Collecting, Sharing, Letting Be

Interview with Vesna Teršelič on Dealing with the Past

Speaking about traumatic memory generally presupposes speaking about narrative creation. Articulation and re-telling are often perceived as weaving the canvases back after rupture, as filling the empty spaces left by the trauma. But are these the only effective ways to heal, and whose story is being told? How can non-textual expressions of memory help to build trust and reconstruct what has been broken?

We talked with Vesna Teršelič, peace activist, Member of the Regional Council of the RECOM Reconciliation Network for Croatia, and Director for Documenta – Center for Dealing with the Past about approaches to memory work and oral history connections, inclusivity, and hope. The reader should know that the interview was accompanied by the rustle of the candy wrapper Ромашка which, thanks to Vesna’s mesmerizing hand performance, illustrated some of the qualities of the memory tissue: what people can do with it, how it is shaped, and how we make it graspable. Crunch-crunch. Whoosh. Hiss. Splash-splosh. Rat-tat-tat.

Kateryna Osypchuk

We would like to talk to you about your experience of working with difficult memories and the different narratives related to them. We are starting with a rather general question about approaching the term “trauma framing” because there are different methods to it; many describe trauma as a hole in the narrative about the past through which one loses access to their past – but we cannot say that every such lacuna is due to trauma. How do you frame this concept?

Kateryna Lysenko

And, just to add – trauma is a word that implies it can be healed, and not be left so – when you expand such a term to the level of a society, what power does it have?

Vesna Teršelič

Traumatic event is discontinuity, something which leaves a trace. There is a more positive development if it’s just a trace. But what trauma leaves and produces is a sea of silence. It is very difficult to articulate, to present exactly what happened because ideally the healing process would go like this: what happened is described and it’s expressed how it was felt. Such a process might allow a person to leave trauma behind, but that’s a very rare and unlikely outcome. In the work which we do in Documenta, traumatic events most often stay as something suppressed.

In interviewing people, we try to open the way for our interlocutors to tell us something if they choose to do so. But even if they do not tell us anything, then we simply be with them. You know, trauma is also part of life; so I would like to make a distinction between that type of trauma and attitudes towards trauma in which it is singled out as an extraordinary event, a once-in-a-lifetime type of event. However, our experience is that it’s very likely that this event will be recurring, not just through the re-traumatization linked with retelling what happened, but especially while living through the war, many traumatic events will be coming one after another. I would say that I always give preference to the art of survival.

The art of survival is the mastery of coping with traumatic events in a way that allows you to live and keep hope alive because a very tragic outcome would be the loss of hope. And it’s in dealing with the past, in Documenta, the center for dealing with the past, that we communicate with survivors and witnesses who have not necessarily survived neither violent attacks nor a war crime, however, in the art of survival, one might go through hundreds of traumatic events, and get out of all that without a need to speak.

I wouldn’t like to leave you with the impression that trauma is something that has to be spoken about. There are different strategies for coping. Psychiatrists would be able to say more about it – all of them suggest that we can better cope with trauma when it is articulated, but I know people who were able to cope with their trauma and integrate it without telling it. Many doubted how beneficial that was for them – one thing is speaking about trauma in a safe context of therapeutic communication and another is speaking about it for the journalists and for the broader public. I found many useful approaches to trauma – Judith Herrmann was my choice, and the basic thing is simply speaking with survivors. Whether the aim is actually to speak about trauma or not, what is certain is that when someone experiences a traumatic event, the most immediate consequence is the wall of silence surrounding them. They find it difficult to open communication, find the right words, and choose the right question. And I would say that the most important skill, which I have learned step by step, is how necessary this open-ended communication is. Even if you have no clue how to do so, just keep speaking with people who lived through very difficult things. That’s how we can record such a large number of interviews. We really try to keep in touch with people and just to be with them. Simply relying on each other, keeping in touch, and being with each other might have empowering and healing effects.

Complete healing of trauma is very rare. For me, it’s much more the art of living with the burden of violence and the burden of trauma. And for some, speaking about it will be liberating. For others not.

