Wrest tradition away from conformism. Walking Dnipro with Walter Benjamin in my head

Darja Klingenberg, Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt (Main)

“Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it.”[1] (Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History)

Menorah center in Dnipro. Photo: Darja Klingenberg

Wide socialist boulevards constructed for “the people” are flanked by a wild mix of nouveau-riche office buildings, like the ostentatious and unearthly Menorah center that hosts our conference at the “Tkuma” Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies. The wide pseudo-historical halls embrace a synagogue, several wedding halls, two hotels, a Mikvah, the first Ukrainian Museum of Jewish Life and the Holocaust, offices, a kosher supermarket, restaurants and coffee houses, a fitness club, and a hidden room with Igor Kolomoisky’s collection of golden watches. Opened in 2012, the Menorah center is, as surreal as it seems to me, the vital heart of Jewish life in a city that includes 50,000 Jewish people within its population of one million. During our stay we observed numerous weddings, two Bar Mitzvahs and a pharmacy fair – Menorah is a prestigious business location in Dnipro. Next to the center you find smaller streets with shacks and villas from the 19th century in decay, Jugendstil and Stalinist Empire style houses and аged Brezhnev modernism. Eternal construction sites give birth to apartment complexes whose façades imitate imaginary past times and in fact reflect an ugly present. In the world of street names, it’s just few steps that turn Dzerzhinsky Boulevard (named after the infamous “Iron Felix”, head of the Cheka and OGPU) into Vernadsky Boulevard (named after a Ukrainian academic). Karl Marx lurks from his renamed boulevard and in some courts – and all of them are interesting in this city – the hammer and sickle still adorn a small decorative Lenin profile, while Stalin’s removed head left an empty grey space. Streets and squares open scenic vistas of deterioration – panoramas of former cultural palaces or empty socialist academies for engineering in photogenic decay.

Memorial to Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, a Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic Rabbi, the father of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson,  in Ukrainian and Yiddish. Photo: Darja Klingenberg

The city is plastered with memorials. Here a sign dedicated to the workers’ resistance fighting czarist hooligans, though it was actually Jewish citizens defending themselves against a pogrom in 1905 on Barricade Street. You pass houses of Ukrainian writers, historians or academics – with of course no woman among them. Next to them you see the remains of the liberation from German occupation, signaling houses as being empty of mines. Close by is the villa where Brezhnev used to live before he left for Moscow. A newer placard commemorates Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, the father of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe of the Chabad strand of Judaism. He spent most of his life in Dnipro, at that time Ekaterinoslav, before he was deported to Central Asia and died there in the 1930s. And just a stone’s throw away, three rockets push into the sky to honor the city’s recent past as the Soviet Union’s secret rocket production city. Multiple histories come together on these streets and attempts to fashion and re-interpret them pile up one upon another. Their mere material presence ridicules the repeated efforts to straighten the city’s and country’s histories into the current political direction. At the same time the material surface of the city demonstrates the very human ability to overlook, ignore and repeat history.

The sun-flooded streets are taken by a multi-headed and multi-legged beast. The creature hums in the various tongues of East – Ukrainian, English, Polish, German, Russian, Serbian and Romanian as well as Japanese and French. Inquisitively, it strolls the streets, stares at houses and sniffs into backyards. It must look frightening. On the first afternoon, when it stops in admiration of a gorgeously run-down house in the middle of the city, it is shushed away like a flock of wild dogs. A woman who just stepped out the door to feed her cats is suddenly surrounded by dozens of snooping eyes. Audaciously, her house is turned into an academic field site and being rightfully upset, she embroiders her angry “Shshsh” with the finest Ukrainian swearwords – so-called Mat – until the beast slowly turns away. A boy in the tramway curiously observes and explains to his little brother that he has no idea where these people come from, but it might be that these Germans are taking the city.

A house in Dnipro. Photo: Nina Weller

A strange animal it is, part-tourist, observing its surroundings with cameras or looking for ice cream, and part-scholar, constantly contextualizing and reflecting the surroundings, simultaneously tired and excited. Mostly the beast is held in the air-conditioned conference building, fed with condensed and serious discussions – a melancholic creature obsessed with painful questions, spinning around traumatic memories, some of its heads silently licking some wounds of war.

