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Social History

ISSN: 0307-1022 (Print) 1470-1200 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rshi20

Belene: remembering the labour camp and the


history of memory
Daniela Koleva
To cite this article: Daniela Koleva (2012) Belene: remembering the labour camp and the
history of memory, Social History, 37:1, 1-18, DOI: 10.1080/03071022.2011.651581
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03071022.2011.651581

Published online: 22 Feb 2012.

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Date: 10 August 2016, At: 00:21

Social History Vol. 37 No. 1 February 2012

Daniela Koleva

Belene: remembering the labour camp


and the history of memory
One does not need to take an interest in the history of state socialism in order to confront
the memory of it. However, it has been precisely this interest that has motivated most
projects ever since the Velvet Revolutions in central and eastern Europe: memory has been
viewed as a realm of suppressed authenticity, a firewall against the encroachment of
ideology. Hence the appeals for a recovery of memory after the end of the communist
regimes. Testimonies of victims and eyewitnesses of repressions have been pitted against the
grand narrative of communism, and accounts of contemporaries have been used to give
flesh to histories of everyday life under state socialism. Thus, memory has been used
primarily as an historical source. A relatively more recent approach has taken up memory of
state socialism as a subject of research rather than a source for the rewriting of history. The
intention here is to follow this line of enquiry towards what Peter Burke has termed the
social history of remembering.1 Such a task is extremely complex. It implies identifying the
agents of memory and their motives to remember; finding out what has been selected to be
remembered and what has been forced into oblivion, the principles of such selection and
their change; and understanding how memory is shaped and transmitted, and how it is used.
Moreover, a social history of remembering has to capture the dynamics of all these processes
and the factors influencing them. My task, however, is much less ambitious: I am going to
consider the local memory in Belene, a small Bulgarian town where the largest communist
labour camp was established.
My interest is in how individual and collective remembering are related and, in particular,
how personal recollections of socialism are influenced by public discourses and by their
changes after the demise of the regime. As the pioneer in the study of collective memory,
Maurice Halbwachs, has stated, it is individuals who remember but they always remember as
group members whereby their remembrances are mutually supportive of each other.2
Collective memory, then, can be (indeed, has been) conceptualized in various ways depending
on how these groups, or mnemonic communities,3 are defined. They can range from

P. Burke, History as social memory in T.


Butler (ed.), Memory: History, Culture and the Mind
(Oxford, 1989), 100.

M. Halbwachs, The Collective Memory (New


York, 1980), 48.
3
E. Zerubavel, Social Mindscapes. An Invitation to
Cognitive Sociology (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), 18.

Social History ISSN 0307-1022 print/ISSN 1470-1200 online 2012 Taylor & Francis
http://www.tandfonline.com
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03071022.2011.651581

Social History

2
4

vol. 37 : no. 1
5

nations through local, religious, generational and other groups, to families. I shall stick to a
weak concept of collective memory, relating personal reminiscences to an inter-subjectivity
defined by past or present membership in a community, rather than to stronger and more
problematic ones viewing collective memory as the collected memories of group members, or
the memory of a group as such. I refer to the local memory in Belene as collective memory
(or remembering, to stress that it is a process rather than a result), and to cultural forms of
relating to the past such as commemorations, literature and the politics of history as public
memory. The latter supplies the culturally accepted resources for the reconstruction of the past
competently used by individuals and groups in their specific interests. I shall outline it very
sketchily, only to provide the broader context of what might be called the vernacular memory
in Belene both in the sense of local and in the sense of unofficial. It is reconstructed on the
basis of an oral history project supplemented by archival research and following an approach
summarized by Alessandro Portelli in a way akin to the goals of a social history of
remembering: Though oral history is careful to distinguish between events and narratives,
history and memory, it does so in order to treat narratives and memory as historical facts.6
The weak concept of collective memory can be operationalized to enable the passage from
individual narratives to local memory: the latter can be tracked down in common topoi (what
is remembered), shared tropes (formulas to express it in an easily graspable way), and narrative
templates (schemas) within which individual accounts acquire their meaning. These metanarratives are perhaps the most important cultural tools borrowed from public memory. Their
change in the past two decades has sharpened the understanding of memory as a complex
process of meaning-making and a terrain of contestation and negotiation.
THE LABOUR CAMP IN BELENE
One day, in the spring of 1949, a military vehicle pulled up at the boat pier on the outskirts of
Belene, a village with some 7500 inhabitants on the Bulgarian bank of the Danube. Two highranking officers descended, exchanged a few sentences with the mayor who accompanied
them, and got on a boat to cross the river arm to the island opposite the village. This will bring
no good, thought the boatman whose son told this story almost sixty years later and he
shook his head. The boatman was right: on 27 April 1949, the Council of Ministers of the
Peoples Republic of Bulgaria had made a decision to establish a labour-educational
commune (Trudovo-vazpitatelno obshtezhitie, TVO), i.e. a labour camp, on the Danube island
of Persin opposite the village of Belene.7 The legal basis for this decision was the Decree for
labour-educational communes for politically dangerous individuals (20 December 1944).8 According to
4
For an original study of the production and
consumption of the national memory narrative of
the Second World War in the USSR and postSoviet Russia, which has partly informed my own
approach, see J. V. Wertsch, Voices of Collective
Remembering (Cambridge, 2002).
5
For an operational concept of family
memory see H. Welzer, S. Moller and K.
Tschuggnall, Opa war kein Nazi. Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedachtnis
[Grandpa was no Nazi. National Socialism and

Holocaust in Family Memory] (Frankfurt am


Main, 2002).
6
A. Portelli, The Order Has Been Carried Out:
History, Memory, and Meaning of a Nazi Massacre in
Rome (New York, 2003), 16.
7
Government ordinance no. 1 of 27 April 1949,
Archive of the Ministry of the Interior (subsequently AlVR), holding 23, inventory 1, archive
unit 144, sheet 29.
8
Darzhaven Vestnik [State Gazette], N 15 of 20
January 1945.

