It’s been a while since I contributed to “Some Final Thoughts.” So, bear with me, please, as I shake some of the rust off.
Despite earning tenure and promotion to Associate Professor this spring, this year had its rough spots—some worse than others, especially the death of one of my closest aunts. Because of that, a few people—some who I thought were close to me and others who I knew weren’t—recommended that I cancel this course. In some strange way, I’m glad they did, because it reminded me of two very important things:
A lot of people who compliment me on this course have no idea what it is, what it does, and/or what it means—not just to me but to my students and my friends and comrades in Berlin.
This course means a lot to me and my students and my friends and comrades in Berlin.
My faith in the course was rewarded by a great group of students. They were thoughtful, kind, patient, interested, curious, and outright hilarious. I had so much fun with them, and I miss them already even though it’s only been one week since the course concluded. I could fill this page with memories:
Charles declaring, “Those two left at the same time.”
Me and Charles, singing, “If you liked it, you shoulda put a ring on it.”
Laila’s hilarious faces and hand gestures—I wish I could type the sound she made to complement her monster face and hands.
Dana’s and my “cheese fight.”
Our first long-distance trip in the course.
The constant references to John’s future run for Senate.
Sarah’s broad-shouldered dinner jacket.
The search for mom jeans and the finding of a pair “in pristine condition.”
Dereka’s new nose ring.
And as always, we had such a great time with and learned so much from everyone in Berlin who gave their time and energy to the course. Best of all, I think everyone knew just how much we appreciated them, because these students made every effort to ensure that from start to finish. If you haven’t yet, please check out the student podcasts (index below) and share them with anyone you know who may be interested in what we study here.
2018 FemGeniuses in Berlin Podcast Index:
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This podcast—led and produced by Maggie Mehlman—examines our Jewish History & Culture Walking Tour with Carolyn Gammon, which covers the historic Jewish Quarter on the trail of the 18th century “German Socrates,” Moses Mendelssohn, Berlin’s first synagogue, the Old Jewish Cemetery, Jewish High School, and where the world’s first female rabbi lived, the city residence of the expressionist painter Max Liebermann, the Holocaust Memorial, and other sites that communicate the significance of Jewish history and culture in Berlin.
Photo Credit: Maggie Mehlman
Maggie is a Mathematics major at Colorado College from Denver, CO. Maggie has been living in Lüneburg, Germany for the past 3 months studying German language and philosophy, and she is thrilled to continue her studies in Germany by exploring the hidden narratives of marginalized communities in Berlin under the instruction of Professor Heidi R. Lewis. Outside of the classroom, Maggie’s passions lie in the performing arts. In particular, she has an extensive background in dance, and is very involved with the Dance and Theatre Department at Colorado College.
Photo Credit: Maggie Mehlman
Joining Maggie in her discussion at Café Lavie about the tour are Kayla Adams—a Memphis, TN native and senior at Colorado College majoring in Race, Ethnicity, & Migration Studies, and Uma Scharf—a Baltimore, MD native and junior at Colorado College majoring in Neuroscience.
NOTE: The feature photo credit also belongs to Maggie Mehlman.
Throughout this trip, I encountered many difficult questions that I have been struggling to answer. After three weeks of exploring Berlin, meeting with local activists, visiting museums, and attending walking tours, I find myself only a little closer to understanding their answers. More often than not, my experiences have left me with new questions, wishing I could spend more time in Berlin. On my final day in the city, I would like to consider these questions and reflect on how my recent experiences have allowed me to more critically examine them. I hope to apply what I have learned in the course and continue furthering my understanding of identities, forms of oppression, and memorials.
