A Day in the Life of the #FemGeniusesinBerlin by Italia Alexandria Bella’-Victoria Rodriguez Quintana and Kate Nixon

Italia Alexandria Bella’-Victoria Rodriguez Quintana

This week’s readings contextualized the fall of the Berlin Wall and the violence during integration of West and East Germany. As a Mexican-American, it felt impossible for me not to see the methods of violence globally maintained in the 21st century. I thought often about Transnational Feminism as a framework to explore borders and how they position us in a false binary of confined or protected. Additionally, we’ve learned Critical Race Theory functions as a framework to understand the racialization of immigration legislature, as well as the creation of national identities that essentialize exclusionary ideologies. The paradigm of “who belongs” versus “who is excluded” has been necessary to utilizing people as tools of oppressive institutions, exemplified in the violent treatment of migrant groups within West Germany. Our class discussion then changed to forms of resistance in Germany and how the fight for liberation includes anticipation of our oppressors fighting back to maintain power. This was discussed in relationship to ideals of work and production, as those who face the worst of capitalism in the U.S. (Black and Brown communities) are also faced with the question: Will I choose to rest or resist? Similarly, Black and Brown women are asked to position themselves as silent victims of violence for the betterment of their communities. This can be analyzed in the discouragement of reinforcing racial stereotypes and brutalization towards Black and Brown communities, while silencing conversations of intracommunity issues. I see this in relation to frameworks of Black Feminist Theory, as Black women are asked to give up their racial or gender identity to focus on a singular experience of oppression, which flattens the complexity of existing within the intersections of multiply marginalized categories. This week’s readings also examined the relationship between colonialism and the construction of race, which has served as historical context for how marginalized groups are treated in contemporary Germany. On the streets, we saw street art of a cop saying “aquí no necesitamos a gente como tu.” This contributed to my understanding of Germany by emphasizing the dichotomy between differing systems of racialization that globally share foundations of anti-immigrant sentiments. The street art piece, which translates to “we don’t need people like you here,” reminded me of our class in which we discussed how borders designate whether we belong and how racialized national identities designate BIPoC as forever foreign.

Italia Alexandria Bella’-Victoria Rodriguez Quintana is a Xicana from South Denver, Colorado. Her name seems long, but it represents her and her mom’s shared interest in paying homage to the people who made her. Italia is a Romance Languages major with minors in Political Science and Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies. Her study of linguistics allows her to explore history and culture through personal narratives, serving as a method of decolonization of the self. She enjoys reading feminist theory, Instagram reels, thinking|pondering, weightlifting, and reviewing food w| her bestie on @latinayumtinas.

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Kate Nixon

Hello, and welcome to my day in the life on a lovely Wednesday in Berlin! I started my morning with yogurt and coffee (made by one of my wonderful roommates—thank you Elliot!!) and headed to class. We started class with a discussion of love—questioning how is love defined and how is it pushing us towards resistance? The day before, we went on a tour exploring the escape tunnels built under the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. One of the largest factors motivating these escapes was love, so much so that one man made sure the tunnel he built was tall enough for his fiancé to use without having to crouch down. These tunnels showed us how love gave those tunnel builders purpose and motivation to keep going even despite the low (25%) success rate of the tunnels. Our conversation then shifted to how we keep resisting, knowing that regardless of our best efforts, nothing will be successful 100% of the time. While we didn’t come up with any concrete solutions, we came back to love and how necessary it is to have in hard times. Keeping with the discussion of staying motivated when everything seems exhausting, we talked about the importance of rest. As self-defined “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde has written, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” We discussed how napping is a form of self-care and active resistance, and in honor of that, after class and amazing visits to a gluten-free café and a queer bookstore, I decided to take a nap. After I arose from my restorative siesta, Elliot and I decided to head to the Berlin State Library to finish off the night with some schoolwork.

Kate Nixon is a rising senior pursuing a double major in Feminist & Gender Studies and Psychology, with an interest in finding where the two intersect and how they can inform each other. Raised in Maryland and Kansas City, Kate enjoys being in nature and exploring new places. When not working on classwork or the Colorado College newspaper, you can find Kate with friends making art or reading queer and feminist books in various coffee shops.

