Hidden and Recovered Narratives: Women in the Center of Berlin Tour

By Amelia Eskenazi

IMG_2241We woke up to the pitter-patter of the rain once more, looking out the window, saddened by the gray skies greeting us. After all, it was Alejandra’s 20th birthday, and we were looking forward to celebrating later. At 8:07, we frantically tried to find a route to the Reichstag that would allow us to take some form of public transportation, preferably the U-Bahn, seeking the dry sanctuary of the train. Luckily enough, Baheya was able to find a subway route that got us partially there. So, I trudged out of the house with my fellow FemGeniuses, regretting the fact that I did not have a raincoat and the fact that I had not planned further in advance, as the prospect of finding an umbrella to buy at 8:15 am seemed unlikely.

At the Reichstag, we met our tour guide, Dr. Iris Wachsmuth, a self-identified lesbian and feminist activist. She is a member of the group Miss Marple’s Sisters, a “network for local women’s history.” Founded in 1989 around the goal of researching women’s history, this group of female historians seeks to “think [of] women’s history as [the] center of historical analysis” as well as “acquire symbolic competence.” Dr. Wachsmuth began the tour by explaining that her goal was to “find traces that don’t belong to the mainstream” and expose new stories. This reminded me of Dr. Maisha Eggers’ idea in “Knowledges of (Un) Belonging” about “contesting racist representations towards dismantling legitimized and historicized racialized knowledges” (1). Dr. Eggers continues to write,

Hegemonic knowledge systems around Blackness (as well as around gender and sexuality as intricately linked to Blackness) have tended to be deeply implicated in a form of projection in which Blackness is marked and scrutinized to actually produce constructions of whiteness” (12).

Similarly, Dr. Wachsmuth told us that on November 15, 1884, the Berlin West Africa Conference began and took place for months after in Berlin. This conference was organized by Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of Germany, as a means of mitigating arguments surrounding the furthered colonization of Africa. Africans, however, were excluded from this conversation, while various countries, including Germany, Belgium, England, the United States, France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, discussed the division of Ethiopia and Liberia. Before leaving the site commemorating this conference, Dr. Wachsmuth explained that the Herero were demanding reparations after the genocide from 1904-1907 as a result of the Herero Wars. Few people know that several dead bodies were also brought back to Germany for research purposes. Nevertheless, Germany has not formally recognized these actions as genocide. Now, that’s something you don’t learn about in history class!

IMG_2229I found it interesting that Germany has candidly acknowledged the history of the Holocaust, yet is still resistant towards the recognition of a genocide that took place over a century ago. Germany’s history, drenched with the filth of white supremacy, must be admitted in full. It is not enough to attest to atrocities when it is advantageous. As R. Ruth Linden notes in “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections On Women in the Holocaust,” “By defining certain historical and cultural subjects as epicentral while regarding others as peripheral,” gender is “universalized” (18). She continues to ask: “How do our locations as knowers, including our feminist commitments, shape the questions we ask, and hence, the knowledge we produce?” (18). If we claim to value the history of all women, why is more focus placed on some narratives over others? Furthermore, how are specific narratives used as a convenience for covering other lived experiences?

As the tour continued, the rain lingered, seeping through my black boots, my socks sloshing with every step. We eventually had to stop inside of an S-Bahn station after a quick coffee break because of the deluge. Here, Dr. Wacshmuth explained that the beginning of Berlin’s governmental leadership was a constitutional monarchy made up of strictly white men. It was not until after the First World War in 1918 that the government was a democracy and women delegates were able to partake. Nevertheless, women were not able to be on committees involving finance or the economy, only social committees such as education. This seems to be quite ironic, however, considering the fact that women were not able to attain any higher education in Germany until the early 1900s. Even then, many women were seen as guest students and were required to go through side doors in order to get to their classes. This was nearly 60 years after the first Women’s Movement in Germany, during which women from rich families demanded an increase in rights as well as the ability to obtain an education. While most women in Germany now are able to obtain an education, an important question to consider remains: who are the women who lack this privilege today, and why?

