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Stories which can and cannot be told

Dealing with the history of the Klapperfeld

In August 2008 members of the initiative ›Faites votre jeu!‹ occupied a former youth centre at Varrentrappstrasse in Bockenheim/ Frankfurt and settled in. A self-organizing and collectively run non-commercial centre was established. After a few months, at the beginning of 2009, the City of Frankfurt threatened to evict the initiative from the building. Facing the menace of eviction, the initiative ›Faites votre jeu!‹ refused to give up either the building or the project at stake. Charges were laid against the supporting members of the initiative and after extensive negotiations with the City of Frankfurt an alternative building was proposed to the activists: the former police prison located in the Klapperfeldstrasse No 5.

The idea of creating a cultural centre in a place of confinement provoked a huge debate within the initiative. The centre in Bockenheim was established in a location which had a tradition of self-organization, whereas Klapperfeld remains a place reflecting over 100 years of oppression and the detention of people. This building, in which the Gestapo tortured and murdered during the national socialist regime and where through to 2003 harboured migrants and refugees on their way to deportation, did not appear to be the right place for exhibitions, informative events, concerts, bar evenings or parties. Before long however the historical aspect of the building became the subject of debate and it was soon decided that a historical and political reflection would be a necessary condition for all activities and the core of the future designated utilization of this self-organizing centre.

In February 2009, during the ongoing negotiations with the City of Frankfurt,  a couple of members of the initiative ›Faites votre jeu!‹ created a historical research team – »AK History«. Documents and literature regarding the former prison and the location were looked up in archives and libraries. One of the interviews with a contemporary witness, which can be viewed at the permanent exhibition, was recorded even prior to the relocation of the initiative into the building in early 2009.

The first part of the permanent exhibition was presented to the general public in August 2009. Only one year later, in September 2010, the scope of the exhibition has been extended, still focusing on the process of reviewing critically the prison’s past.

Within the process of acquirement of knowledge and methodology, with no institutional funding or aid at disposal, we had to face the challenge to search the historial archives, to concepualise and finally to realise the permanent exibition. And it is still within the objective of the group to continuously add further parts to the exibition.

Taking serious the political aspirations of our work, we see our engagement challenged by principle querries about a critical approach to the historical significance of such a building: How is it possible to fathom the subject ›prison‹ in an adequate way – a place which portrays over 100 years of oppression and social exclusion? Who’s history should be researched and told – the history of the detained and oppressed, the history of the staff members, the persecutors or the history of the prison itself, being a social institution and even through to our present day, a place of confinement reprimanding people?

Biographic Interviews and the Perspectives of the Pursued

The biographic interviews, which can still be seen within the first section of the permanent exhibition, gave a first but only remote answer to these questions. They inform about the lives and the personal pursuit of the prisoners at Klapperfeld whilst concentrating particularly on the utilization of the prison complex by the Gestapo during the period between 1933 and 1945.

We have chosen the interviews as the principle method to approach the prisons past, because through this form the historical perspectives on the events can be linked to the personal experiences of these times. The biographies can be seen as historical documents of their own accord whilst they also give the oportunity of being read in the context of the history of this institutional prison on a whole.

Thus on the one hand the biographies reveal information which is not available in any other written source. It is hardly possible to get an idea of the role of the prison during the national socialist regime on the basis of written documents within the official archives, especially because the Gestapo effectively destroyed most of the documents after their defeat in 1945.

On the other hand we conceive that the biographies represent an adequat approach to deal with the prisons past as they reflect the victime’s perspectives on persecution and repression. It is their life stories – we believe – that this platform of memory and debate shall hold promise to. Especially on the background of the current tendencies within German discourses of memory, where the bounderies between victims and perpetrators become more and more fluent, it seems important to us that the perpetrators are not given the possibility to speak at this place.

Beyond all our efforts to bring the stories of the victims to the centre of attention, the interviews also stand as a symbol for the ongoing and unfinished process of dealing with the prison’s past.

The interviews, being solitary reports of pursuance, cannot act as being representative for the many thousands of possible personal experiences of oppression, detainment and torture the inhabitants of this prison lived through over 100 years in these cells. They can merely direct our attention on the fact that there remain many stories which can not be told and many experiences to which we can not bear witness.

Work in Progress! Options for the ongoing Debate

With the extension of the permanent exhibition and the consideration of further biographies of former prisoners at Klapperfeld we have at least tried to reduce the gaps within the memory on the prison. Our research now is also dedicated on what the detainees had to endure in their ›every day life‹ at the prison. Additionally further fields of interest have been distinguished, such as the planning of the prison and its vocation at the end of the 19th century, the use of the prison during the Weimar Republic and its utilization after World War II.

During the course of our research it became obvious, that there is still an unmeasurable scope of material and documentation, which can be found in the archives and literature. Indeed this came as a surprise to us, having been told before by different sources that hardly any documentation regarding the prison and its prisoners still existed today at all. Considering this discovery and the omnipresent anti-Semit and racist tendencies within German society it remains evident that the Geschichtsaufarbeitung (lit. »processing of history”) of the national socialist past can not be conceived as being finalised at all.

Therefore we hope that our engagement with the history of Klapperfeld will ignite critical debate about this historical location and others, contributing furthermore to the enhancement of this  permanent exhibition.