February 2012

Belene and the history of memory

this, the TVOs managed by the Ministry of the Interior were to host individuals who, for
political, security or other reasons, could not be taken to court. This was a euphemistic way to
refer to the (alleged) adversaries of the regime: former MPs, activists of oppositional parties,
members of the former elites (ex-people), peasants who refused to join the collectives, and
other counter-revolutionaries who spread hostile rumours, conducted enemy agitation,
expressed resentment for the undertakings of the peoples power, had a negative attitude to
the peoples power or hostile utterances, or whose kin were traitors of the fatherland,9 i.e.
refugees abroad. The detention was not to exceed six months unless a special order of the
Minister demanded otherwise. In 1951, however, following a confidential proposal of the
Minister of the Interior, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist
Party (BCP) increased the term of detention to between three and seven years.10 The decisions
for internment were to be made by a commission including the Minister of the Interior, the
Vice-Minister responsible for State Security, the Chief Prosecutor, the chairman of the
Supreme Court and one member of the Central Committee of the BCP. The proposer assured
the Politburo that the membership of the commission will be a sufficient guarantee that in this
case the punishments imposed will correspond to the guilt and the dangerousness of the
arrested individuals.11
The government ordinance of 27 April 1949 was carried out immediately. According to the
manager of the camp, it was on 1 May 1949 when lieutenant-colonel Todor Milenkov, head
of the TVO unit at the Internment and Displacement Department of the Ministry of the
Interior, and his colleague obviously the same officers the boatman had seen on the
riverbank arrived in Belene to appoint him and give him instructions for the building of
the camp. Within the next week or two, the manager urgently recruited 20 guards and 100
policemen among the village youth, evacuated his co-villagers cattle and beehives from the
island, selected the camp sites and ordered the construction of barracks for the inmates. Their
transfer from other TVOs across the country started a few weeks later. The plan for the
organization and surveillance of the camp envisaged up to 3000 inmates living on the island
and working in agriculture and construction, digging drainage ditches and building levees. At
certain moments, their actual number was even higher, reaching a total of 9933 men and
women for the decade of the camps existence.12
The camp was closed down by a decision of the Politburo of the BCP on 5 September 1953
and the island was converted into a prison. A great many of the inmates were released and the
rest were given sentences. Practically, nothing changed for them they stayed on the island
under the same tough regime of hard labour and scarce food. After the Hungarian Revolution
of 1956, the camp was re-established alongside the prison and existed until September 1959.
The prison on the island exists to this day as one of the main employers in the town. As of
2000, the eastern part of the island with the infamous Site 2 of the former camp was included
in a nature reserve with restricted access to protect the Danube wetlands, habitat of rare species
of water birds. The levee was partly removed to allow flooding and restore the swamps. Thus

9
Quotations from internment files, AMVR,
holding 12, inventory 1, archive units 232 and 235.
10
AlVR, holding 1, inventory 1, archive unit
2268, sheets 34.
11
ibid., sheet 3.

12
P. Stoyanova and E. Iliev, Politicheski opasni
litsa: vadvoriavania, trudova mobilizatsia, izselvania v
Bulgaria sled 1944 [Politically Dangerious Individuals:
Internment, Labour Mobilization, Displacement in
Bulgaria after 1944] (Sofia, 1991), 39.

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vol. 37 : no. 1

Figure 1. A map of the Belene archipelago drawn by former inmate Krum Horozov and entitled The
Belene prison 19491962. The latter is the year of the authors release after eleven years spent on the
main island Persin. The two sites of the camp are numbered; the cow farm and the pontoon bridge
linking the island with the town are also visible. Reprinted, with permission, from Ivaylo Znepolski, Bez
sleda? Lagerat Belene 19491959 i sled tova. . . [Without a trace? The Belene camp 19491959 and after. . .].
Catalogue. Sofia: Institute for the Studies of the Recent Past, 2009, 10.

the camp was undone by returning its territory to nature. The western part of the island
belongs to the prison and access to it is restricted as well.
THE PUBLIC MEMORY OF THE CAMP
As the largest communist labour camp, and one of the longest to survive, the Belene camp
became in the early 1990s a symbol of the communist repressions in Bulgaria. After the
vindication of all individuals and organizations repressed on political grounds between 1944
and 1989, a special parliamentary commission was established in 1990 to investigate crimes in
the labour camps. One of the first attempts at transitional justice was Case 4/1990 brought by
the Military Prosecutors office for investigation of the crimes in communist camps. A huge
body of documentary evidence was collected and legal proceedings started against four officers
from the camps of Belene and Lovech,13 as well as the then Vice-Minister of the Interior
responsible for the camps. The case was brought before the court, although the issue of
prescription was not legally settled. In subsequent years, however, all but one of the defendants
died and the case was closed, to the bitter disappointment not only of former inmates but also

13
The camp near Lovech, where the highest
percentage of casualties among the imates was
registered (around 10 per cent, most of them as a
result of guards assaults), was established in 1959
after closing down the one on the island of Belene.

Some of the inmates, as well as staff guards,


officers, policemen were transferred from Belene
(AMVR, holding 12, inventory 1, archive unit
692, sheet 6).

February 2012

Belene and the history of memory

Figure 2. Satellite Google map of the island and the town of Belene, with the 2009 commemoration route
from the pontoon bridge to Site 2. The territories of the nature reserve in the eastern part of the island are
clearly visible.

of many Bulgarians who had hoped for justice. What the prosecution managed to achieve was
publicity, quite important for the collective framing of the memory of the Belene camp.
The Bulgarian state (unlike others, e.g. neighbouring Romania) has been dealing with its
recent past quite hesitantly. The trials against former communist leaders failed, lustration laws
have been applied on a very limited scale (in university education and partially in the juridical
system) and the question of secret police files has been repeatedly instrumentalized for political
purposes. While the archives were de-classified and made available for research, the Bulgarian
state did not deem it necessary to establish or sponsor a research institution to study
communism. Commemoration of its victims remained largely limited to the sporadic activities
of political and civic organizations, and monuments to them were left to the discretion of local
authorities in response to civic initiatives. Unlike the Baltic states and some central European
countries, where anti-communism fitted easily into the new national narrative of Soviet
oppression, no consensual narrative of what communism was and how we ought to come out
of it seems to exist in Bulgaria: recent history is not taught at school, no museum of
communism has been established, and the public interest in it seldom goes beyond historians
debates. Newly emerging social actors have contributed, however, to the shaping of public
memory about the communist camps. A number of periodicals established special rubrics in
the 1990s for the memories of persons who suffered repression under the communist regime.
Some of their accounts were later collected in three huge volumes, one of them devoted