During our tour, Clara Zetkin, German socialist and advocate for women’s rights was brought up several times. Zetkin was instrumental in organizing International Women’s Day and impacted Germany enough to have a street named after her (though it was changed for some time while the Berlin Wall was up under the influence of the GDR). According to Karen Honeycutt in “Clara Zetkin: A Socialist Approach to the Problem of Woman’s Oppression,” Zetkin was a proponent of “bringing working-class women together on a regular basis for organized activities separate from those of their male colleagues” (136). This made me think about working class women, immigrants, and women of color in Germany today. Have their rights been elevated alongside upper-class white women?

I began to wonder about the space that women of color are allotted in the prominent history of Germany. Why is it that two different walking tours did not mention a single name of a woman of color? There was never a mention of the struggles of Turkish women or the authors of Farbe Bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out), for example. I would like to end, then, with an expansion of Linden’s question from earlier: How do our locations as knowers influence the knowledge we value and the consequential subjectivities we ignore?


EskenaziAmelia Eskenazi is a rising sophomore at Colorado College from Indianapolis, Indiana with a major in Feminist and Gender Studies. In their free time, Amelia is a fan of film photography, making zines, and listening to punky girl bands. While in Berlin, they look forward to eating vegan pastries, exploring flea markets, and documenting all of the street art.

Little Istanbul: Our Walking Tour through Kreuzberg

By Amy Valencia

IMG_0364Today we made our way to the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum (FHXB), where we were to begin our walking tour of Kreuzberg. As our tour guide Intissar Nassar introduced herself, we were greeted by a man whom she said was a famous Berlin pop star. I didn’t catch his name, but I did catch his band’s name. We were meeting a member of Mr. Ed Jumps the Gun. Heidi was visibly excited as she talked to him and discussed the meaning of the band’s name. He then waved goodbye and Intissar began to describe our next three hours. In the hours to come, we would learn how Kreuzberg had become the vibrant multicultural neighborhood it is today.

IMG_0363Walking into FHXB’s eldest exhibition, we sat around Intissar as she began to recount the history of Kreuzberg. She began with the 1960s and the rise of the Berlin Wall following the end of WWII. The Berlin Wall was built by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1961. Large concrete barriers completely separated West Berlin and East Berlin for 28 years. While the Berlin Wall divided many families, it also separated approximately 60,000 people from their jobs (Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall), which caused a severe labor shortage. To remedy the labor shortage, young people from Southern and Southeastern Europe were recruited as “guest workers.” Intissar emphasized that these individuals never intended to remain in Germany indefinitely—their intention was to earn money and return home at the completion of their three-month work permits, as wages in Germany were significantly higher than in their home countries (White 755).

Intissar explained that many countries were initially reluctant to help Germany because of its ugly past and that Turkey was one of the first countries to agree to send “guest workers.” Subsequently, in groups of 10, work permit applicants had to pass three tests. These tests were comprised of a hand examination, a medical exam, and a literacy test. Applicants had to show their hands to examiners in order to make sure their hand size was useful for the jobs needed. The medical test and future medical costs had to be paid by the employer; with that said, the employer made medical exams as cheap as possible by making all 10 applicants see the doctor together. They would stand next to each other in their underwear as the doctor examined each one of them, which was dehumanizing and humiliating. The final test, the reading and writing test, was to assure employers that the workers could integrate into society. Applicants were graded and those deemed intelligent enough were allowed to come to Germany for work.

IMG_0367Walking around the exhibition, Intissar’s words also were depicted in the pictures on the wall. Guest workers were sent to live in tight living conditions. Residents on multiple floors in one apartment shared one outside bathroom, and showers had to be rented. Needless to say, many residents went without privacy or comfort. Further, guest workers did not know the German language or culture, and for the most part, they were without family. Living in these alienating conditions made it more important to remember their goals and focus on achieving them. At the end of their three-month stay, employers saw no reason to repeat the process of obtaining and screening guest workers. So, in order to save money, they asked workers if they would like to continue to work and extend their work permits. While some chose to go home, many decided to stay and remain in Kreuzberg. Part of this is because in Turkey, people would label the Turks in Germany with a badge of difference. For example, Turks in Germany were called Almancilar, a derogatory term. In a 1994 survey, “83% of Turkish respondents said they were no longer considering a return to Turkey” (White 755). This was, in part, because they were now othered in Turkey.