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Under the Berlin Wall with Berliner Unterwelten by Elie Deshommes and Elliot Triplett

Kate, Elie, and Elliot

The saying “seeing is believing” is one that epitomized my experience with Berliner Unterwelten (Berlin Underground). Being born in the post-Wall era and never being taught of the Berlin Wall and its impact left me with a blasé view of the Wall and its relevance. Seeing where the Wall was placed, crossing over it several times, and later heading to underground tunnels was a shock. Common acts, such as sleeping over at a friend’s or visiting one’s parents could mean that you were separated from your home, belongings, and loved ones in one night, for decades. Seeing the lengths that people went through to escape and help others escape made me pause and understand that the Wall was not merely a physical boundary. It was a boundary that quite literally separated neighbors, cut across metro lines, and was harshly enforced by the government. From the readings, I was still under the assumption that East Berlin wasn’t that bad and that the true horrors of the Soviet Union were outside the boundaries of Germany. Hearing of the reproductive control East Berlin women had over their bodies further influenced this impression, that while conservative people still chose to live in East Berlin. The tour and later research helped me round out the perspective. I learned that not all agents of the Berlin Wall were in agreement with their government. While there were good aspects of East Berlin, it was still a Soviet-run area with the further downside of people being physically separated from their family, their support network taken away. I learned that the Berlin Wall is a complex subject, one that was shaped by Germany’s past and that shaped Germany’s future. I also learned the ingenuity and grit of those who resisted is something to be admired and studied.

Elienne Deshommes is a queer rising junior who loves to learn. They are majoring in Organismal Biology, focusing on environmental stability and healing. However, their interests are broad and include African-based religions, queer history, evolutionary sciences, and Greco-Roman history. Born in Denver, CO to a Haitian immigrant father and a Coloradan mother, their dream would be to return the island of Hispaniola and its ecological past to increase the opportunities of LGBT citizens via STEM jobs and education.

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Elliot Triplett

Today our class had the opportunity to take a Berliner Unterwelten tour focused on resistance to and escapes under the Berlin Wall. What struck me most were the stories of people who had been separated from their loved ones and who were willing to do anything to reunite with them, even if it meant spending months digging a tunnel and putting themselves in danger. While I had studied the Berlin Wall in history courses before, I had never truly understood the intense impact it had on the people of Berlin, separating families and friends. The tour made me appreciate the value of studying people’s lived experiences, something that is often emphasized in feminist spaces, but not as often in many other disciplines. While theorizing and understanding the facts of an event are both valuable and important, theory and fact are incomplete without a grounding in material consequences and lived experience. Additionally, learning about the group of men who dug tunnels who still take the time to educate people on the Wall and its history reminded me of the importance of learning from past events and making connections between struggles. While there is no “Berlin Wall” today, the tour prompted me to consider where similar forms of subjugation are happening and where I can be “digging tunnels.” A key intervention of transnational feminism, which helps guide this course, is to see where forms of power are showing up similarly without erasing contexts. I feel so privileged to have been able to go on this tour and learn about the risks and successes of resistances in the past, and I am excited to take my learnings forward with me into the future.

Elliot Triplett is a Computer Science major and Feminist and Gender Studies minor from Longmont, Colorado. He is passionate about the mountains, disability justice, and his cats. In his free time, he can be found reading comics, making stuffed animals, and taking naps. This is his first study abroad course, and he is enjoying the chance to explore a new city.

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The Wall Museum + the Berliner Unterwelten Tour

by Margalit Goldberg

Photo Credit: Margalit Goldberg

I think I romanticize the Cold War too much. Or maybe the right word is not “romanticize,” but the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. and podcasts about ridiculous CIA covert operations have led me to believe the Cold War was mostly just for show—a ridiculous period when tremendous amounts of money and manpower were put into ideas and tactics that, thankfully, never came to fruition. However, the stories I’m forgetting are the ones of bloody proxy wars, such as in Vietnam, and lives that were upended by the construction of the Berlin Wall. Not to mention the fear of total annihilation from an atom bomb that gripped the general population. I need to readjust my perspective and remember the stories of how everyday citizens were affected, not just secret agents or diplomats, and I sought to do that during our session on Thursday.