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vol. 37 : no. 1

14

specifically to the labour camps. An avalanche of memoirs of former Belene inmates


appeared.15 A few documentaries were produced and broadcast on the national TV channel.16
The theme was developed in a couple of novels and feature films.17 One of the very few events
marking the twentieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Bulgaria was an exhibition in
the National Art Gallery entitled Without a Trace? The Labour Camp in Belene 19491959
(NovemberDecember 2009), launched by the independent Institute for the Study of the
Recent Past. These forms of cultural memory provided narrative templates to speak about the
camps, tropes to organize and convey the meanings of the narratives, and eyewitness accounts
engaging the public both morally and emotionally.
Memorial services on the island have set up another regime of memory about the Belene
camp. They have been organized annually since 1990 by the Union of the Repressed by the
Communist Regime. Former inmates and their families come from various parts of Bulgaria in
the early summer to take part. The management of the prison organizes their access to Site 2.
The first service in 1990 was attended by thousands of visitors, including President Zhelyu
Zhelev, a dissident intellectual and leader of the anti-communist opposition. It was the first
time that access to the island was granted to the public, and some residents of Belene visited it
for the first time as well. In subsequent years, the memorial services have attracted fewer
participants, the local institutions have not contributed to their organization and the
population has in most cases remained unaware of them. In the spring of 2008, the
commemoration site was marked by a hand-made monument a black wooden cross and a
crescent moon stuck in a pile of gravel. Christian symbols are common in memorials to the
victims of communism, while the crescent moon commemorated the Bulgarian Turks
interned on the island in the mid-1980s, in the course of the forced assimilation campaign of
the regime. In 2009 a cement wall was installed on the spot, obviously part of a future
monument.
All these forms of dealing with the legacy of communist repressions have added up to a fairly
consensual public narrative of the Belene camp. As it turned out, however, this narrative was
not shared in Belene proper: there is no commemorative sign in the town to acknowledge the
camp, hardly any mention of it in local histories, and apparently no trace of it in the memories

14
Pisahme da se znae [We Wrote to Make it
Known], vol. 3: Adat zatvori i lageri [The Hell
Prisons and Camps] (Sofia, 2007).
15
The following is not an exhaustive list: St.
Bochev, Belene. Skazanie za kontzlagerna Bulgaria
[Belene. A Saga of the Bulgaria of Concentration
Camps] (Sofia, 2003); P. Ogoiski, Zapiski za
bulgarskite stradania 19441989 [Notes on the Bulgarian Sufferings 19441989], vol. 1, 3rd edn (Sofia,
2009); G. Vasilev, Ostrov Persin. Pozorat na Bulgaria
[The Island of Persin. Bulgarias Disgrace] (Sofia,
1995); A. Momerin, Ot Diarbekir do Belene i ponatatak [From Diarbekir to Belene and Beyond] (Sofia,
2005); M. Nedyalkov, Prezhivelitsi [Experiences]
(Karlovo, 2003); Gr. Yanev, Persin, Belene
ostrovat na smartta [Persin, Belene The Island of
Death] (Plovdiv, 1998).

16
Otselelite: Lagerni istorii [The Survivors: Camp
Stories] (1990), director A. Kiryakov; Prisadata
obvinenieto [The Verdict The Accusation] (1999),
director A. Petkova; Problemat za komarite i drugi
istorii [The Problem of Mosquitoes and Other Stories]
(2007), director A. Paunov; Balada za bulgarski geroi
[A Ballad for Bulgarian Heroes] (2007), director I.
Trojanov. Based on the transcript of Kiryakovs
documentary and additional interviews, Tzvetan
Todorov published a book: T. Todorov, Voices
from the GULAG: Life and Death in Communist
Bulgaria (University Park, Pennsylvania, 1999).
French original: Au nom du peuple: Temoignages sur
les camps communistes (La Tour dAigue, 1992).
17
At. Lipchev, Tihiat bial Dunav [The Quiet
White Danube] (Varna, 2007); feature film Izpepeliavane [Incineration] (2004), director St. Trifonov.

February 2012

Belene and the history of memory

of its residents. Beleners tend to avoid the theme, except when they express their chagrin at the
ill fame of their town.
LOCAL MEMORY IN BELENE
In what follows, I am concerned with how the residents of Belene remember the camp, how
they have felt living next door to it and how they feel now about this proximity. With these
questions in mind, a team of interviewers visited Belene in April 200818 and in May and July
2009.19 The analysis is based on thirty-four recorded life stories20 and a number of informal
conversations with local people. The life stories were solicited in the course of oral history
interviews with persons born from the 1920s to the early 1940s where, in a first part, the
interviewees were invited to tell about their lives, and in a second part, they were asked some
questions to stimulate reflection and to throw a bridge to the wider social and political context.
Here, I will try to gain access to the vernacular memory in Belene by looking at common
themes in the individual narratives the past of Belene, the communist transformations, the
island and the labour camp and the shared ways of introducing and interpreting them. Since I
am concerned not with the history of the camp but rather with the memory of it, my aim is to
find out how and to what extent the public framing of the Belene camp in the 1990s has
affected the common topoi of remembrance, the shared tropes and narrative templates used by
the local people.
The past, before and after
While the residents of Belene were reluctant to talk about the camp, the towns past was a
common topic and a preferred way of presenting their home town to us, the visitors. These
memories show some interesting ambivalences. Most often, speaking about the past, the
conversation partners pictured the floods, the muddy streets and the poverty. Mud seemed to
be a trope laden with much more than its literal meaning a symbol of the hardships and
backwardness in the past. Some interviewees gave details about the frequent floods caused by
the high waters of the Danube, which ruined the wheat fields. After a flood, people could only
plant maize. That is why polenta used to be a popular meal and wheat bread was a luxury for
many families. A few interviewees mentioned bread and/or polenta when they wanted to give
an idea of the well-being of their families. Some important details are, however, missing from
this shared picture of the difficult past. Only one man mentioned the flourishing husbandry on
the island of Belene,21 two dairy farms on the riverbank and a couple of textile manufacturers.
18
Part of the project Knowledge and Memory
Policies: Public (Mis)Use of the Recent Bulgarian Past
(Institute for the Study of the Recent Past, funded by
CEE Trust, 200810) focused on collecting autobiographical narratives of persons whose active life
course coincided with the period of communist rule.
19
Supported by the Research Fund of the
University of Sofia.
20
A collection of twenty-nine of them was
published as D. Koleva (ed.), Belene miasto na
pamet? [Belene A Memory Site?] (Sofia, 2010).

21
The memorandum on the security provisions
for the newly established TVO (April 1949) states
that husbandry on the island used to bring to
Belene households 100200,000 levs annually
(AMVR, holding 1, inventory 1, archive unit
1205, sheet 9). No statistical data about prices are
available for 194651, but in 1945 the price of an
ox was 36,000 levs, of a horse 41,000 levs, a
kilogram of pork 220 levs. I am indebted to Dr
Martin Ivanov for these data.