Kateryna Osypchuk

If speaking about trauma isn’t the necessary thing to cope with it, but rather being here for the survivors can help them, then this feeling of community is important. How can collectivity heal this collective trauma? Maybe memory has some role in this, and if so, what would it be? Maybe it would be more related to some practices connected to the shared past: like being in the presence of each other, going through some routines, withdrawing from the main memory, and sharing outlooks on what happened?

Vesna Teršelič

Well, I would most warmly recommend group work and group discussion – especially since we’ve already had a very good experience with female-only groups and for veterans, groups of men, it has also been very important. These are the forms of work that have been developed in many different contexts.

Living in a village, it’s important to not only organize different social activities and discussions, but also to do things together. Maybe we should put more stress on doing things together, and with that comes discussing things together. In the war destroyed towns, there are a lot of activities for rebuilding societies that have a very practical dimension. In order to rebuild these communities, there is not only soft-skills work, but there are also very concrete tasks: rebuilding water, providing infrastructure, healthcare, and washing facilities. you know, there is no limit to the power of music: organize a choir; all kinds of art activities that actually produce something together, that can actually fill in that space of despair because living in destroyed towns is not easy.

But there should also be an honest dialogue about what happened, not necessarily immediately. Grief work can also be structured, but for that, you need a psychologist; you might then also ask questions of remembering, although there is a high chance that you will get answers which are sort of approved by the highest authority. The question immediately following the experience of loss is – how ready people are to designate something on their own because authorities will start creating the rituals for remembrance. But I would say that the plurality of voices is something to be encouraged, as there is a tendency to pretend that there is just one voice – in most communities, you will have people of different beliefs and different religions involved in creating a space in which they can express their different ways.

There is no end to the possibilities of memory work. You can decide to record the experiences of very particular groups, not just survivors; they are the most challenging interlocutors. Although for them, it’s very valuable to be spoken to. They might not be ready to speak yet, but it’s very good that you give them a sign that you show interest. Because very often survivors get the impression that nobody cares about what happened to them. So when you ask them something, you actually show you’re interested and that’s very important.

Kateryna Lysenko

I will make a small intervention, and you’re talking about art as a kind of intervention as well. The art of remembrance, as you noticed, is a physical practice. And I completely relate to it because war is an intense physical experience when you basically feel the body and understand that it is mortal. I would ask you about the gender aspect: if we physically approach memory differently and remember differently. Does memory itself have a gender: in Ukrainian пам’ять is a feminine noun, for instance…?

Vesna Teršelič

Everything is gendered. Of course there’s a major difference. Well, we actually have in Croatian pažnja and sjećanje: pažnja is actually remembrance, which is organized memory, memory linked with a decision – what is to be remembered and what we might leave for oblivion. So there’s that difference. Well, English also keeps that difference in remembrance and memory; with memory there are individual or social processes which might go with this or that action, but with remembrance you actually need to make some decisions. So, pažnja (remembrance) is male.

But actually, looking at the gender dimension of the memorialization process, I would say that, in this sea of possibilities for memorializing, female memories may be less visible simply because we live in patriarchal societies. When we start recording for a collection, we usually have fewer women because there will be more men who will accept our invitation, as they’re more self-confident and think that they have important things to share. In order to get interviews with women, you will need to invest more energy because many will tell you that they have nothing important to say. So, this is the direction to go. When you look at the European Remembrance program of the European Union, you can see that they also especially encourage recording women and including female perspectives. And when you look at the history of the 20th century, if you look at the Gulag, you will quickly find that there are many more memory publications by men than by women.

Kateryna Osypchuk

How do you find this practice of making separate collections of male interviews and female interviews in order to increase attention to them? Doesn’t it strengthen the division? How can we work with memory in a more inclusive way?

Vesna Teršelič

When you make the decision of whom you will interview, you make your choices. For us, it was really about creating a large collection that shows the social experience. For you, it’s very important that you define your goal and choose your story. If you venture into the field of recording interviews, you’re also trying to tell a story, so you have to choose your group, but it can also be linked with one incident in which you have conflicting interpretations.