Memorial to „peaceful Soviet citizens“ shot by „German fascist occupants“ in 1941-1943. Photo: Darja Klingenberg

The politics of memory and the “silences” that follow violence – the conference’s topic – are not just discussed, but touched and sensed. Some of us encounter the different qualities, shapes and gravities of silence when we walk through a serene park, located between a busy street and a Brezhnev housing block. Next to the entrance, a placard from soviet times commemorates the “peaceful Soviet citizens murdered by Fascism”. The memorial, like others of its kind, doesn’t mention the Jewishness that classified the peaceful individuals murdered by the German Wehrmacht’s Einsatzgruppe C. On October 13, 1941, the city’s remaining 30,000 Jewish citizens[2] were ordered to assemble and march together to the city’s outskirts.[3] On the march, they stopped at the Jewish cemetery, where the first group of children, elderly and weak people was executed. We don’t know how many died at this quiet place before the rest, at least around 10,000 people, were brought to a place close to the botanical garden and shot within 2 days. And whereas at the main shooting site a newly erected memorial reminds people of the murder, here in the park it is just the obscure soviet sign that does not give away anything. Here, like in other sites, Jews appear as an amorphous mass. Neither numbers nor facts help to grasp what had happened. No individual name nor personal story lifts the mass murder out of uncanny abstraction.

At the park in Dnipro, next to the shooting site, the dead Jews also vanished. Not by war or the German Wehrmacht, but as a sacrifice to modernization. A huge cemetery that used to be here since the 18th century was removed in the 1960s to make space for the living. Most Soviet parks are erected over cemeteries, as we learn later. This history is memorialized by a number of tombstones and a recent memorial. But its language remains so vague that my imprecise translations from Ukrainian to Russian and my guessing of Yiddish only tells me that Jews used to rest in peace at this place. It takes me some time to understand what used to be here and even later I’m unsure of what the size of the area was and who was buried here.

History is dense and constantly contested – silencing and politicizing the dead, even at this remote park.  Next to the tombstones, you find a wooden orthodox cross erected to remember the terror of Holodomor that took the lives of 3 million Ukrainians – secular, Orthodox, Catholic and Jewish. Was that also here? How does this relate to the place, to the former cemetery and to the mass-shooting site? When was the cross erected, and was it an attempt to unite, to differentiate or to add memory? How do we understand the terrors and silences taking place one after the other, at the same place or close by? How do we relate to those murders when some deaths seem to be geographically or emotionally closer than others? How do we mourn multiple victims? The heat and the sheer quantity of pretentious, halfhearted memorial plates erected on all these places of horror make me nihilistic. Maybe these placards, in all their inadequacy, are at least true to the fact that, even when we strive to commemorate, all the disappeared and absent lives stay incomprehensible. Walter Benjamin’s thesis on history comes up when I try to grasp what’s in-between all of these rewritings and painful silences: “The true image of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image that flashes up at the moment of its recognizability, and is never seen again.”[4]

A bald elderly man who just finished his “зарядка”, his exercise, turns to us, while we walk through the park. “Do you know about this place?” L. asks. Theatrically, he embraces the whole area with his hands and declares with a full deep voice, “This all had been a Jewish cemetery”, before he falls into an unexpected recitation of Osip Mandelstam’s poems. Willingly, he shows us some remaining tombstones and reveals that cemeteries bring up “bubbles” for at least 1,000 years (пускает пузыри 1000 лет). He can feel how this place drains energy – “When I run on the other side, I am refreshed. On this site, I feel the presence of death, something bad can be felt here.” How do the people live in these houses? Most seem to know at least some history of this place, what does it mean to them? And how can we create a gentle, healing and inclusive memory when memory is a battleground. How can we live with these “bubbles” and ghosts?


