisis but it was put forth as such by some people, which brought an extreme right-wing party into Parliament. So it became immediately clear that we are not only talking about history here, but we’re also talking about the connection to today. How can we as a society and as individuals act when parties emerge that threaten democracy, and what happened here in Munich in the 1920s is very much to the point.

I went last night to the Hofbräuhaus (a beerhall favored by Hitler for speechifying), and I couldn’t help thinking of the January 6 attempted insurrection in Washington, DC. The idea that since World War II we have laid a groundwork of public knowledge seems in jeopardy in all sorts of ways across the globe. And you would think that the one thing we would be able to recognize is a dictator — what characterizes him, the personality, the traits, which include the cosmic grandiosity, the constant lying, and the demonization of the press. And yet Orbán and Bolsonaro and Duda (in Hungary, Brazil, and Poland, respectively) were all elected, at least initially, and the Americans who love Trump applaud his authoritarianism and accept whatever he tells them, no matter how patently absurd. How do you comprehend that development?

Well, of course it’s complicated. I published a piece about this recently in which I quoted from a 1924 New York Times story that declared Hitler — “the putschist” — appeared “sadder and smarter” since serving time in Landsberg, and they expected him to return home to Austria and live a quiet existence.

Dear god.

Unfortunately, a failed coup is usually not the end but the beginning of a crisis.

What do we do?

This struggle will depend a lot on how successfully we protect marginalized groups and encourage them to participate in the democratic processes. Only a diverse and open society can counter right-wing extremist attempts to overthrow it. The US and Germany should lead this fight together, because we are dealing with similar dangers. Did you know that, after the US, QAnon had the most supporters in Germany last year? They carry aggressive antisemitic and racist slander through the cities. I think right now a lot of people are figuring out how to deal with members of their own families who believe conspiracy theories; there’s certainly a lot of books that give advice on how to deal with that.

I reject that advice because it is always — you must listen to them and try to understand what they are afraid of. No, I’m not going to do that. They never try to see anything outside of their own bubble.

We deal with that on an institutional level. Each year, we host around 2,000 educational formats and 100 evening events. Although we invite an open and democratic discourse, we do not want the extreme right on the stage. Today, they are very clever and well educated and target cultural institutions. I’m not going to give them any kind of stage.

That’s exactly why Nancy Pelosi wouldn’t let Jim Jordan on the January 6 committee; they will highjack it with nonsense. Absolute nonsense.

While we have a mandate to address political issues, I’m not going to bring them in to talk. The same week when I started here three years ago, a leading figure of the AfD said National Socialism was just a minor part of German history — why not ignore it and just tell the story of our great ancestors?

So we try to address these questions through issues. For instance, there was a rap band that was in the news for using antisemitic tropes in their songs. We produced a discussion about German rap and antisemitism and then added another program about pop culture and racism and antisemitism. We schedule events only three months out so we can react quickly to whatever is in the wind. We also invite students from professional schools or trade schools to contribute exhibitions to our program, which are often about not only antisemitism and racism but also about the fear of being poor, of not being able to take part in the democratic processes, and of dealing with personal trauma. Some of the students have been refugees. They do not have Nazis in their family history, but that doesn’t mean they have no points of contact with Nazi ideology, when they have to confront racism or other forms of hatred. We need to be as inclusive as possible here. Democracy is always about participation.

We have to think calmly through what is going on, because there is so much going on. One of the reasons for Hitler’s rise is that the institutions did not react, and the courts sympathized with him at a time in his movement’s development when it still could have been stopped.

Like Bill Barr’s Department of Justice, and the Supreme Court with the three Trump additions. And then there’s that element among the young, even progressive ones, who have determined that there’s nothing more to be learned from Holocaust history or from Jews in general.

On the contrary — Holocaust survivors and survivors of other Nazi genocides, such as Roma and Sinti or LGBTIQ*, have done an amazing job in creating public awareness. Nobody wanted to hear their stories for decades, so there’s much to be learned from their experiences. On the other hand, I’m afraid of far-right extremists that might gain considerable influence at various institutions. They join boards. For instance, the memorial sites of former concentration camps all have members of various parties on their boards, and these developments can eventually lead to less funding or no funding. Right now, this is not the case. Memory is never an easy subject. It’s always political and it never comes smoothly or easily.

I just read Raul Hilberg’s autobiography. His The Destruction of the European Jews was turned down by every major publisher, commercial and academic. Once it was published in 1961, it received a mostly hostile reception. The truth is that the impulse to say, “Let’s not examine it,” has been there from the very beginning. Now they say, “We’re tired of hearing about it.” They never wanted to hear about it.

Yes. Hilberg’s work wasn’t published in German until 1982. The Institute for Contemporary History here in Munich is one of the major historical institutions that wrote against it. They didn’t want it published. If you look at the German memory discourse, at a certain point almost every group from left to right has demanded we stop talking about the Holocaust.

Going through your permanent exhibit today, I thought about the stages of accepting history into our shared cultural zeitgeist. For instance, the press coverage of survivors in the 1960s and 1970s focused on how they were adapting in their lives but almost never about what happened to them, which was summed up in a sentence or two. As a society we couldn’t say, let’s listen to their memories, let’s film all they have to say, until a safer distance from the actual event was achieved. Time takes away memory and it takes away the last of the survivors, but it also does give us a certain freedom in our explorations of history.

Absolutely. Remembering is a long process. The first real international stage for survivors was the Eichmann trial in 1961, but their role in that case was to bear witness for the murdered six million rather than to tell their own stories. Many of them only started talking about their experiences at a very late stage in life. And many never talked.

My grandparents never discussed the pogroms that drove them from Ukraine, nor did my parents. Now I notice that the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of survivors are making documentaries and telling the stories their ancestors could not.

Yes, and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of perpetrators as well, which is equally valuable. For me, for someone who has lived in the US and is now back in Germany, the question of transnational memory culture is very important. The Holocaust, for just one example, is too important to remain in a national framework. And of course Holocaust history is taught in Asia and Australia and everywhere in the world, in countries that are not thought to be closely related to it. But in fact it was a world war and there were refugees everywhere, and so everything is related to it.

When the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama, Bryan Stevenson talked about what he had learned from the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Countries should reflect on how other countries deal with their own histories of trauma and repression, with that part of history where you are not the good guy. I know the US is dealing with this in discussions about critical race theory. This is why my team and I want to have transatlantic exchanges, which can be so fruitful. With the far right connecting so well on a global level, those of us who do pro-democracy work and memory work must connect on a global level as well, and find new and constructive ways of doing it.

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Laurie Winer’s book on Oscar Hammerstein II and the invention of the musical will be published by Yale University Press in fall 2022.