Through photographs and short captions, the museum exhibition also showed the journey of Kreuzberg. Kreuzberg sat along the Berlin Wall in West Berlin. Because their stay in Germany was now indefinite, “guest workers” looked for other places to live with better living conditions. They were now able to bring their families over, but many were still unable to afford a living space fit for a family. Te government promised to assist in renovations of the buildings, but Intissar explained the lack of immediate intervention by the government; families were paying rent for buildings that should have been condemned. The Berlin Senate Committee for Construction and Housing turned to a plan for restoration with “residents remaining in their buildings and having input to the restoration process” (Bockmeyer 52).  The advisory panel included 50% resident representation; however, it notably did not include “significant representation of Turkish or other immigrant groups” (Bockmeyer 52). The Berlin Senate presented itself as working with the people; however, they failed to include the communities composing the majority of Kreuzberg’s population.

IMG_0368Along these lines, Intissar also spoke with us about a model of Kreuzberg in the museum, because Heidi’s daughter Chase asked her why there were huge gray buildings that seemed to be out of place. Instead of answering her question, Intissar asked us to guess, and we left the museum. We passed through an alley where Intissar asked us to turn around and notice the gray building behind us. The buildings that we had seen in the museum’s model were in fact the “new” (new in the 1980s) apartments for “guest workers” and their families. The apartments had more privacy, bathrooms inside each apartment for example, but still failed to adequately address the families’ needs. To fix one issue, the lack of schools for children, a parking garage that was rarelyused was turned into a kindergarten.

As we continued walking through Kreuzberg, Intissar addressed some of the issues facing this community today. She makes it clear that while there may be an increase in dangerous activity, according to some, she doesn’t believe it is any different than any other big city. She still feels safe at night, but has to be cautious just like she would anywhere else. On the other hand, gentrification has also been an issue for this community. The culture this community has worked hard to develop is now being diminished in lieu of the modernization of buildings and an increase in the cost of living in Kreuzberg. It’s position in the “shadow of the Berlin Wall” allowed for the expression of freedom and creativity. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, this vibrant multi-ethnic and creative community has become a tourist destination. Hence, everything must become “slick and hip” to compete for tourists and investors. The transition into a new era is leaving behind the community that built it.

IMG_0449Our last stop on our tour of Little Istanbul was the Merkez Camii mosque. Entering a room used for prayer, we removed our shoes and sat in a circle as Intissar explained the significance of the mosque for the Muslim residents of Kreuzberg. For example, in order to combat the hostility and tyranny leveled at their community, including gentrification, the multi-ethnic people of Kreuzberg embrace a “feeling of we.” That “feeling of we” resonated with me. In a predominantly white space, people of color build communities to support one another. For me, I see this kind of community building in two parts of my life. The first is with my family. I am the daughter of two immigrant parents. They built their community through family and friends, and have created a network of unconditional love and support. The second place I see this is back at Colorado College. During my first two years at this predominantly white institution, I found my community in SOMOS, the Latinx student union. Without other students of color, I could not have made it to my final year as an undergraduate. For these reasons, and many more, I know it is important to learn about the history of Kreuzberg, where communities come together to make sure their voices are heard, to make sure their culture is not erased, and to make sure that they are seen. A lesson in unity that should be shared not only in history, but presently, as well.


ValenciaAmy Valencia is a senior at Colorado College from Waukegan, Illinois. She is majoring in Political Science with a minor in Feminist and Gender Studies. She focuses her studies on immigration policy and the effects of these policies on Latin American communities. Amy is excited to be studying abroad for the first time and ready to explore Berlin!

Site Seeing (and Thinking, Analyzing, Understanding, etc.)

