My grandpa was a SS soldier - an installation to resist forgetting
Between April 1942 and September 1944, four transports of people defined as Jews by the NSDAP departed from Platform 4 at the Siegen train station. Of the approximately 84 people, only seven survivors are known. On the first transport on April 28, 1942 to Zamo??, all of the 41 deportees died. In 2015, Siegen-based fine art photographer Thomas Kellner dedicated his studio exhibition "My grandpa was a SS soldier" to this deportation. There, he presented 41 clothing ensembles hanging from the ceiling. Each of these outfits was adorned with the yellow star, which functioned to identify Jewish people during the Nazi regime. Created during the so-called "refugee crisis," this exhibition is a reminder of the people who no longer had a chance to flee. "With this installation, I want to admonish and set a reminder that something like this never happens again," Kellner said at the time, drawing a connection to the current situation, when people sought protection in Germany but were sometimes met with hostility, even violence. He emphasizes that "today, when people flee [...] and come to us seeking protection, it is our duty to take these people in, to give them protection, a shelter and a new home." This is as important today as it was then. Refugees still die crossing the Mediterranean, are turned away off the coasts of Italy and Greece. Those who make the journey end up in overcrowded refugee camps and are given just the bare necessities to survive. And even if you have an apartment, a house, a job, a life, you can still be deported. But Antisemitism, Islamophobia and right-wing extremism have also grown since 2015. Especially in connection with demonstrations of the so-called “Querdenker” during the Corona pandemic, Holocaust-denying and xenophobic statements are becoming more frequent again. And there you can also encounter representatives of far-right groups. The topic that "My grandfather was a SS soldier" addresses is therefore just as relevant today as it was at the time of the "refugee crisis" and will remain so in the future. We just have to keep reminding each other.
The first deportation
Around the turn of the century the Jewish population of Siegen had grown so much that a synagogue was built in 1904. At the same time, since the end of the 19th century, Antisemitism had been on the rise; the NSDAP was able to develop into the strongest party in the Siegerland. After the Nazis came to power, the first boycotts of Jewish businesses soon followed, Jewish people were dispossessed of their property and the synagogue was set on fire. Those who could, emigrated. However, only a small part of the people of Jewish faith living in Siegen at that time managed to do so. In the following months, Jewish citizens increasingly lost their rights until the strategy for the "solution of the Jewish question" was determined at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942: People of the Jewish faith were to be arrested, rounded up, and deported to ghettos, concentration and extermination camps. This was to ensure the highest possible death rate. A first deportation train of this kind departed just a few months later, on April 28, 1942, from platform 4 of the Siegen train station. 41 Jewish persons were informed shortly beforehand that they had to present themselves at platform four on the morning of the 28th, including one child. They were only allowed to take one suitcase weighing up to 30kg and one bag with them, the rest they had to leave behind. The train took them to a collection point in Dortmund, from where they were further transported to Zamo?? together with a total of 800 Jewish people from South Westphalia. In Zamo?? they were distributed to the Belzec and Sobibor extermination camps - of the 800, not a single person survived. After that, three more deportations were to follow: on July 27 to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, on February 27, 1943 to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, and finally on September 29, 1944 to a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp in Kassel-Bettenhausen. Only a fraction of the deported survived, and to this day there is still no Jewish community in Siegen.
My grandfather was a SS soldier
2015 was a year in which an enormous number of refugees arrived in Germany. They were received in two ways: On the one hand, aid organizations and neighborhood associations quickly formed to facilitate the arrival of the refugees. On the other hand, the part of Germany that was xenophobic also gained strength: There were vituperative and slanderous messages, and the refugees were met with suspicion and aversion. The AfD formed, as a "response" to the influx of fleeing people. Refugee homes were torched. In this turbulent time, Thomas Kellner felt reminded of what can happen when xenophobia is allowed to spread and those seeking help are turned away at the door. He took the motto "Art Time" of the 7th Art Day as an opportunity to deal with the first deportation of Jewish people from Siegen on April 28, 1942; with those who could no longer escape. In his installation, he hung ensembles of old clothes, that had previously been donated, with hangers so that they fluttered in the wind like the ghosts of the deported people. These had the infamous yellow star pinned to them, which was supposed to identify people as Jews at the time of the Nazis. The atmosphere of the installation was underlined by the concrete walls and floors of the rooms, as well as the sounds of moving and stopping trains. Thus, one felt as if taken back to that fateful day, which signified the beginning of the end for so many. But this was not the only part to be remembered. The title of the installation "My grandpa was a SS soldier" points to a circumstance that is sometimes carted aside: A large part of German people’s parents, grandparents or great-grandparents did not oppose the regime and the genocide of millions of people. Maybe not all of them were part of the SS, or otherwise actively involved, but they certainly let the National Socialists have their way. And so, this installation reminds us that we too - whether during the "refugee crisis" in 2015 or today - have a responsibility to contribute with our actions to ensure a second Holocaust is impossible.