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Prof. Sara Jones: "Brexit vote has made people feel unwelcome"
Professor Jones, could you tell us about your newest research related to testimonies of Central and Eastern Europeans living in the UK.
Prof. Sara Jones: - The work that I’m doing at the moment grew out of a research network that I ran from 2016-2019 under the title Culture and its Uses as Testimony, which was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
The network explored how telling life stories through art can be empowering and give voice to otherwise marginalised communites. The network started in the wake of the ‘Brexit’ vote and the rise in hate crime against Central and Eastern European communities in the UK. It seemed to me that Central and Eastern Europeans – the group that will perhaps be most effected by Britain’s proposed departure from the EU – had not been heard in the debates about Brexit and I wanted to try to change that.
2019 may be the year that Britain leaves the UK; it is also the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end of European division after World War II. I began to wonder if and how the two were related. Perhaps we don’t know enough about this part of post-war European history in the UK. What would be different if we knew more?
With these questions in mind, my newest research - also supported by the AHRC – collects the stories of Central and Eastern Europeans in the UK and disseminates them through artistic practice. With the Catalan theatre company La Conquesta del pol sud, we have co-produced a play A Land Full of Heroes that stages the life and literature of Romanian and German author Carmen-Francesca Banciu. The play had its premiere in Birmingham in July and will now be touring in France and possibly come to London.
We have also created an online platform where people can upload their stories, about 1989, about migration, about life in the UK. These stories will form the basis of an exhibition being produced by Polish art group kinoManual and Birmingham-based artist Emma Lockey in collaboration with our project partners Centrala Space. It will be displayed in Birmingham in September and October, and at the Romanian Cultural Institute in London in November. If reader of Londynek wish to contribute, they should visit our website: https://testimonyinpractice.bham.ac.uk/.
What are your expectations from this research?
- My hope is that the production of testimonies through art will raise awareness of these histories in the UK by allowing people not from Central and Eastern Europe to engage with different perspectives and also to find common ground.
The stories we have gathered so far are very diverse. Most people report that they are happy in the UK and have benefited from new opportunities and improved their lives. Nonetheless, there is also a degree of anger in some stories – a sense that the Brexit vote has made people feel unwelcome in the communities that they call home. Some tell us that they are considering leaving.
For those with (personal or family) memories of communism, a pattern emerges of what can be learnt from life under authoritarianism and the experience of 1989. This might include memory of fixed borders, an economy of lack, the importance of democracy and freedom, but also of community, and the downsides of capitalism. The resilience of people from the region is a repeated theme, as is the question of belonging.
Your earlier projects included study of repression of Stasi - secret police in the East Germany. Why an interest in such dark part of history?
- I started my research into East Germany by looking at the literature produced in the country. I was fascinated by the way in which East German writers were often committed to the idea of socialism, but critical of its practice. This meant that they had very complex relationships with those in power, including the Stasi. That led to an interest in how people recounted their experiences of the Stasi since 1989, which resulted in my second book The Media of Testimony. The book explores memories of the Stasi in autobiographical writing, museums and documentary film.
What have you discovered from this research?
- On the one hand, I’ve learned a lot about the tactics that the Stasi used to infiltrate and destroy people’s lives. This included intimidation through ‘open observation’, theft of post, listening to telephone conversations, recruiting colleagues, friends and even family as informants, spreading rumours and encouraging things like alcoholism and infidelity. I began to understand how and why it was important that these stories be told and heard and that art – such as literature, museums, film – can be a powerful way of doing that.
On the other hand, this work helped me think through what it is about art that allows it to play this role. Important in this regard is the way in which art can bring many voices together to speak in a chorus, rather than alone, and the way in which it can produce an emotional response in the audience that can enhance empathy.
How difficult was to obtain an access to documents and witnesses?
- Germany was one of the first to open the files of the communist secret police – the Stasi – after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Victims, media and researchers have been able to obtain access following strict legal guidelines since January 1992. In this sense, it was relatively easy for me to obtain documents about the professional lives of the authors that I was writing on (researchers are not able to see information relating to the private lives of individuals without their permission).
Regarding witnesses, since 1989 there has been an outpouring of accounts from the victims of Stasi persecution published in different ways – books, films, theatre. I also spent a lot of time doing research at the Memorial Berlin-Hohenschönhausen. The Memorial is located on the site of the largest Stasi remand prison. Visitors can view the original buildings and cells and tours are conducted by former political prisoners. I followed many tours over several months of fieldwork and in the process heard multiple accounts of how individual lives had been destroyed by the state.
I also had the privilege (not often given to external researchers) of viewing a selection of the video testimonies stored in Hohenschönhausen’s ‘Eyewitness Archive’.
Another sinister part of European past - "Testimony after the Survivors" - how are you involved in this project? What was its purpose?