By Willa Rentel

Willa 5With a blanket of grey sky over our heads, light rain hitting our cheeks, and remnants of a less than adequate night’s sleep on our faces, the FemGeniuses boarded a tour boat docked on the Spree River. As the ship began to creep forward, it quickly became clear to me that this tour would be unlike many of the critical and socio-political tours we have been lucky to take during our time in Berlin. As we glided down the river, passing under bridges and being urged to take notice of buildings on the banks, I felt a bit frustrated by the passive site-seeing our guide facilitated due to his failure to attach any sort of critical lens to his comments on the various sites and buildings we passed. What frustrated me further was the idea that some of the tourists that surrounded me might not have the opportunity to understand the plethora of narratives I have been lucky to learn about on this trip. If this is the only information about Berlin they are being presented with, they’re bound to have a more-than-skewed and less-than-full understanding of the social, political, and cultural history of this politically-charged city.

Willa 3“On our left, the TV Tower, which houses a wonderful restaurant with spectacular views of the city!” I found myself waiting for the guide to shine light on the socio-political meaning behind this tower, which, according to Simon Arms, stands as a symbol of the legacy of political history in Berlin. A tower so socially and politically charged that East Berlin graffiti artist Tower created his pseudo-name with it in mind. “Tower, as in the communist TV tower; Tower, as in the skyscrapers that dominated the skyline of almost every major city—built not only for the people who lived there, but for the egos of the people who ran them” (3), Arms writes. Next, we were urged to direct our eyes to a building known as The Palace of the Republic, once the site of the German Democratic Republic parliament, now home to various restaurants, hotels, and auditoriums. I chuckled at the thought of such a shift in function of this building. Could it be yet another representation of the development of Germany’s political past, evidence of a shift toward a German capitalistic society during the last half-decade? Disappointingly, the guide failed to present any critique or delve past the functional importance of the structure.

Willa 3The boat also passed the Jewish Center, a building hidden peaking through a gap in the buildings well beyond the riverbank. As the guide directed our gaze to the center, stating not much more than the name, I thought of Sabine Offe’s interpretation of the critical functionality of Jewish museums in “Sites of Remembrance?  Jewish Museums in Contemporary Germany.” She argues that Jewish museums “are places of remembering. Or, rather, they are sites that have been established intentionally to make people remember, institutions representing collective memory […] the result of political decision making, even in those cases where they came into existence by seemingly quite individual motives” (79).

Willa 2As the guide pointed out the Moltke Bridge, I was not taken in by the architecture of this beautiful red, brick structure, but by the graffiti that covered the concrete on either side of it. I considered what this graffiti was communicating to its viewers, what political and social message it was sending, and how it represented an act of resistance. Because of this, I was reminded of Jonathan Jones’ article wherein he writes of the importance of the first graffiti on the Berlin Wall, Thierry Noir. Jones writes, “This scar running through a city had provided novelists, musicians, and film-makers with a dark subject matter and surreal inspiration so often lacking in the safe, consumerist world of the postwar democracies” (1).

11202116_973927834298_748751754440202050_nAs our pace began to lessen and the boat slowed to a stop on the bank of the river, I began to question what frustrated me so about the tour, why I felt so unfulfilled by the site-seeing experience I would have once been happy to enjoy quietly from my seat. Yes, the buildings were beautiful, the architecture of the bridges we passed under was intricate and admirable, and I loved being on the water, but after three weeks of critical examination of Berlin’s past and present through exposure to a breadth of narratives, passive enjoyment of buildings around me felt impossible. I couldn’t seem to quiet the corners of my brain that were begging for an acknowledgement of the socio-political implications of these sites, and I can thank this course for that.


WillaWilla Rentel is from Croton, New York, and will be entering her second year at CC this coming fall. She is planning on majoring in Sociology and absolutely loves people and good conversation. The Sociology class she took 5th block of last year focused on the growing income gap in America revealed to her an interest in majoring in the field. An avid thrift shopper, Willa loves searching through racks of clothing to find great, quirky gems. Willa loves music and is constantly altering her playlists on Spotify. She prides herself on being open to most any genre, but currently loves listening to The Talking Heads, Al Green, FKA Twigs (and most everything in between). Willa really, really loves strawberries. She also loves lying in hammocks, the smell of lilac flowers and swimming (in the ocean and ponds particularly). Her favorite television show of the moment is Broad City, and she is currently making her way through season two with impressive speed. Willa has a strong passion for social justice and feminism and would like to use her degree to pursue her passion further.