First, I want to consider our navigation of identities and subjectivities. How do we see ourselves and acknowledge how others see us? This question has helped me reflect more deeply on my own positionality and how society chooses to perceive it. In the spaces I have been welcomed into during this trip, it was important for me to understand how my own experiences exist in relation to the experiences of others. Having a greater awareness of this has better enabled me to listen critically and appreciate the narratives people share. Therefore, I discovered that my primary role ought to be that of a curious listener. This blog serves as an extension of this curiosity and as an ongoing attempt to understand the marginalized communities of Berlin and my role in it.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]
After speaking with local activists, I began to question how and when people decide to confront forms of oppression and when they choose to affirm or challenge stereotypes. These questions reminded me of our “Rethinking Masculinities” panel and our discussion with Post-War Generation Black German Women. Spending time with Black and Turkish activists in Berlin has allowed me to better understand how individuals chose to deal with racism and sexism. While each experience is unique to the individual, it was clear that in their navigation of public space, they are never divorced from activism. As Musa Okwonga plainly stated, “You’re Black all the time in Berlin.” And although it is the Afro-German’s right not be discriminated against and exhibit self-determination, they must to spend their life in opposition to racism. They are not getting paid to spend their time confronting oppression, yet the burden so greatly lies on them.
How people choose to confront different forms of oppression also reminded me of our discussion with Salma Arzouni about their work with Gladt and SAWA. I felt that Salma consciously and efficiently navigated what needed to be achieved in their own fight against racism and sexism. Although it is exhausting work, it seems as if they effectively prioritize their goals when trying to combat oppression in a community. As someone who works day and night to support queer communities in Berlin, Salma has to carefully decided how to spend their time. They described the sacrifices they had to make in order to achieve their short-term initiatives. For example, instead of spending their time arguing with the local government at the risk of receiving cuts to Gladt’s government funding, Salma decided to temporarily halt a particular kind of political activism. For the sake of Gladt, Salma now chooses to spend that time helping queer people secure a permanent place to live. While this achievement might not seem monumental to some, it is life-changing for those people who now have a place to sleep at night.
Memorial in Schöneberg [Photo Credit: Nikki Mills]
Additionally, after visiting many museums and memorials, I hope to gain a greater understanding of how certain histories have been told. I personally need to take more time to consider who writes these stories. More specifically, I want to understand the implications for those who speak for themselves and those who are being spoken for. Also, it was important for me to learn more about what groups of people were involved in the creation of Jewish memorials. I was curious if Jewish-Germans often gave input on their construction and who decided what to include in it. As Sabine Offe writes in “Sites of Remembrance? Jewish Museums in Contemporary Germany,” “We do not know whether individuals, confronted with the obligation to remember, do indeed remember what they are supposed to” (79). However, while some forms of remembrance can be more accurate than others, figuring out a way to accurately commemorate an event such as the Holocaust is beyond complicated and nearly impossible to accomplish. As a result, I am reminded of the importance of looking at historical sites more critically. This causes me to further question how we decide to honor a community that is not monolithic. For instance, I hope to better understand how a memorial can erase the individual experiences of a population. As R. Ruth Linden describes in “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” a generalized representation of a group of people “fails to be accountable to lives that are actually lived: situated in bodies with limited means of making sense of…world-historic events in which they participate as…cultural subjects” (27). As a result, this adds another layer to the complexities of memorials and how people choose to represent communities. I hope that we more often attempt to honor the experiences of individuals since it can be easy to erase these differences when trying to honor an entire group.
Unlike most of the Jewish memorials, there were two important instances during our trip where I noticed groups of people deliberately telling their own story: the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg (FHXB) Museum and the Roma and Sinti Historical Walking Tour. The FHXB Museum exhibit was a collaborative piece that the local community came together to create. They directly told the history of the district where generations of their own families grew up. I felt this participatory exhibit was representative of strong community relationships and also much more effective in the telling the histories they chose to portray. Additionally, the Roma and Sinti walking tour did much of the same work. The Roma high school students who led the tour self-organized and researched all the material presented. Further, when I asked the students what their parents thought about the tours they were giving, they responded, smiling: “Our families are very proud.” The energy and passion the students exhibited on the tour I feel could have been easily lost if non-Roma and Sinti people led it.
Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]
Lastly, after three weeks of listening to and engaging with marginalized people in Berlin, I am left wondering how I can take what I have learned out into the world. Firstly, I hope to do this by recognizing the importance of going beyond academic work. While reading and discussing articles and books are beneficial in developing a basic understand of the material, the practical application of Feminist and Gender Studies outside the classroom is a hard-fought war. By spending time both inside and outside the classroom, I feel as if I can most effectively support marginalized communities and become more consciously aware of their situation. As Sidonia Blättler and Irene M. Marti describe in “Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt: Against the Destruction of Political Spheres of Freedom,” if people understand the complexities of human relationships, this subsequently “drives them toward solidarity with outcasts and emboldens them to a collective struggle against the oppressors” (89). I feel my future goal must be to join this collective struggle. By knowing my place and understanding my own identity in relation to others, I feel as if I can do this and support marginalized groups in their fight against forms of oppression.
Photo Credit: Heidi R. Lewis
2017 FemGeniuses in Berlin Blog Index:
Click here to view a slideshow, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter to see even more pictures and videos!
To read and/or listen to the finales and view the indices and slideshows for previous FemGeniuses in Berlin, click here.
Annie Zlevor is a rising junior from the shores of Lake Michigan in Racine, Wisconsin. She is an Organismal Biology & Ecology major and a Feminist & Gender Studies minor. Annie is also a pre-medicine student, and hopes to attend medical school. In her free time, Annie enjoys eating Lebanese food, going fishing with her family, and taking lots of naps. Currently, you can find her spending some time outside the lab learning about Berlin’s hidden histories. She is excited to be exploring Germany for the first time and hopes you enjoy reading about her experiences.
This morning we had the opportunity to explore some of the hidden histories of Berlin with a woman named Carolyn Gammon took us on a walking tour about Jewish history throughout East Berlin, and opened our eyes to why the waiter at the restaurant taking our order seems to have a bit of resentment for us. We’re people whose President wants to build a wall. A wall that will divide families and fulfill greed for power driven by hatred and discrimination. Of course, what is becoming our reality existed for the Germans generations ago. And they are still feeling that guilt and recovering from that hate. Over seventy years after the Holocaust ended, recently built Jewish museums and memorials ensure that it is something the Germans will never forget.
Along these lines, one of the first things Carolyn pointed out to us while walking were little brass plaques in the ground, each representing a German Jew that was murdered during the Holocaust. Carolyn informed us that these small squares were usually placed in front of the house where the individual lived as a ritual of commemoration. Along these lines, in “Sites of Remembrance? Jewish Museums in Contemporary Germany,” Sabine Offe suggests that these memorials were placed because of the guilty feelings passed down through the generations. People are told they can shine these plaques with their shoes as a sign of respect so that the brass does not turn brown and the names of the deceased can still be clearly read. These memorials lie throughout most of the city.
Photo Credit: Olivia Calvi
Next, Carolyn took us across the street to the Burning Book memorial. It is a piece of glass that covers a hole in the ground. When you stand to the side, you see bookshelves that have enough space to hold the 20,000 books that were burned. When you stand on top of the memorial, you can only see the reflection of yourself. I viewed this memorial as a warning to future generations to really take a look at who we are and the destruction we have the ability to cause. Next to the glass lies a plaque was a quote from Heinrich Heine, which translates to “if you start burning books, you will end up burning people.” It’s far too reminiscent of the books being banned in the U.S. and the textbooks riddled with creationist ideas that teach young teens that abstinence is the only form of sex education. Religious and political censorship leave children uncertain of their past or their future. I can’t help but think the fundamentalist right is well on its way to burning the people of the U.S.
