THE HOLOCAUST IN CONTEXT
EVEN THOUGH a Holocaust center could have been placed on many different locations, not many institutions are as well suited to take over Villa Grande, said Chief of education Katusha Otter Nilsen while showing the building the 9th of March this year. Situated on the highest point of Bygdøy in Oslo, and built in several phases by several owners, the house had been primarily associated with the leader of NS – a Norwegian national socialist party – and later head of the government during Nazi occupation of Norway, Vidkun Quisling, who lived in the villa from 1941-1945.i He completed the interiors with the architects Essendrop and Egeberg.
The industrialist Sam Eyde started erecting the present main building, assisted by the architects Christian Morgenstierne and A. Eyde. In 1921 the villa was completed by ship-owner H. Østervold, the architect being Jens Z. M. Kielland. Aker commune took over the property the same year, thereafter ship-owner W. Wilhelmsen in 1926, who donated it to the state two years later. But none of the previous owners ever used the building. Vidkun and Maria Quisling were the first who actually lived in the house.
After end of the war, the property was used for military purposes, as a nursing home and for the education of health workers. In 1999 the building was put out for sale. In a series of letters in Aftenposten (the largest serious Norwegian newspaper), Bernt Hagtvedt, Professor of political Science at the University of Oslo, protested against the sale of the building to private persons, and launched the idea that HL Senteret – Centre for studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Norway – should be allowed to use the building. Based on Prof. Bernt Hagtvedt’s and General Major Bjørn Egge’s initiative, Stortinget (the Norwegian parliament) adopted this resolution in 2001.
WHEN FIRST FACED with the building, it appeared almost repulsive to us, having a cold, authoritarian character. Presumably, it will continue to change positively, says the center’s Director of research, Odd-Bjørn Fure, stating that all the parties hitherto involved – architects, builders and Statsbygg – have shown a dedication regarding this project which is far above the average.
The exhibition, which is to cover 800 m2 on three floors, opens in the autumn of 2006. It will present something entirely new compared to similar exhibition in the US, Europe and Israel. Other Holocaust-exhibitions have tended to remove the Holocaust from its historical context. This shall be the first exhibition to go the opposite way, presenting the Holocaust in its context, as genocide. Unfortunately, the Holocaust in not the last genocide the world has seen. We are going to study the Holocaust as well as other mass killings. We must be capable of learning from what has taken place, of seeing the general features, says Odd-Bjørn Fure. Furthermore, the degradation of groups of victims other than the Jewish is both historically incorrect and immoral. The euthanasia program, the crimes committed towards Gypsies, civilian Slavs, homosexuals and Russian prisoners of war shall also be attended to. Concerning oneself with one group alone is meaningless, he claims. The presentation is to be scientifically founded, and nothing else. The politics of remembrance is an additional matter, rather than the fundament of the exhibition.
A VISITOR TO THE EXHIBITION is first to enter what was previously Quisling’s «hird hall» to be confronted with the stigmatization that took place. Thereafter the way leads, along a one-way path, into the darkness in the underground bunker where the annihilation is to be presented. At the end, the path leads up into the light again, into the former banqueting hall, where the exhibition is also to be related to the present through showing examples of persecution of ethnic minorities i.e. taking place in the present. A newly built, modern café in the adjoining room, where an enormous steatite fireplace constitutes the only remnant of the earlier interiors, shall give the visitor an opportunity to take a breath at the end. A library and a cinema hall are also open to the audience. Librarian Ewa Mork is in the process of building up the library, which presently consists of 1000 books and is to encompass 5000 when finished.
THE EXHIBITION has some important features in common with a range of museums all over the world, explains Katusha Otter Nilsen:
- It presents crimes against humanity.
- The perpetrator is a state.
- It is situated in a historically authentic arena, such as a house.
- The shaping of moral attitudes is emphasized more than the transferring of mere knowledge.
- The presentation makes use of witnesses and survivors.
The shaping of moral attitudes is important to HL Senteret. Mere knowledge in itself could even be said to be dangerous, rather than beneficial, says the Chief of education. Having teaching that is supplementary to what is taught in schools, and having a staff numerous enough to take care of classes in a good way, is a high priority. The centre wants to stimulate debate concerning human rights issues and to be an active party to democratic discussion. Teaching material that can be used by schools independently of visits to Villa Grande shall be provided. In today’s plans of teaching some things are mentioned in the 10th grade and in the 2nd year of the gymnasium on what pupils should be taught about this issue. In 2006 the new plans of teaching will be less detailed than the ones of today. HL Senteret is thus faced with the task of having the Holocaust as a theme included in school books, as well as of providing material to supplement the contents of these books. The center’s research department will contribute to updating the teaching in relation to the latest research in the field.
DISCRIMINATION of particular groups, and in particular studies of interaction between minority groups and the society at large and interaction between minorities, are fields for which the centre is responsible. Examples of fruitful cooperation between groups and its opposite in the past and present shall be studied by means of an approach that emphasizes a balance between particularity and universal values. The centre cooperates with a German and an Israeli research program, and 10-12 persons shall make up its research staff. Their competence shall be complementary to, rather than the same as that of the University of Oslo. While the University is moving in the direction of more and more narrow fields of knowledge, HL Senteret is to place great stress on cross-faculty research, theoretical pluralism and diversity with an emphasis on innovation.
THERE IS NO tradition for work of remembrance in Norway. One has tended to promote the great, positively laden events and to attempt to keep the other occurrences hidden from view. This is one of the reasons why the Norwegian national consciousness is too high-flown, says Odd-Bjørn Fure. HL Senteret has an obligation towards universal values. Similar exhibitions abroad have frequently been tied up with national purposes. If there is such a thing as specifically Norwegian values, at least the centre is not to contribute to the strengthening of these, he says. The idea of the unassailability of the individual forms the centre of our activities. Our contribution shall be to strengthen the mechanisms that prevent dissolution of the civilizing forces of society. What is at stake is, firstly, being able to interpret the signs around one correctly, and secondly, the moral courage to act on the basis of these signs.
YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE WHAT I SAW
You would not believe what I saw
In the looming cattle track
Stench of corpses and disease.
The harsh words they called us,
The stones thrown by their children.
The space in the truck was next to nothing.
You would not believe what I saw
The disease and the people dying.
Crying children and bodies carried away.
My family had no food and nor did I.
Our food was stolen and my son starved to death.
The pushing and shoving
People huddled up next to each other
Shivering with cold.
You would not believe what I saw
When we were moved to Auschwitz.
They made us work until we could barely stand
They took us for a shower inside.
But something was wrong.
The door was locked and then it came.
I was the last one and I fell down, down, down.
You have to believe what I saw
It is all true;
What I saw from dusk until dawn.
By Benjamin Bogdan-Hodgson, aged 11.
i Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945) founded Nasjonal Samling, a Norwegian national socialist party. After the German invasion of Norway in 1940, he proclaimed himself prime minister, but the Germans dismissed his government. In 1942, as a result of obtaining Hitler’s personal support, he was appointed minister president (a puppet dictator), and his party was made the state party. With the German collapse in 1945, he surrendered to the Norwegian «home front», was found guilty of treason in court and was executed on the 24th of October 1945.