We began our day by going to The Wall Museum, which is connected to the East Side Gallery. A chaotic blur of multimedia led us through a series of rooms providing a mix of personal narrative and overviews of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. After World War II (WWII), Germany was divided and occupied by each of the victors. The West was divided into three parts occupied by France, Britain, and the United States, and the East was occupied by the Soviet Union. However, Berlin—situated squarely in the East of Germany—created an issue. So, it was decided that, like the whole of Germany, Berlin would be split into East and West. In 1946, the Cold War began, but it wasn’t until 1961 that tensions had escalated enough for the Berlin Wall to be built. The German Democratic Republic or GDR (East Germany) had lost a significant amount of its population from emigration to the West and wanted to prevent additional losses. Nikita Khrushchev advised East Germany to inhibit access between the two sides of the city and on August 12, 1961, Walter Ulbricht, First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, enabled the beginning of construction of the Berlin Wall. The wall was not only a physical barrier between East and West but a symbolic “Iron Curtain” representing the ideological split between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Whenever a wall is built or a border is created, people will cross it by any means necessary. People jumped out of apartment windows, stole trains to transport citizens, dug perilous tunnels, and swam across canals. Yet, the insidious nature of the Berlin Wall was that each time it was breached, the GDR would figure out how it happened and then close that loophole. Each time someone crossed through to the West, they inadvertently made it harder for the next person who attempted.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

Between 1961 and 1989, 138 people died attempting to cross the Wall. What shocked me the most were the deaths that occurred between the Osthafen docklands and Oberbaum|Schilling Bridge over the Spree River. There were 18 fatalities in that border zone, eleven of them Eastern refugees. The other seven were West Berliners who fell into the river and drowned. They were unable to be helped by West Berlin police or fire service because the Spree was Eastern territory. By the time GDR services were contacted, it was often too late, and the victim had drowned. Eventually, an agreement between the East and West was made for accidents and emergencies along the river. As I read this information, placed on a relatively inconspicuous placard on the balcony overlooking the Spree, I was saliently reminded of all the victims of governments that think impermeable and protected borders are an effective solution—all of those who are hurt by borders without even trying to cross them.

The Wall Museum, not surprisingly, solely presented a Western German perspective of the events that led to the construction and then eventual deconstruction of the Wall. I wish the museum had focused on what daily life was like on either side of the Wall, but instead, it limited the personal narratives to stories of escape from Eastern Germany. How did families that were split stay in contact? What did dissidence look like in Eastern Germany under Communist rule? This also makes me wonder if former East Germans feel as if the narrative of the lives they lived is inaccurate or doesn’t provide the complexities they wish it did.

Later that evening, I ended up seeing a German comedy with a group of study abroad students from the college my sister attends. The film, Stasi Komodie (A Stasi Comedy), was directed by Leander Haußmann and followed the life of a young boy living in East Berlin who is recruited to be a Stasi agent and spy on a counterculture movement in Prenzlauer Berg. He ends up becoming an underground poet and living a double life. The movie poked fun at the ridiculousness of many Stasi covert missions, but also lent complexity to the lives of East Berliners, especially those involved in dissident movements. The film also included quite a bit of ostalgie, nostalgia for specific aspects of life in East Germany. The movie used a motif of the specific cheery-looking crosswalk man that was specific to East Germany but remained after reunification upon request of the people. This was an interesting look into how life in East Berlin is being portrayed with humor thirty years after reunification.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Union and was a big proponent of democratic reforms and Glasnost, permitting greater openness and discussion of political and social issues. By 1989, the Cold War was beginning to thaw and many countries in the Eastern Bloc were on the verge of revolutions. On November 9, the Berlin Communist Party announced at midnight it would allow people to freely cross the border. The Wall had fallen. As the museum recounted the joyous events and celebrations that subsequently occurred, I found myself feeling nostalgic for an event I wasn’t even alive for. How cool would it have been to take a hammer to the wall or listen to Pink Floyd perform as the hope of reunification intoxicated citizens?

Yet, I find myself also wondering if East Berliners were aware that their political and social structure was going to be completely upended once again. The museum painted the narrative that the wall fell, and everything was reunified and perfect. From a historical perspective, we can see that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the beginning of the end of many state supports in East Germany. In “Women and East Germany Today” by louise k. davidson, I was delighted to read about all the reproductive freedom and support for having children that women had in the GDR: “Women have long enjoyed the freedom to make informed decisions about birth control without worrying about its affordability of availability.” Still, I can only imagine the experiences of a difficult reunification for further marginalized people, stories not often told in the “mainstream.” In “Feminism and Post-Communism,” Nanette Funk explains that “in virtually all post-communist countries there is a tendency towards a repositioning of women away from the workplace and into the family,” citing high unemployment rates for women in the former GDR and the Soviet Union and decreased access to abortion and family planning resources.

