A Material Perspective on the Camp Chronicles at the Museum Friedland

Entering the first room of the Museum Friedland, one encounters two books, each weighing several kilograms and containing a few hundred pages. Both seem well-kept and don’t show any signs of use or wear. At their side the books are held together by sizable metal nails, their wooden covers are embellished with carvings. The first one shows a family of returnees1/refugees, a man and a woman with their child, transporting their remaining belongings in three bundles. Woman and child appear visibly harrowed and walk closely intertwined. The father, standing protectively behind them, glances back at the countries and regions and the time they have left behind, symbolically implied by the raised boom gate in the background. The lettering “Lager Friedland” (Camp Friedland) at the lower left margin of the carved picture makes it obvious that the book is a chronicle of the Friedland Transit Camp. Engraved around the margin of the book cover are the countries and regions from where the inhabitants of the transit camp came from in the time between 1945 and 1960 – the years documented in the chronicle. I read Africa, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, England, France and Belgium.

The second chronicle, which documents the time since 1961, is equally as impressive and the design of the wooden cover already illustrates the changes in Friedland in comparison to the first book cover. The family of refugees is replaced by a depiction of the Friedland bell, which in 1956 – as it is mentioned in the chronicle “receives every transport, whether in the morning or evening, whether by day or by night” (own translation). While observing the depicted scene I imagine hearing the ringing bell and picture them greeting and welcoming the “(late) returnees”, who dominate the second chronicle. Instead of the boom gate, a map symbolizes the borders and countries of origin; in capital letters it reads CSSR, Hungary, and Poland. Arrows mark the migration routes from these eastern European countries to the Friedland bell, which embodies Friedland, the gate to freedom. The fact that war-returnees are now superseded by (late) returnees is once again made obvious through the lettering, listing the countries of origin in the margins of the book cover. These now represent eastern European countries: The Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Bulgaria.

As the only objects located in the first exhibition room of the Museum Friedland, the chronicles fill the room in more than one way. They attract my attention – and possibly other visitors’ as well – through their size, weightiness, and the unusual wooden covers. In addition, a video installation above the chronicles allows for a glimpse into the books. This way, visitors can experience the camp through the perspective of the camp staff, which have collected these newspaper clippings and photographs and partly added their own comments and titles.

The chronicles also fill the room allegorically. They are an attempt to capture and secure the history of the transit camp in all its weight and significance and to document it for posterity. Through their size and the lovingly designed and elaborate book covers, the chronicles reference the many experiences, ordeals and emotions that millions of people in transit have gone through on their way to a new life here.

Before looking closer into the contents of the chronicle, I wonder what countries would be listed today. How would the countries of origin of late returnees and those of asylum seekers and quota refugees stand in relation to each other? What picture would be on the cover of the third volume? And what does this reveal about the role of Friedland and our current views of flight and migration?

Serena Müller

[1] “Heimkehrer”/returnees: German POWs, but also military personnel and civilians who were behind the lines during WWII and returned to Germany (and Austria) after the war. POWs returning after 1946 are “Spätheimkehrer”/late repatriates and received some financial compensation for their extended captivity.

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