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The others referred to husbandry only when they spoke of the island, but not when they spoke
about the past of the town. Accounts of leisure and festivities came up whenever the old local
traditions were the topic of conversation, not the past.
Against this backdrop, the socialist development of the town was generally described very
positively. In contrast to the muddy streets in the past, people mentioned the paving of the
streets and the sidewalks, electricity and water supply. The erection of a levee that prevented
the Danubes waters from flooding the fields was presented as an entirely socialist achievement
in all but one case, although the construction began in 1939 and sixteen kilometres (about half)
of the levee were in place before the communist coup. The main topic of these accounts was
the construction of new houses as evidence of the rising well-being of families. Building a
house for ones family is considered an important achievement and quite naturally comes to
the fore in ones life story. Indeed, the establishment of the collective in the early 1950s put a de
facto end to private ownership of the land, making redundant any investment in it and in tools
to cultivate it. The free resources of the households were directed to the acquisition of
housing. Together with education, it remained the only possible investment, as well as the
only sphere where families and individuals could take their own initiative. A woman reported:
Afterwards [after the establishment of the collective], peoples life started to get better; they
started to give rent, to give wheat, corn, the families started to get help. And thus many people
built their houses (interview no. 19). A man summarized the socialist development as follows:
Lets say, peoples life was not so rich, but there was no longer that poverty . . . the pain that
was. People already started to find jobs. The collective would offer them a job, a different one
(interview no. 6). Thus Beleners followed closely, albeit often unintentionally,22 the schematic
narrative template of the communist propaganda based on simplistic before and after
comparisons in relation to 9 September 1944,23 used as a time marker. Before the 9th stands
for the hard and poor past: I had no shoes, I wore pattens. That was before the 9th
September; They used to be very poor before the 9th September, they only ate polenta;
before the 9th they used to live . . . they had no bed; Life used to be very primitive before
the 9th September. In contrast, after the 9th suggests changes for the better: After the 9th
they started to build their houses . . . and they built their houses and now they have wonderful
houses; After 1944 they started reduction of the prices; people changed after the 9th
September, we changed gradually, there was a greater access of culture. Beleners are not the
only ones to make such statements. For everyone who spent (part of) their lives and received
their education in socialist Bulgaria, this used to be one of the self-evidences with which they
grew up. Questioning it gives some insight into how institutions of public memory frame
personal recollections. In this case, a specific framing is achieved through a quasi-causality
following the pattern post hoc ergo propter hoc, widely used in communist propaganda.

22

The lack of intention, i.e. the quasi-automatic


use of communist propaganda cliches, is evident in
a number of instances in Belene and elsewhere,
where interviewees who use such cliches express
disapproval of the communist regime. For instance, the man who is critical of the collective,
saying that he became like a slave there (interview no. 3, see quote in next section), switches to

the style of formal reports when he tells about his


own contribution to the production of vegetables.
23
The date of the coup detat that led to the
establishment of the communist regime in Bulgaria.
On the reification of this date in personal recollections see D. Koleva, Memories of the war and the
war of memories in post-communist Bulgaria, Oral
History, XXXIV, 2 (Autumn 2006), 4455.

February 2012

Belene and the history of memory

The collective
Belene is situated in a rich agricultural region and farming used to be the main subsistence
pattern of its inhabitants. Therefore it is striking that the establishment of the collective the
most important change and the one that (unlike the levee and the pavement) was directly
induced by communist ideology and the Soviet example is totally lacking in the accounts of
socialist transformations. In fact, elderly Beleners do remember the collectivization of
agricultural land but these memories do not fit into the positive linear account of socialist
construction. With only a couple of exceptions, all interviewees had negative memories of the
establishment of the collective. They reported that joining the collective was compulsory,
under pressure, with the whip, volpulsory.24 They told of their parents resistance to the
collectivization and of various forms of pressure exercised on them. According to some stories,
interviewees elderly parents died shortly afterwards because they couldnt overcome it. In a
manner reminiscent of folklore epics, a woman said that, as they got set to organize the
collective, everybody, old and young, started to cry (interview no. 8). A man turned in his
account to the anti-communist narrative of the 1990s: The massification of the collective was
compulsory, some people, who didnt want [to join] were harassed, were handled harshly,
some were disabled. Thats how the massification was, and its justification now is: such were
the times. They exonerate themselves with such were the times (interview no. 4).
The story of collectivization is not part of the story of socialist transformations, although this
was the most radical and the most important transformation socialism brought about in the
interviewees lives. Without the support of a shared narrative pattern, originally diverse
experiences tend to be levelled by the dominant narrative. That is why even now these
experiences are not easily spelled out, probably because the mnemonic resources for such
stories have not been available for decades: personal recollections have diverged from the
publicly accepted narrative. Interviewees still refer to the official communist narrative, even
when they want to challenge it:
they only left me with two strong hands, there was nothing else at home, everything
went to the TKZS.25 And I was already like a slave, like slaves. The TKZS, dont you
think it was . . . as they have written that it was noble. Only who has worked there, he
would know. Who has not worked its easy if you look from the outside on a movie: oo-o, the TKZS, its a noble business! Plenty of produce, but what can I tell you hard
and unattractive labour, thats it! (interview no. 3)
Thus, memory seems to separate and simplify: proliferating husbandry was part of the
towns past, but it is not mentioned in the stories about the past because it runs counter to the
picture of poverty and backwardness; forced collectivization was part of the socialist
transformations, but it is not mentioned under this topic because it contradicts the myth of
glorious development. This situation suggests, first, that the local memory provides relatively
stable frames for individual retrospective narratives in the form of acceptable plots (narrative
24
Dobrozorlem, a neologism combining the
words voluntary and compulsory to allude to
the discrepancy between propaganda and reality.