Both davidson and Funk take a transnational approach to what feminist work should focus on in reunified Germany. They argue that not only did former GDR women have less support for reproductive labor after reunification, but that they also had different understandings of feminism and ideas about the goals of a women’s movement. This has led me to have a deeper understanding of the social and cultural implications of the division of Germany. I think seeing transnational thinking within a single country can help us to understand and extrapolate that different groups have radically different experiences that lead to their understanding of feminism. If people are to work across those divides, they must be willing to understand the other’s background.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

The second part of our session was the “East-West Conflict in the Underground” tour with Berliner Unterwelten (Berlin Underworlds). As we made our way down two flights of stairs into a bunker in West Berlin, I was afraid our tour would be led by some doomsday prepper dead-set on convincing us of the importance of bunker preparation. On the contrary, we had a wonderful guide, Elliot, who was not only extremely knowledgeable about the history but provided a critical perspective on the Cold War and the absurdity of the arms race and mutually assured destruction.

We began by touring a bunker that had been updated in the 80s to be a fallout shelter but had been used over 300 times as a bomb shelter during WWII. Despite believing Berlin wouldn’t have been bombed in the Cold War due to both sides of the conflict having citizens in the area, I was assured by Elliot that the city would have been sacrificed and that there were plans that could have been used to stage an attack if necessary. If bombed, the city of 3 million only had 28,000 spots in bunkers. As the guide described how ill-prepared the bunker was to handle the fallout and human survival, it became clearer to me that an attempt to survive an atomic bomb is futile, to say the least. As we sat under a direct replica of Little Boy, the atomic bomb that was used on Hiroshima, I struggled to comprehend how a 10 x 2.5 ft. piece of metal could generate 16,000 tons of TNT power and murder 139,000 innocent people. And how could someone decide it was necessary to hold that much power let alone detonate it? This was a stark reminder of how close the world once was to annihilation and that we still have this amount of power, more even.

Elliot ended the tour by telling us he believed good diplomacy ended the Cold War and prevented the detonation of atomic bombs. He gave the example of Stanislav Petrov, a Lieutenant Colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, who judged a U.S. missile launch warning as a false alarm and made the decision not to launch a retaliation, thus preventing nuclear war. Another example was the Soviet border soldiers who were ordered to fire one warning shot and then to shoot to kill. Yet, many soldiers refused to shoot to kill, disobeying orders and therefore saving lives. I can’t believe I’m saying this but, this tour gave me some semblance of hope, hearing stories of those who resisted violence and knowing I’ve never in my life genuinely had to think about using a bunker. Maybe our world is moving in the right direction.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

The Cold War was fundamentally an ideological conflict between capitalism and communism that affected almost every part of the world. The demarcation of Germany and subsequent construction of the Berlin Wall created division in an already fractured country. In 1945, two nations were created in a country that had not long ago rallied for an idea of nationhood far from what the East and West provided. Divides were not healed before more divides were created. Reunification came at last in 1990, but the future also contained struggles for women, racial minorities, and the unemployed that we must not forget. As Ika Hügel-Marshall poignantly writes in “Crossing Borders, Overcoming Boundaries,” “As we can see in Berlin, the society around me has a long way to go before it recognizes that crossing borders does not mean overcoming boundaries, if experience is limited to national borders.”

Margalit Goldberg is a rising sophomore at Colorado College from Denver, Colorado. She is interested in pursuing History-Philosophy and Feminist and Gender Studies although she has still not declared a major. Described by a friend as “a messy bookcase of a person”, she loves to learn and explore ways of knowing. She is especially excited to be in Berlin connecting the stories of marginalized people to the complex history of the city. When she isn’t reading for class or deep in a Wikipedia rabbit hole, you can find Margalit climbing and setting at the campus gym, having dinner parties with friends, and engaging in non-violent activism with the Bijou Community in Colorado Springs.