If you are thinking about bringing up some issues related to the ongoing war, I do not think that this is the best moment to bring in different voices. But there might be something about the event that you can show from different perspectives. It is also a question of how much patience and interest there is for a diversity of survivors’ stories. In memory work, I would say that the most important thing to think about when framing your story is that you should think about the public to which you want to show it., and you should bring together the vivid needs and interests of people and actually share their stories to them. It might not even be the stories of people in Ukraine; you might live in a community outside of Ukraine. As I said, many refugees will simply remain in their new countries and there you have a new community. You have a new community of Ukrainians living in Germany, and you might bring their stories so that they can discuss some of their concerns and worries and needs. A big part of doing that is actually discussing which stories you want to tell, so as not to go too broad and keep it manageable.

Kateryna Lysenko

You wisely said that there are certain moments when it is really traumatizing for people to discuss current issues – so one can deal with past events instead. You also emphasized that Documenta is dealing with the past (and always smile when you say it, knowing that when you are dealing with the past, you deal with the present and with the future). When you try to capture the stories of the people to narrate or tell them, how do you avoid the imposed human comparison there so as not to make it a suffering competition?

Vesna Teršelič

When we presented our collection, it was already large. At the moment of publishing, it had more than 200 interviews. So you are free of this worry, there is a wide range of stories. If you have a small exhibition, that’s more difficult. But as I said, suffering is one thing, survival is the other. Because when it comes to suffering, many people will simply be silent. There are many different questions you can ask, such as, ‘how do you share with your neighbors now?’ The most productive result for memory work is sensibilizing the public to the fact that different groups of victims and survivors deserve attention – we, of course, have voices of Croats, Serbs, Roma, and Italians. It’s a big collection. It’s not immediately clear how many voices are in it, but in a campaign that we made for all civilian victims of war, we made it clear that some people in this group are Croats and some are Serbs. And that was a breakthrough.

You’re not ready for that, but the time will come. And the question was interesting for me: how and when did we start cooperating with each other? We never lost it. But you are too young, I don’t think that you have actually cooperated with somebody in Moscow. We do have colleagues in Russia and Ukraine who still cooperate, scientifically speaking. But this is not the question. It’s that, in many towns, you still have people of different nationalities. You still have Russians living in Ukraine. How do you see them? Before the end of the war, it’s very difficult to open these topics, but this reaches over the divide and it is what has healing potential.

There is a friend of mine who lives in a small town in Croatia where the atrocities committed have been very bloody. In the period between 1991-1995, a majority of its population, Croats, fled and have been living in other parts of Croatia. And when she came back to this town after 1998, for a long time there was no communication between Serbian and Croatian inhabitants of the village. Then she started recording stories of Serbian women from this village, and she published a small book. It started with listening to them, and then she made small stories- finally, she published them. And then they together and made a small, local peace initiative called Lúč. They’re organizing committees of choirs, poetry evenings, and they sometimes also have discussions. In the war, connections get broken – friendships, neighborly, and social relationships get broken. Some of them might be built again. I wonder if I should use the word “again” because rebuilding would mean that they would be the same, but I think these are new relationships. The question is ‘when to build those new relationships.’ But to tell you frankly, I do not think that it’s too early. What you record, what you listen to, and what you will publish are different decisions. In towns in Ukraine, you have many voices, and maybe it’s worth listening to them, but not publishing now.

Kateryna Osypchuk

Collecting these personal stories and these forms of being together and co-creating can break those walls of silence. Maybe recording these voices can do something for the general remembrance afterwards. How does Documenta work with these elements in educational programs, and how does the younger audience respond to this more inclusive past?

Vesna Teršelič

It’s a challenge and the master narrative will not be welcoming to multiperspectivity. I have never heard about grand narratives during the war and in the aftermath which leave a lot of space for different perspectives. And the work done by oral historians collecting personal memories will not be as powerful as the production of the grand narrative about the war. And it’s not what we might expect – with time, democratization will come and open space for different perspectives. No. There’ll be as much space as there are public voices, whoever these voices are: journalists, scientists, artists, activists, and documentation centers who will manage to open and add their small contributions.