25
Trudovo Kooperativno Zemedelsko Stopanstvo,
collective farm.

10

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templates), tropes, symbols, formulas. Second, it suggests that local memory itself has been
influenced by the changing public memory. In many cases, its templates are readily supplied by
the communist master narrative, while in some others it is the anti-communist discourses of
the 1990s that offer an acceptable and legitimate way of remembering the past.
THE LABOUR CAMP IN LOCAL MEMORY
Although Belene as a community seems to be silent and forgetful about the camp, elderly
Beleners as individuals are not. As Portelli has stated, [o]ral sources are never anonymous or
impersonal, as written documents may often be. The tale and the memory may include
materials shared with others, but the rememberer and teller are always individual persons who
take on the task of remembering and the responsibility of telling.26 In this case, however, it is
not only the responsibility of the teller: albeit not mentioned in official information about the
economy of Belene, the camp and later the prison has been a major workplace for the residents
of Belene.27 Of seventeen men interviewed, eight have worked for different periods in either
the camp, or the prison, or both: as employees on the farm (tractor driver, technologist at the
vegetable garden), doing maintenance (electrician, telephone operator), and administration
(statistician, deliverer, manager); one was an employee of another organization that cooperated with the camp/prison. Many men from Belene worked as guards in the camp28 and
the prison. None of those who are still alive could be reached for interview. Women were
employed in the administration, and a few served as guards of the female inmates of the camp.
The island
What the interviewees seemed to like about the past, and talked about with pleasure, was the island
of Persin, the largest island in the Danube and the central one of the Belene archipelago. It is about
fifteen kilometres long and up to six kilometres wide. The high waters of the Danube flooded the
island every spring and left behind lakes swarming with fish. For the 1400 households of Belene,
the island was the main source of firewood and timber. Most importantly, until the spring of
1949 Beleners used to leave their animals and bees on the island to roam freely for the whole
summer. The farmers used to take turns to milk the sheep and the cows, and occasionally
looked after the pigs and the beehives. Older interviewees recollected that each autumn their
families brought back from the island 150200 sheep and 5070 pigs. Before 1948, the island
was full of sheep . . . and cows, many cows. We used to have pigs. . . . Animals, animals,
animals, animals, as many as you want. And lumbering. That was it: husbandry and lumbering
26

Portelli, op. cit., 14.


According to the birth register of Belene
for 1953, the occupation of 22 out of 198
fathers was policeman or military (the place of
work was not given), and 9 others had different positions in the TVO. The most common
occupation was agriculture (125 fathers). For
1952, the former two categories accounted for
10 per cent of the fathers. Exactly the same was
the share of manual workers, as against 61 per cent
farmers.
27

28
According to the memorandum on the
security provisions, the newly established TVO
was to be manned with 147 junior policemen and
8 senior policemen to begin with, plus guards and
other personnel (AMVR, holding 1, inventory 1,
archive unit 1205, sheets 1011). This number
grew subsequently. In particular, upon the closing
down of two other TVOs in May 1952, 55
positions were transferred to the payroll of TVO
Belene, among them 44 for policemen and
officers, 5 for guards and 6 for auxiliary staff.

February 2012

Belene and the history of memory

11

(interview no. 10). Another interviewee recalled a field of mint with beehives at the edges and
a narrow path across it tramped down by cattle going to the water. The island was gold for us,
an older man concluded (interview no. 2). The manager of the camp reported that, in the
spring of 1949, he had to evacuate over 20,000 sheep and a few thousand pigs and cows from
the island in order to set up the camp. On their behalf, the authors of the memorandum on the
security provisions for the newly established TVO estimated that over half of the villagers were
enemies of the OF29 and concluded that the villagers will now become even more displeased
and greater enemies because they have used the island . . . and now their cattle are driven out
and the discontent is very great.30 Sixty years later, there is almost no trace of this discontent
in the interviewees accounts. However, their references to the camp are quite telling.
A camp, or a prison?31
The continuity between the camp and the prison has had interesting consequences: Beleners
did not readily distinguish between the two institutions: When they hear about Belene, they
are afraid because . . . the prison here (interview no. 10); Did people talk about the camp?
You mean the prison? (interview no. 7); [Did you go] to see where the famous Belene prison
was? (interview no. 9); The whole of Bulgaria hates us because of this prison (interview no.
44); Did people know that the camp existed in Belene, about the politicals? I knew it
was a prison, but I did not take interest in who did what. . . But I am asking about the camp,
where those who opposed the power were. Did you know about it? No, I dont know. I
havent taken interest (interview no. 22). A woman questioned the disclosures about the camp
published in the early 1990s, referring to her husbands experience: Things are too far-fetched,
what they talked about. . . . He [her husband] worked there for 14 years. . . . It is too farfetched, there werent such things, that they were killed, beaten to death and fed to the pigs,
things like that. . . . No, I have been there personally. . . But there is some difference
between the camp and the prison, or. . .? No, they are the same thing. The Camp, thats
how they maybe call the one in Lovech. Here, there are no camps, but . . . site, site. . . . There
are a few sites (interview no. 6). Later in the interview, however, it turned out that her
husband had worked at the prison only in the 1970s and 1980s.
Even those who had worked in one or both institutions would normally not try to
distinguish between them; they always said they had worked in the island. Some of them
changed their jobs in 1959, the year when the camp was closed down, but they did not seem to
make the connection in their accounts. The island is how Beleners usually refer to the state
agricultural farm, with about 2000 hectares of arable land established on the island after its
transformation into a detention place. Labour on the farm was provided by the inmates. The
reports of the early 1950s admit of considerable losses,32 but all conversation partners spoke
29

AMVR, holding 1, inventory 1, archive unit


1205, sheet 8. OF (Otechestven Front, Fatherland
Front) was the communist-dominated coalition
that came to power on 9 September 1944. In
subsequent years it evolved into a mass organization subordinate to the BCP and without a
programme of its own.
30
ibid., sheet 9.

31

This theme is developed in greater detail in D.


Koleva, Histoire orale et micro-histoire: un cas de
Belene, Bulgarie [Oral history and microhistory:
a case from Belene, Bulgaria], Divinatio, XXIX
(SpringSummer 2009), 5974.
32
AMVR, holding 12, inventory 1, archive unit
1993, sheets 1213, 18, 2829, 4546, archive unit
4613, sheet 4.