The 2022 #FemGeniusesinBerlin

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

Click here to view a slideshow of pictures, and follow @FemGeniuses and|or @AudresFootsteps on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook to see more pictures and videos.

Multimedia Podcast Index:

The RomaniPhen Feminist Archive + the Romanja Power Walking Tour with Estera Iordan” by Christiana García-Soberanez
A Conversation with Jasmin Eding” by Eliza Strong
Jewish History & Culture Walking Tour + Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt with Adam Schonfeld” by Bridget Hanley
BlackEurope: The Beginnings of Black Self-Organization in Europe” by Erin Huggins
German Colonialism Walking Tour w/ Josephine Apraku + the Neues Museum” by Amalia Lopez
A Conversation with Sharon Dodua Otoo” by Latra Demaçi
The Wall Museum + the Berliner Unterwelten Tour” by Margalit Goldberg
Blackness in America and Europe: Where the Grey Space Exists” by Monica Carpenter
A Conversation with Dana Maria Asbury, Mona El Omari, and Iris Rajanayagam” by Vicente Blas-Taijeron
Graffiti & Street Art Walking Tour + the Urban Nation Museum” by Alexis Cornachio
A Conversation with Judy Lynne Fisher” by River Clarke
Queer Berlin Walking Tour w/ Mal Pool + the Schwules*Museum” by Riley Hester
A Street Art Workshop with Berlin Massive” by Judy Gonzalez

To read and|or listen to the finales and view the indices and slideshows for previous #FemGeniusesinBerlin, click here

Some Final Thoughts on the Block 4 2017 #FemGeniusesinBerlin

Kai (Dylan)

Photo Credit: Dylan Compton

This podcast—led and produced by Kai Mesman-Hallman—provides some final reflections on the Block 4 2017 section of Hidden Spaces, Hidden Narratives: Intersectionality Studies in Berlin with Professor Heidi R. Lewis. Throughout the block, the #FemGeniusesinBerlin have taken walking tours, visited museums and cultural centers, and met with activists and artists in the city to conduct situated examinations of how the identities of marginalized people and communities in Germany (especially in Berlin)—such as Black Germans, Turkish Germans, migrants, refugees, victims of Neo-Nazi terrorism and police brutality, and LGBTQI communities—are constructed, particularly how these constructions are dependent on racism, heterosexism, colonialism, imperialism, and other forms of oppression. Additionally, we examined how these communities resist, reject, revise, and reproduce these narratives as they construct their own subjectivities.

Kai is a junior at Colorado College majoring in Psychology, and is originally from San Diego, CA. She is especially interested in consciousness and the ways our brains’ processing and collecting information can shape our beliefs and thoughts. She spends her free time with her dog and watching conspiracy theory videos.

Joining Kai in her discussion are Uma Scharf—a Baltimore, MD native and junior at Colorado College majoring in Neuroscience, and Drew Ceglinski—a Bath, ME native and junior at Colorado College majoring in Geology.


Block 4 2017 FemGeniuses in Berlin Podcast Index:
Click here to view a slideshow, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter to see even more pictures and videos!

Jewish History & Culture Walking Tour” by Maggie Mehlman
Das Verbogene Museum” by Anna Balaguer
Interkulturelles Frauenzentrum S.U.S.I.” by Bridget O’Neill
Women’s Perspective Walking Tour” by Caroline Olin
Jüdisches Museum Berlin” by Britta Lam
Jewish AntiFa Berlin” by Dylan Compton
Berliner Unterwelten” by Atiya Harvey
BlackBox Cold War Exhibition” by Karl Hirt
Generation ADEFRA” by Maya Littlejohn
Queer Berlin Walking Tour” by Judy Fisher
Queer City: Stories from São Paulo” by D. Adams
A Right to Mourn; A Right to Monument” by Maddie Sorensen
The Spirit of 1968 Walking Tour” by Anabel Simotas
Reframing Worlds: Mobilität und Gender aus Postkolonial Feministischer Perspektive” by Elsa Godtfredsen
Queer@School” by Drew Ceglinski
RomaniPhen: Rromnja Archiv” by Kendall Stoetzer
Reflections on the Asian Diaspora in Germany” by Uma Scharf
Street Art Workshop & Tour” by Wynter Scott

To read and/or listen to the finales and view the indices and slideshows for previous FemGeniuses in Berlin, click here