Exhibition “Names, not Numbers”: Interview with curator Karen Tessel

Karen Tessel, curator of the exhibition “Names, not Numbers. Dutch political prisoners in Dachau Concentration Camp” talks about the main themes of the exhibition. Until February 2019 the exhibition can be seen in the Dachau Memorial Site.


Karen Tessel, Willemijn Petroff-van Gurp , Jos Sinnema. 2015

Zum deutschen Interview

How were you involved in the exhibition project?

Names, not numbers opened in April 2015 at the Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam. Jos Sinnema and I worked closely together, developing the exhibition. Jos was the researcher and liaison to the educational project. In this project, secondary school students wrote biographies of Dutch former Dachau prisoners for the Gedächtnisbuch für die Häftlinge des KZ Dachau. I worked on the exhibition as curator/ exhibition maker, developing the concept and storylines, films, and interactive elements, selecting stories and objects, and overseeing the exhibition design and production. It’s great the exhibition is now on display at the KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau.

What was your first idea when you started working on the exhibition in Verzetsmuseum Amsterdam?

We, at the Dutch Resistance Museum, were impressed by Jos’ project for the Gedächtnisbuch. The biographical approach was the core of the entire project from the start. We believe this makes large and incomprehensible themes more comprehensible and palpable. Twelve former Dachau prisoners became the focus of the exhibition. They are chosen in such a way, to give visitors a reasonably representative impression of life in the concentration camps. I emphasize the word ‘camps’, because without exception, prisoners stayed in multiple camps and prisons before being incarcerated in Dachau. Also a key concept from the start is to tell their stories by displaying personal objects. These objects show how prisoners tried to preserve their humanity and dignity in a system in which everything was focused on dehumanization.

Did you have a ‘golden thread’, a main idea, you wanted to run through the exhibition?

I vividly remember an evening in November 2014. I was invited for diner at a restaurant in Amsterdam. Sitting at the table was 95-year old Willemijn Petroff-van Gurp and her biographers Jop Bruin and Jelle Braaksma. Also at the table were Jos, who mentored Jop and Jelle, and Marcel Mulders, Jop and Jelle’s history teacher at the Cartesius Lyceum. Jos’ wife Corrie was also there. All together it was quite a special group. We had a great evening, talking about all kinds of things. We drew the attention of other guests at the restaurant, who even came to ask how we were connected to each other. That was a good question.

Jop and Jelle got to know Willemijn two years earlier, through the Gedächtnisbuch project. They became friends. Willemijn had become kind of an adoption grandmother to the boys. I was impressed such a connection had developed between the young biographers and Willemijn. They are not an exception. This connection between generations was the golden thread I wanted to show in the exhibition.

Is there any piece in the exhibition you will remember in 20 years? Why?

The sheer amount of powerful personal objects in the exhibition makes it difficult to choose! Making an exhibition is about making a selection, deciding on a focus, on a frame. We selected twelve former prisoners, but there were more than 2,000 Dutch imprisoned in Dachau between 1941 and 1945. For all of them, we erected an interactive monument in the exhibition. Next to the twelve former prisoners in the spotlight, are all Dutch former Dachau prisoners. Each former prisoner has his or her own little block on the wall, symbolising the masses behind the 12 highlighted former prisoners. These blocks have the exact same shape and size. But symbolically every block is layered, because every human is, but also because behind every Dutch prisoner, masses of prisoners from other nationalities are hidden.

Visitors can search for the humans behind the camp numbers. Where did they come from? How old were they? How many women have been imprisoned in Dachau? How many of the prisoners were in sub camps? Who of them died, who were liberated or were taken to other camps? We invited visitors to share information through an application on our website. Many did. We hope it will be enriched even more, now the exhibition has travelled to Dachau. Here is the link: http://www.verzetsmuseum.org/dachau

What’s the difference between the exhibition in Amsterdam and the exhibition in Dachau?

The major difference is the absence of the closing part of the exhibition. In Amsterdam we had staged a closing ‘chapter’ about political imprisonment nowadays. We developed this in collaboration with Amnesty International The Netherlands. It seems far away, in time, and space, but Amnesty continuously makes an effort to raise awareness and campaign for people who are imprisoned for political reasons as we speak.

Students wrote biographies on three of these prisoners; exactly the same way students did about the former Dachau prisoners. We selected these three contemporary prisoners because they had similar reasons for being arrested and incarcerated. Their stories were staged separately from the former Dachau prisoners.

For example, Aster Fissehatsion from Eritrea. This country is sometimes called ‘the North Korea of Africa’. Aster wrote an open letter to the president of Eritrea in 2001 with fourteen others. This president had developed into a dictator the previous years. In this letter, the fifteen writers called for a democratic dialogue. She was arrested for ‘crimes against state security’. Ever since, she, and the fourteen others, have been without a trace. Into Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog)…

Asters son, Ibrahim, was fifteen at the time. He fled to The Netherlands a few years later, and he was brave enough to work with us on the project. Students interviewed him, and what was very special: in the exhibition his mother’s coat was on display. A very powerful statement. The very coat Aster had worn, the woman that had vanished from the earth…

Does the place change the exhibition?

The exhibition space at the Gedenkstätte off course is different from that in Amsterdam, so the team at the Gedenkstätte had to make adjustments to make it work. They did a great job! Also, I think for visitors the impact is different on an emotional level, because the exhibition is now staged at the place where it all happened. I’m eager to hear how visitors experience the exhibition at the Gedenkstätte.

(12.10.2018; Questions: Irene Stuiber)