12

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vol. 37 : no. 1

enthusiastically about the loads of vegetables and huge watermelons they could obtain from the
island. Only three men among the interviewees were able to distinguish between the camp and
the prison, prompted by the interviewers questions. They explained that inmates of the camp
were interned, i.e. without sentences, while the prisoners had sentences issued by a court. Thus,
mixing the camp, an anti-constitutional repressive institution, with the prison, a legal institution,
the interviewees engaged in a kind of meaning-making that presented the local past in a more
favourable way. They failed (or refused) to see the inherently criminal nature of the camp, and
identified it conveniently with the prison, whose legitimacy has not been questioned.
Who were the inmates?
Similar slips of meaning occurred sometimes when the inmates and the reasons for their
internment were discussed. In sixty-three instances the interviewees described the inmates,
either spontaneously or prompted by an interviewers question. Fifteen of them, including the
men who had worked in the camp, reported that the inmates were predominantly politicals,
or used the vernacular label from the past contras (from counter-revolutionaries, the official
category used by the authorities). They mentioned members of the anti-communist
opposition, the influential right wing of the Agrarian Party, former MPs, ministers, highranking army officers. The most detailed of these accounts came from the interview with the
manager of the camp. He repeatedly stressed that the inmates were decent people, respectful
people, intellectuals, professors, cultured, well bred. Among them were engineers,
doctors, army officers: all professions that there are outside, were also inside (interview
no. 1).33 In a few cases, kulaks34 were mentioned. Two women explained that those were not
real kulaks, but unjustly accused only because they had opposed the collectivization. Some
interviewees mentioned criticism of the regime among the crimes imputed to the inmates.
What they meant was seldom open criticism but rather that someone had heard them say
something. Almost fifty years after the closing down of the camp and twenty years after the
end of the regime, such hinting at the arbitrariness of internment echoes the fear that
permeated everyday life and governed peoples behaviour. More than that, interviewees
sometimes lowered their voices when they spoke about the inmates.35
Beleners always spoke of the politicals with respect, often with approval and sympathy.
One man commented, referring to a recent scandal with a politician who was disclosed as a
former state security informer:
33
By the end of 1952, the State Security services
started to keep regular statistical records of the
interned persons, based on a much more elaborate
taxonomy: the inmates were classified into
criminal offenders (2nd category) and state
offenders or counter-revolutionaries (1st category, the more dangerous ones). The latter were
subdivided into 17 or 18 categories according to
their political okraska [Russian for colour]
(members of oppositional parties, most notably
the recent coalition partners the influential right
wing of the Agrarian Party) and into further
categories according to their social origin, social

status, ethnicity, age and the type of offence


(activism before 9 September 1944, espionage,
attempts to leave the country, dissemination of
hostile rumours, etc.). AMVR, holding 12,
inventory 1, archive units 371, 391.
34
Russian for fist and stingy, used to refer to
well-to-do peasants.
35
As in the post-Soviet context, it seems that
this fear was at the time transmitted through
everyday behaviour and interactions and did not
disappear even when the conditions for it were
done away with (cf. Wertsch, op. cit., 1436).

February 2012

Belene and the history of memory

13

He is now proud that with his work for the state security he has worked for Bulgaria. And
it comes to my mind to tell him, I ask myself: well, okay, those ones [the inmates], what
did they work for till 9th September? They didnt work for someone else they also
worked for Bulgaria. And what did they do to them they packed them here on the
island. (interview no. 28)
It is hard to guess whether this attitude is a result of the vindication of the political prisoners in
1990, or people had been able (and willing) to distinguish between contras and criminals at
the time they were all in the camp. The alleged kulaks were mentioned always with sympathy,
perhaps because they had expressed a position that Beleners at the time shared as well but did
not dare to defend.
In seventeen other cases, however, interviewees reported that the inmates were hooligans and
described them as having worn short skirts, narrow trousers and long hair; as sons of money-bags
who had steered away from work, indulged in dancing indecent (i.e. western) dances, drinking
and smoking. Although no one generalized explicitly, there seemed to have been a consensus that
these young people were parasites and morally wanting, and their re-education in the camp was
a necessary step towards their re-integration into society. No one expressed any sympathy for
them. The regime had furnished convenient categories with which to think of the inmates. With
time, the manipulation grew into a widely accepted public truth. The causal link between offence
and punishment was a powerful condition for this to happen: if someone has committed an
offence, it is only just that s/he be punished. This logic is applied retrospectively if someone was
punished, there must have been some reason for this, all the more that the punishment was
imposed by an institution, which lent it a systemic character, i.e. made it a punishment, not a
revenge. Beleners could not have known that two years after the establishment of the camp on
their island, the head of the Internment and Displacement Department admitted in a report to his
superiors that exact data on the displaced and interned individuals were not yet available as the
process had been carried out in a disorganized and very irresponsible manner.36 In a later
report, he explained that the Department did not control if the information sent to us
corresponds to the truth, if it is objective or not, if there is personal bias in it.37
Finally, four interviewees stated that the inmates, or some of them, were criminals. Two
others disagreed, however, maintaining that the inmates of the camp were only political
prisoners, and criminals came only later, to the prison.38
36

AMVR, holding 12, inventory 1, archive unit


5, sheet 3.
37
ibid., archive unit 6, sheet 5.
38
According to the statistics of the Ministry of
the Interior, counter-revolutionaries made up the
main share of the inmates until the first closing
down of the camp in 1953: between 1951 and
1953 the share of the criminals ranged between 3
per cent and 9 per cent. In August 1953, just
before the closing down of the camp, they reached
16.8 per cent due to the massive release of
politicals. After the re-establishment of the camp
in 1956, 365 counter-revolutionaries were immediately interned, mostly for enemy agitation

and propaganda (AMVR, holding 12, inventory


1, archive unit 1512, sheets 23). The statistics
show that criminals constituted a majority in this
period. The very category of criminal, however,
should be interpreted carefully: the amendments to
the Decree on the Peoples Police from December
1956 extended its powers to internment for a
number of offences including violence against the
organs of power and conscious avoidance of
labour for the benefit of society (AMVR, holding
23, inventory 1, archive unit 144, sheets 1617). It
is not clear how these offences were proved
without a trial.