It is sort of saying, ‘here is this grand narrative, but you forgot all these people, quite a significant percentage of the population.’ The task is to make them more visible, at least in situations of large crimes or important events, and make the media publish more on this topic so that the public sees it. And the other unfortunate thing is that there is no such thing as linear democratization. There will be times that will be good for democracy and will be more open to minority narratives. And there’ll be times when it will be very harsh. It’s all interplay and, speaking with experience from Documenta and from post-Yugoslav countries where we are still dealing with the Second World War which is symbolically still unfinished, we are dealing with its legacy. And speaking about the actual narration of the Second World War, its grand narrative has been continually and permanently distorted for at least 30 years. We are dealing with the legacy of socialism and the political violence during socialism- a time period when political violence is presented in a surprising way, let’s put it like that. And the simultaneously occurring modernization process is completely undermined, and not well-researched. We are dealing with the war of the 90s, with the transition of war. We are dealing with unfinished reforms of the judiciary and the police. So we are dealing with all that and in it, you have better and worse times. The last regression was in 2016 when we had an illiberal government for even less than a year and there was strong resistance. We managed to get rid of them in less than one year, but the damage they did will be there for decades.

It’s like Janez Janša, a conservative politician from Slovenia, he always comes back. He was imprisoned in the meantime, no problem. He doesn’t get the majority in parliament, no problem – here he is in government. The damage he did nearly destroyed the police, judiciary, and media in 2 years. Now they have a liberal green government, but the damage will not go away. This is how you will live, don’t think that it’s the brightest future. War is the worst horror of all, but even once the war is over, everything is waiting for you. In Ukraine, you have not symbolically finished the Second World War, you have the story of Soviet Ukraine – you’re younger than that, but there will be things springing up, and you will have to deal with these things, and many will have a dimension of dealing with the past.

Maybe you will be later working on some educational materials which will be dealing with something from the war or a previous period, and these materials will not be related to direct atrocities – that’s very likely, because how do you work in elementary school with them? But maybe you’ll have some material linked with the destruction of cultural heritage and the rebuilding of cultural heritage. In our work, it became very clear that, for the 90s, that is something that has enormous potential.

There are other possibilities that might unfold. Look for multi-layered topics, bring out the experience of individuals, and you will gradually see patterns. And if you think about patterns in advance, then you might get your story earlier because in the towns that I have seen, you already have a diversity of perspectives. Whatever you can do to portray that diversity, you will build a ground for some understanding.

It is often misunderstood that you have a traitor’s impulse when you try to present the position of the other side and you show any understanding of their side. And it’s not traitorous, especially because in the scientific approach you should have curiosity, to ask, ‘how do they see that?’ Understanding doesn’t mean support. As human beings, we are not well suited for any kind of multi-layered attitudes. It is unfortunate, but it’s like that.

Kateryna Lysenko

You have said that there is no linear way to democracy. If I may just paraphrase, there is no linear way anywhere, to the truth in particular. Your work of collecting memory and working with memory, in general, is a never-ending journey, and once you have arrived at the right place and think about it, it’s not a truth where you have arrived. You shouldn’t go farther and farther and never arrive.

Vesna Teršelič

Absolutely. And it’s that recording and being in touch. I do not see many other ways because you cannot rely solely on documents. When you use oral history, you will have to check some things, but without blaming your narrators. It is just that you will need to clarify, firstly to yourself – historians will clarify that witnesses do not remember well, and that they are influenced by grand narratives, which is completely normal. And sometimes researchers are in this danger of saying, ‘well, we cannot really get a story because it’s disturbed by a grand narrative,’ but you get something. We have enormous appreciation for all our interlocutors because they have agreed to share and agreed to publish their narration. You do what you can so that you portray a bit of how they see it. And then you record someone else, and you save other parts.

But this is a large picture, and you just manage to put lights hidden here and there. Especially skillful scientists and skillful writers will connect them in a way that would actually help other readers, but not everyone is an especially skillful writer and especially skillful scientist, so you just keep doing these things step by step. Something will be saved. Hopefully, you will save hope for yourself because we are not in a good situation. But it’s not hopeless. And we live our lives and can enrich the lives of each other immensely. So maybe there is not much more to this. There are friends, there are people who are close to us, and there are many people with whom we have not yet spoken, and these are people who might enrich our lives, and we might enrich theirs. I really believe that these meetings are special.