- "Testimony after the Survivors" is a further follow-on project from the network Culture and its Uses as Testimony. Eyewitness testimony, especially face-to-face testimony, has played a really important part in Holocaust education in the past. However, we are sadly coming to the point where there won’t be any survivors able to play this vital role. Holocaust educators will therefore be ever more dependent on testimony recorded in books, films, videos etc., or on the testimony of second and third generations (the children and grandchildren of survivors).
The use of this testimony can provide opportunities to explore different perspectives; however, it also raises ethical and methodological challenges that teachers will need to address. I am working with a colleague from the University of Nottingham, Dr Gary Mills, and with national Holocaust education providers – the Holocaust Educational Trust, Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and National Holocaust Centre and Museum – to create a set of resources to help teachers work with ‘mediated’ testimony in the classroom.
Are you any closer to understand such difficult issues as discrimination, persecution and genocide?
- Understanding is a difficult concept in this context: what is it that we want to understand? It is really important that we listen to and really hear the testimony of survivors of persecution and genocide. Their stories can help us realise the impact of mass violence and discrimination on the individual, which can also make it easier to understand how it felt and what it meant for that person and for the group of which they are part. Understanding the perspective of victims can promote a committment to preventing such violence from happening again.
However, I think we also have to look elsewhere to really understand why it happened – and that’s where it becomes ethically very challenging – we need to ask the perpetrators. This is difficult, because we feel uncomfortable allowing perpetrators the social recognition that comes with being witnesses and worry about young people in particular being exposed to xenophobic or hateful perspectives.
Nonetheless, I argue that in order to hold perpetrators responsible for their actions (something that we must do), we need to permit them the chance to explain them, which doesn’t mean that we excuse them. And it is only in that explanation that we can start to unpick the causes of discrimination, persecution and genocide and recognise the early warning signs.
Does use of eye-witness testimony make an impact on your projects?
- Yes, eye-witness testimony is central to almost all of my research projects. I’m interested not only in ‘what happened’, but also in how people remember and describe what happened. The two things are not the same: memories are inaccurate and change over time, but that in itself can reveal things about the society in which people are remembering, what they find important, and the impact of the present on how we think about the past.
Do you think British people feel they are part of European history?
- That’s a complicated question. British people are of course very diverse and some feel more ‘European’ than others. However, very broadly speaking, the discussion of European history that is dominant in our mainstream press focuses on the history of World War II. And even then it is a very particular view on World War II, with an emphasis on British heroism and an idea of Britain ‘standing alone’ against the Nazi threat – the support of e.g. the Polish government in exile is rarely recognised. There is very little discussion of what happened to the East of the Iron Curtain after 1945.
I would argue that because we do not see this as central to our history and identity (despite Britain’s role in the Cold War), it doesn’t form part of our ‘cultural memory’. It is interesting to consider what role this ‘forgetting’ might have played in the ‘Brexit’ referendum. If we don’t remember European division, then we make sense of the expansion of the EU in 2004 purely in economic terms, rather than moral ones. I also believe it underpins stereotypes about Central and Eastern European migrants. What might British people learn about resilience, the value of democracy, and living through social and economic transition, if we were only prepared to ask?
Could you tell us about your involvement in The Memory Studies Association? What is The MSA?
- The Memory Studies Association is an international professional association that brings together scholars interested in memory and practitioners who are involved in ‘memory work’ (e.g. activists, museum curators, victim organisations). I have been involved since the inauguration of the Association in 2016. This year I delivered a methods workshop on digital approaches and network analysis at the Annual Conference in Madrid. There were around 1500 participants at the conference – the biggest yet!
Which life achievement are you most proud of?
- That’s another question that’s quite hard to answer! I am proud of my professional achievements: my PhD, books, successful research projects and becoming full Professor at the age of 37. However, I’m also very proud of my two funny, clever and kind daughters, currently aged 4 and 2.
Sara Jones is Professor in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on the ways in which individuals and societies remember authoritarian pasts, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, and the impact of those pasts on the present. She has published several articles and two books on these topics (Complicity, Censorship and Criticism, 2011; The Media of Testimony, 2014). One important aspect of this work has been the study of testimony; that is, the ways in which individuals give an account of their personal experience and the different forms this can take. She was lead investigator of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) network, Culture and its Uses as Testimony (2016-2019) and is now leading on the follow-on project Testimony in Practice, also funded by the AHRC. Focused on Central and Eastern Europe, Testimony in Practice explores how first person stories can be made productive through different art forms. The project will have two major outputs. The first is an innovative theatre performance, staging the life and literature of Romanian and German novelist Carmen-Francesca Banciu (A Land Full of Heroes, premiering at the Birmingham European (BE) Festival in July 2019). The second is an sound art installation produced in collaboration with the Central and Eastern European Arts Space, Centrala, and from the testimonies of Central and Eastern Europeans living in the UK. The team are collecting testimonies for this project via an online campaign.