14

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vol. 37 : no. 1

Equating the inmates with hooligans or criminals freed them from the intricacy of a moral
judgement of the camp and indirectly serves to legitimize it. The tacit assumption is put
forward that since those individuals were brought to the camp, there must have been some
reason for that. A man told about a conversation with one of the former inmates at the
annual commemoration on the island: when the latter started to complain about the hunger
and the suffering in the camp, the interviewee said: Look, but why didnt they get me?
Why didnt they get my father?, thus implying that there must have been something wrong
with the inmates themselves, that their internment had not been a sheer matter of chance.
The why-didnt-they-get-me attitude transferring the guilt partly to the victims can be
detected even in some very compassionate narratives. Together with the empathy for the
inmates suffering, this position tacitly exculpates the perpetrators. Such attitudes seem to
point to a mastering of the past through its silencing or its too fast normalization (i.e.
relativization).39
Only a couple of interviewees did not answer the question about the inmates in terms
of categories of offenders, but as eyewitnesses. According to one man, they were [p]eople
just like us. Beaten, beaten, beaten, lame. A woman living near the riverbank reported
that she used to see the inmates as they came to the camp: A pitiful sight, poor people!
[whispering] They were men, handsome men. . . . And afterwards, when they went out,
how they passed we didnt see anything (interview no. 8). The sight of the inmates going
to the island obviously also evoked fear, not just compassion. That was perhaps understandable,
given their labelling as enemies or criminals and the lack of information substituted by
rumours. With time, these rumours must have faded and the vindication of political prisoners
has made it inappropriate to even mention them. Only one woman referred to what may have
been shared anxieties:
But theyd unload thousands of people, what do you think! And youd see them all, in
those striped clothes as theyd go along the railway [to the riverbank] and theyd take
them to the island with pontoons. . . . Whoever sees them, cannot help worrying,
panicking. Cant help, it was fearful. (interview no. 6)
Such moments of reliving the past in its immediacy (episodic memory) were much rarer than
those of remembering the past, a recollection mediated by categories and shared meanings
(semantic memory). One of the most obvious reasons for this is that Beleners who did not work
on the island have shaped their memory of the camp from various sources, older and recent,
official and alternative. Thus personal impressions were channelled at the time by police
announcements (hooligans, criminals) and rumours (kulaks, falsely accused), and modified by
recent testimonies, memoirs, images from journalism and films. These forms of public memory
seem to have given rise to a culture of remembrance that edifies personal memories. As a result,
many interviewees tended to regard the inmates primarily as victims. The notion of victimhood
implies both innocence and passivity, that is, suffering. Thus it becomes possible to think of the
39
Looking at post-1989 German politics of
memory Jeffrey Olick has identified two types of
normalization of the Nazi past: its relativization
and its ritualization through an elaborate commemorative apparatus. See J. K. Olick, What does

it mean to normalize the past? Official memory in


German politics since 1989 in J. K. Olick (ed.),
States of Memory: Continuities, Conflicts, and
Transformations in National Retrospection (Durham
and London, 2003), 25988.

February 2012

Belene and the history of memory

15

inmates of the camp in Christian terms: I am not sure if they have sinned that much a woman
reflected in her interview. The revival of religion in the aftermath of the communist regime has
furnished appropriate templates such as those of innocent suffering, victimhood, of sinning and
redemption, of curse and retribution. Central in the discourse of the victims, they turned out to
be quite common in Beleners talk as well. One of the reasons, no doubt, is the fact that most of
them are Roman Catholics, a small religious minority in Bulgaria, whose religion has been very
salient in their self-identification as a community.40
What was happening in the camp?
One of the main themes in the narratives about the camp was the harsh living conditions of the
inmates crammed in barracks they built themselves from willow branches plastered with
mud their dehumanizing toil, the hunger they had to endure, and most often the violence
they suffered. The electrician said that he quit the island because he could not stand watching
the violence over the inmates: Because . . . as I looked how they [the guards] beat them, what
they did to them. . . . Once, I saw one [guard] on horseback, chasing a prisoner with a whip
and whipping him (interview no. 13). A woman who had had no access to the camp told the
same story: And they [the guards] used to chase them on horseback, thats what Ive heard,
they chased them on horseback, whip in hand: if you cant walk whipping! If you fall on the
ground whipping, whipping! (interview no. 3).
Such cases were described in the memories of survivors published in the 1990s. The
documentary, The Survivors: Camp Stories, released in 1991, shows a woman in tears telling in
front of the camera that her husband was brought in this way to see her when she came to visit
him. He then asked her not to come any more for he feared he might not survive another
march of a few kilometres, running with the guards horse and being whipped all the way
along. The scene is staggering and it would be no wonder if it has engraved itself into the
memory of those who have watched the documentary. It is now difficult to distinguish the
sedimented past rumours from the recently disseminated images. A number of conversation
partners explicitly referred to survivors stories told at the annual commemorations on the
island, to published memoirs and documentaries. At the same time, elements of an
underground local folklore occasionally popped up in the narratives that cannot have been
created in the past few years. Since they could not be fixed in writing or discussed openly at
the time, it is hard to estimate how widespread they were among the population. The only
exception very telling, however is a letter from the governor of Belene prison to his superiors
in the Ministry of the Interior in August 1961 where he complained that the whole village of
Belene knew the truck that brought the bodies of the inmates who died in the Lovech camp
(see n. 13) and were buried on one of the smaller islands. Whenever they saw the truck, the
villagers would say the parcel post from Lovech has arrived, and they called the person who
buried the bodies Kanto funeral agency. The governor proposed measures to increase the
secrecy of the operation in order not to harm the prestige of our Peoples power.41 This
40
In comparison with other locations where I
have worked, it is salient now as well. The two
Catholic churches are quite active, and Beleners
the Catholics as well as the Orthodox refer to
Catholicism as the sturdy faith.

41
AMVR, holding 23, inventory 1, archive unit
102, sheet 1.

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vol. 37 : no. 1

document shows that what was going on on the island (including the most macabre
details) was not a secret for the local population. It seems to have been a real threat, not
just an occasion for morbid humour: a couple of interviewees mentioned having
been threatened by local cadres that they would be sent to the other side (i.e. the
island). You know what awaits you on the other side, the functionary is said to have
hinted in one case.
Even when they expressed sympathy with the victims, however, the interviewees did
not reflect on the reasons for their suffering and on the responsibility of those who
inflicted it. The focus on victimhood and suffering obscured the question of perpetration
and guilt. In their view, the camp appeared almost as a natural disaster or a divine curse
on their town. Many of their neighbours used to work as guards in the camp and some
are still alive, but nobody advised us who they were and nobody ever referred to them
otherwise but indirectly: an acquaintance, a woman from the next block, Ive seen her
on her balcony, a man Ive heard about, etc. Speaking of the violence to the inmates,
the interviewees always, with no exception, referred to the perpetrators indefinitely as
they omitting the fact that they were their acquaintances and neighbours. The
perpetrators appeared as an abstract evil in no way related to the local community. Thus,
the narrators commitments to a particular meta-narrative, that of their local community,
seem to co-exist uneasily with their participation in a larger and more recent mnemonic
collective. As Halbwachs has noted, people always remember as group members. But they
are members of different groups whose versions of the past may collide rather than
converge. This double membership leads to making gestures of solidarity in opposite
directions. When they carefully avoid admitting that the guards were their fellow
townspeople and exposing them, Beleners situate their stories in certain frames of
memory (or rather, amnesia), those of the local community; when they sincerely
empathize with the victims, they partake in another mnemonic community. Their
testimonies rely on a religious stance, where the idea of guilt and responsibility in the
juridical and political sense dissolves into ideas (mostly unarticulated) of curse, of delayed
punishment/gratification and of redemption a confidence that the world is governed by
God and God is a moral authority to whom the judgement and punishment of the
perpetrators can be delegated. Such a Christian notion of justice makes it possible for them
to reconcile the sense of community (with perpetrators having been part of the local
community) and the idea of redemption and absolution. Thus the religious discourse
appears as a way to join a larger mnemonic community bracketing out circumstances that
do not fit.