This extreme religious intolerance is what led us to the most humbling part of our tour: a Jewish cemetery torn down by Nazis with only a few salvaged tombstones remaining. When the Nazis occupied East Berlin, they saw to it that every synagogue was burned and every cemetery destroyed. We learned that in Germany, the term Nazi is not used because it is too short and “sweet.” Germans only refer to them as National Socialists, because the German word is extensive and has a connotation of disgust. The cemetery sits on a street that was referred to as Tolerance Street before the Nazis occupied the area, because of the open dialogue and shared space between the Jewish and Protestant communities. When the Nazis invaded, the street became known as Death Street. Carolyn made it very clear that the plaques located at the cemetery use strong language in German, because referring to the deaths as killings instead of murders would be doing an injustice to the Jews whose lives were lost. Since the community has come back together, it has regained its original name. Under Nazi rule, communities were forced to come together against anti-Semitic groups. Along these lines, in “We Don’t Want to Be The Jews of Tomorrow: Jews and Turks in Germany after 9/11,” Gökçe Yurdakul and Y. Michal Bodemann examine the Turkish and migrant groups that helped lead initiatives against anti-Semitism and demonstrated to show their solidarity with Jewish Germans against Nazi terrorism. Similarly, the people of East Berlin who called that community home refused to stand for the intolerance and instead chose solidarity.
Photo Credit: Olivia Calvi
Just down the street from the cemetery is a school founded by and named for Jewish German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn who strongly believed in religious tolerance and had a dream to create a school where Jews and non-Jewish students could study together and learn from each other. The school, established in 1778 and reopened in 1993, currently enrolls students of all religions. Those from non-Jewish backgrounds take Hebrew and Judaic studies, learning from a young age what it means to be open-minded and accepting of a community different from your own.
As a religion major with the goal of a career as either a prison or military chaplain, there is really nothing I “geek out” about more than churches and religious places of worship. I was glad, then, when our tour took us to a Protestant church that was one of the only remaining buildings from medieval Berlin. Inside the church there is a donation box for an initiative between the Jewish, Islamic, and Protestant communities in Berlin. The initiative is called House of One, and they are raising money to build a religious center that can hold services in all denominations—a great opportunity for people who seek a shared community of multiple religious belonging. I think faith is one of the most interesting things about humanity, because people build shrines and monuments in honor of gods they believe will bring them salvation or peace in this life. I was raised Unitarian Universalist, a liberal faith denomination that does not have a specific dogma but instead is committed to building community and ministry around issues of social justice. While I identify as agnostic, I believe a person’s beliefs, religious and otherwise, tell you most everything you need to know about a person. It is only when religion is misused and becomes combative that a strong sense of religious belonging brings destruction instead of beauty.
Photo Credit: Olivia Calvi
On that note, I was intrigued to learn that on September 13, 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the congregation on Tolerance Street in East Berlin. That day he preached: “No man-made barrier can erase the fact that God’s children lie on both sides of the wall.” I don’t know if I believe in MLK’s God, but I do believe in his sentiments. The 7th and last principle my faith is based on discusses the significance of the interdependent web of life. We are not all the same, and we most certainly do not have the same religious beliefs. But we are all human. Trump’s ideas to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and his attempted ban on Muslims are blatantly racist. As Carolyn told us, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently opened Germany’s doors to one million refugees—an economically advantageous choice that Trump was quick to call a catastrophic mistake. Along these lines, in “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women In The Holocaust,” R. Ruth Linden writes: “It seems to me that the history of the Holocaust, like all of history, is a collection of stories […] the stories we write, tell, or paint about Holocaust victims and survivors, and the plots we give these stories are mirrors of our own era.” As students, we learn about history so that we don’t make the same mistakes, but Linden’s words point out the problem with America: we don’t pay attention to the mistakes of others. It is going to take a lot of work and admission of guilt to mend America’s mistake, and if one thing is certain, there will always be work to do. At least for the time being, I’m happy to be in a country that can actually call itself a democracy.
Olivia Calvi is a rising sophomore from Los Angeles, CA. She is double-majoring in Religion and Classics at Colorado College, and hopes to also attain a Feminist & Gender Studies minor. After college she plans on attending Seminary to eventually find herself in a career as a military or prison chaplain. She wholeheartedly believes in the Denver Airport conspiracy theory and has recently made the discovery that she is terrible at navigating public transportation.