History is formed, over- and unwritten in front of our eyes. Some of the tanks of the former soviet military intervention in Afghanistan are included in an exhibition about the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (the ATO), which opened in 2016. An artificial road leads to an installation of the war just 300 km east from it. The mock street guides you through a Checkpoint and along city signs with names familiar from the news – Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, Mariupol, and Luhansk – all with shooting holes in them. Burned- down medical cars are enlaced with metal roses and sunflowers; a military vehicle has been struck by a rocket and left with a hole in the middle. The most impressive piece is an installation of the battle around Donetsk airport. “The concrete didn’t withstand, but people withstand”, announces a poster next to the site. The most manipulating figure stands on the other site and depicts a little girl who lost her parents and offers her rescuer, a Ukrainian soldier, a golden apple. The golden apple was repeatedly stolen and replaced, first by other golden apples, then later by fresh apples and candy. The whole area is embraced by local children. They climb in and out of the tanks, shrieking joyfully as they turn the political battle-field into a playground.

The ATO Museum in Dnipro. Photo: Darja Klingenberg

The outdoor exhibition is connected to a commemoration of the ongoing war displayed within the Museum of the Battle of Dniepr. In packed displays it exhibits uniforms, badges of fighter units and captured flags. It shows pictures and tells heroic stories of fighting units, of famous and dead combatants and portrays Dnipro as center of the volunteer work, as the back-up and medical point for the front line. On the first floor, a grand Soviet diorama depicts scenes from the Battle of Dniepr, one of the central combat lines during the Great Patriotic War. This newly-renovated display has been literary covered with a new interpretation of history, by the unrolling an enormous video screen that conceals the whole epic battle. A graphic HD-quality video tells the story anew, this time as a story of the double fascist and soviet oppression of the Ukrainian people.

After the battle at Dniepr, we are invited into a second video room where we see the English edition of a movie about the war on a 4-sided video installation. Undisturbed fields of sunflowers turn into war scenes, youtube videos depict the battle views from some apartment building or place us into a car of refugees, global television broadcasts flash up and mix with HD-produced battle scenes. All this is covered by the voice of Morgan Freeman, who explains to western audiences that “this might sound like a movie script – but it is reality.” The manipulative, patriotic display is hard to digest. It calls for analysis, discussion and, at the same time, turns critical words from my mouth into an uninvited and empty Western arrogance. The discussion of propaganda is intimately entangled with real suffering and trauma and takes place within unequal epistemic structures between the East and the West. It takes effort and care to find the right words. Nationalism, someone says, with all its murderous outcomes is also a reaction to ongoing pain and trauma. I turn silent and maybe this is a productive silence that listens and searches for ways of understanding before critique.

With my head and heart full of these multiple and entangled histories and open wounds, I return to Germany, my country of residence, a place that prides itself for its exemplary memory politics. A country that with every new Nazi terror attack, anti-Semitic or racist assault acts surprised about the continuity of these forces in history. A country that the more it is supposedly at terms with its past, the harder it seems to name racist or anti- Semitic acts by their names. Even more painful from a minority perspective, German memory discourse, with its tamed murderous history, is often unable to think of the parallel existence of more than one historical narrative at one place. Memory politics over the last few years turned from national battlegrounds into transnational sites where Western countries claim superiority over the East and the South, while silencing their own complicated past and contemporary responsibilities. It is within these contested fields that thinking from and with the “East” might help to grasp entanglements of violence, suffering, ignorance, complicity. This shows the multi-directionality of memory within the unequal landscapes of a post-socialist, post-fascist and post-colonial Europe and also gives deep insight into the way people on the ground live with these histories.

The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”[5]

[1] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”, in Walter Benjamin:Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940, eds. Michael William Jennings und Howard Eiland, 389-401 (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1996), 391.

[2] Many flew or were evacuated to Central Asia or the Caucasus, where Soviet Jews survived the Shoa.

[3] Numbers are according to the Yad Vashem Database:  https://www.yadvashem.org/untoldstories/database/index.asp?cid=283

[4] Ibid, 390.

[5] Ibid, 391.


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