CONCLUSION
This article attempted a history of vernacular remembering the one that operates below the
level of institutions, media and national history. It implied asking questions on how certain
reconstructions of history turn into shared memories, what are their uses and how they are
modified and renegotiated as a result of changing social circumstances. The case of Belene
suggests that remembering and forgetting do not depend on institutional acts, or on
individuals decisions, but are negotiated in the interplay between social and individual

February 2012

Belene and the history of memory

17

42

organization of memory. More than that, it suggests that individuals are active agents in the
process of remembering rather than passive bearers of memory: they navigate between
various memory scripts, individual and social, carrying sometimes contradicting intentions.
Engaged in what Fredrick Bartlett has called an effort after meaning, eyewitnesses borrow
from public discourses the cultural tools whereby they forge testimonies out of their
experiences. Past experiences are not only remembered from the point of view of current
conventions and beliefs, but the latter often create a kind of hindsight bias that can even
modify the recollections. Thus inherited frameworks of meaning and interpretation clash with
the new public narratives and since frameworks of meaning cannot easily be falsified and
rejected give rise to conflicts that need to be resolved. The tricky question of memory is not
to establish the truth but to live with it. The Belene case is not unique in this respect: a few
oral history projects conducted in towns neighbouring Nazi camps exhibit similar mixtures of
contradictions, silences and embarrassment.43
In Belene, living with the truth has emerged as a problem only since the end of the
communist regime, and its history is one of a conflict of mnemonic traditions carried by
different agents of remembering (local community, victims, state, civil society organizations,
individuals). What looks from the inside like structural amnesia (forgetting those elements of
the past that are no longer in meaningful relation to the present) is seen from the outside as
forcing the past into oblivion, comparable to repression in the individual psyche. The camp has
become a legacy vehemently imposed from outside that Beleners as a community are reluctant
to take on board. This explains the failure of transmission of local memory: no local institution
or group has engaged with this aspect of their towns past, and the younger generations
demonstrate a lack of knowledge and a lack of interest in it. Thus the collective memory of the
camp in Belene is a collective amnesia or, rather, a collective repression possibly grounded in
an unreflected collective guilt44 and certainly a reaction to the intensive shaping of the camp as
a lieu de memoire in the 1990s. As far as the local community is concerned, forgetting seems to
be a condition of belonging.45 However, the camp/prison/island has remained part of elderly
Beleners autobiographical memories, and the public culture of remembrance established in

42

J. Brockmeier, Remembering and forgetting:


narrative as cultural memory, Culture and Psychology, VIII, 1 (2002), 32.
43
Annette Leo, Das ist son zweischneidiges
Schwert hier unser KZ. . . Der Furstenberger Alltag
und das Frauenkonzentrationslager Ravensbruck [This
is such a double-edged sword, this KZ of ours . . . The
Everyday Life in Furstenberg and the Womens
Concentration Camp Ravensbruck] (Berlin, 2007);
Rudolf Kropf and Andreas Baumgartner, Man hat
halt mit dem leben mussen: Nebenlager des KZMauthausen in der Wahrnehmung der Lokalbevolkerung. Endbericht eines Forschungsprojektes des
Mauthausen Komitee. [One had to live with it:
The secondary camps of Mauthausen in the perception of
the local population. Final report of a research
project of the Mauthausen Committee.] Available
from: http://www.mkoe.at/forschung (last visited

19 June 2011); Elmer Luchterhand, Das KZ in


der Kleinstadt. Erinnerungen einer Gemeinde an
den unsystematischen Volkermord [The CC
(Concentration Camp) in the town. Memories of
a community of the non-systematic genocide] in
D. Peukert and J. Reulecke (eds), Die Reihen fast
geschlossen: Beitrage zur Geschichte des Alltags unterm
Nationalsozialismus [The Rows Almost United: Contributions to the History of Everyday Life under
National Socialism] (Wuppertal, 1981), S. 43554.
44
The concept is borrowed from B. Giesen,
The trauma of perpetrators: the Holocaust as the
traumatic reference of German national identity
in J. C. Alexander, R. Eyerman, B. Giesen, N. J.
Smelser and P. Sztompka, Cultural Trauma and
Collective Identity (Berkeley, 2004), 12730.
45
F. Delich, The social construction of memory
and forgetting, Diogenes, LI, 1 (2004), 69.

18

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vol. 37 : no. 1

the 1990s has given them access to an alternative mnemonic socialization. As a result, they may
have appropriated memories that originally were not their own.
This seems to put into question Avishai Margalits thesis of the spontaneity of personal
memory. Margalit claims that in relation to an individual, the meaning of remember is close
to that of know, while in relation to a community remember is closer to believe; that is
why shared memory is an ethical attitude while personal memory is not.46 Vernacular memory
in Belene, however, exhibits an oscillation between the truth-value of the narrative (the
knowing) and the changing meanings attached to it (the believing). Margalit handles the
relations to the collectivities and hence the duties to remember through his notions of morality
and ethics, which are quite specific. Morality is the thin relation, the relation to the strangers
where there is no obligation to remember, while ethics is the thick relation the relation to
ones community of shared experience and therefore of memory. It could be inferred, then,
that the ethical relationships of our conversation partners in Belene link them primarily to their
fellow townspeople with whom they have lived together for decades and go on living
together. Taking on the obligation to bear witness to, and to remember the inmates (which
they do however as persons, not as a community) without a political agenda or any
instrumental consequences of it, implies extending the thick ethical relation on to a larger
community constituted by this memory. Thus meanings, or believing, are as relevant for
personal remembering as they are for collective memory.
The vernacular memory in Belene is a complex and dynamic conglomerate consisting of
diverse, often contradictory, elements. It is influenced by various kinds of resources, each
reflecting a social and historical context, each bringing in its position and perspective:
interiorized communist rhetoric, newly reactivated religious culture, post-communist public
discourses, including those of the victims, as well as local traditions, alliances and struggles.
None of them is neutral. This makes memory a critical socio-political issue and a contested
terrain where everyone is taking sides, even when referring to very personal matters such as
ones own life. The case of Belene thus exemplifies the contested nature of the memory of
socialism where different perspectives compete and contradict one another rather than being
mutually supportive, as Halbwachs has suggested. Even so, the project of remembering seems
to be a hopeful one.
University of Sofia

46

A. Margalit, The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge,


Mass., 2002), 59.