Some Final Thoughts on the 2017 #FemGeniusesInBerlin


Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp (Zlevor)

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]

By Annie Zlevor

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 (Zlevor)

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 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 (Mills)

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.

Roma and Sinti Memorial (Zlevor)

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!

#FemGeniusesInBerlin 2017: Our First Two Days” by Hailey Corkery
Taking Down The Wall of Religious Intolerance: Jewish History in Berlin” by Olivia Calvi
Gladt and SAWA with Salma: Representation in Political Social Work” by Nora Holmes
The Anne Frank Museum and It’s Place in Contemporary Germany” by Liza Bering
The Told and Untold Stories of Berlin: A Walk-Through History” by Talia Silverstein
Navigating White Spaces: An Intersectional Analysis of Activist Work by Men of Color” by Ryan Garcia
Africa in Wedding: Germany’s Colonial Past” by Jannet Gutierrez
A Young Jew’s First Week in Berlin” by Nikki Mills
A Permanent Home for Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg’s History: The FHXB Museum” by Annie Zlevor
The Porajmos: The Hidden Narratives of the Roma and Sinti” by Hailey Corkery
Writing Ourselves into the Discourse: The Legacies of Audre Lorde and May Ayim” by Nikki Mills
A Day in Amsterdam: Seeking the Voices at the Margins” by Olivia Calvi
‘Nobody Flees Without a Reason’: A Walk Through Berlin’s Queer History” by Ryan Garcia
Memorialization: The Past in the Present and Why it is Important Today” by Liza Bering
ADNB des TBB: Intersectionality and Empowerment in Anti-Discrimination Support Work” by Nora Holmes
Mauerpark: Graffiti as Art” by Jannet Gutierrez

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

Annie Zlevor Blog PhotoAnnie 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.

The Porajmos: The Hidden Narratives of the Roma and Sinti


L to R: Dana Asbury, Sarah Haupenthal (translator), and Iosif (tour guide) [Photo Credit: Hailey Corkery]

By Hailey Corkery

Today we learned about the Porajmos. Translated as “to swallow in” in English, it’s the name that the Sinti and Roma people use for what we know as the Holocaust, specifically regarding the persecution of Sinti and Romani people. According to Nicola Lauré al-Samarai and Sara Lennox in “Neither Foreigners Nor Aliens: The Interwoven Stories of Sinti and Roma and Black Germans,” “The ancestors of contemporary Sinti and Roma emigrated from India via Turkey and Greece to German-speaking Central Europe as early the fifteenth century” (165). We were educated about the subsequent horrific event of the genocide during a walking tour titled “Gestern mit den Augen von Heute sehen,” which means “yesterday with the eyes of today.” This tour was led by five high school students. They mostly spoke to us in German, so the information was translated by Sarah Haupenthal, an employee of the Rroma Informations Centrum.

The creation of this tour began with a theatre ensemble. The teacher of this theatre group reached out to their Roma students about a project their friend was working on: establishing a tour about the persecution of Sinti and Romani people. The students that led our tour today were part of this group and identify as Roma. They began researching this history through the internet, books, archives, and exhibitions and began giving this tour around 2015. Though some information on the subject exists, it is extremely hard to find, making the students’ research tedious. This is because the genocide of Roma and Sinti people during the Holocaust had been nearly erased by the German state, and therefore does not occupy much space in the public sphere or memory. This fact is the very reason these students give this tour; they want people to know about the harm done to their community.

The first stop we made on the tour was a home for the elderly. As we stood in the shade, we were told about a Sinti boxer named Johann “Rukeli” Trollmann. He was extremely famous and successful in Germany, and became the country’s boxing champion in 1933. The home we were standing near was the former boxing ring where he won the championship fight, and on its sidewalk sits a bronze stumbling stone in his honor. Eight days after his win, however, the title was taken from him due to his Sinti identity. Nazis pressured him with threats of harming his family to lose his next fight. He agreed to save his loved ones, but did so in a defiant way. He showed up to the fight covered head to toe in white powder as a caricature of Aryan people, making a statement—his last fight was going to be against the regime. Despite his purposeful loss, during which he did not box—only standing there in defiance, he was arrested in 1942 and died in a concentration camp. The German Boxing Federation did not give his title back to him until 2003. Johan is one of many examples of the German government’s lack of acknowledgement of the terror they caused the Sinti and Romani people to face.

After hearing Johan’s story, we traveled to the “Topographies des Terrors.” Here, we were told about the perpetrators of the genocide. One institution that assisted the Holocaust was the Racial Hygienic Research Center. This center was composed of “race researchers” who researched the “inferior races” (those who were not Aryan). Specifically regarding the Porajmos, this center sterilized Roma women so that there would not be any more Romani people in future generations to ruin the Nazi vision of “racial purity.” Another institution that was discussed was the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA). Founded in 1933, it consisted of police and security from both the state and the Nazi party. Its goal was to find as many Romani people as possible in order to persecute them. They also carried out mass shootings, which was how most people were killed during the Porajmos. The way they, along with other Nazis, found these people is quite disturbing. Many Roma and Sinti people were Catholic, so the church handed their books over to the Nazis so they could locate them. The especially troubling fact: the church was not forced to do this, they did so by choice.

This information led the guides to discuss the justification of the Sinti and Roma persecution, which was also examined in our class readings. For example, in “Mnemonics and Politics of Holocaust Memories among European Roma,” Michael Stewart writes, “Even today, there are still some historians whose ostensibly sympathetic accounts of the Holocaust explicitly suggest that in some way the [Romani people] provoked their own persecution” (571). This was so mostly because of the stereotypes of them; many people assumed that all Sinti and Roma people were thieves due to their nomadic nature. Along these lines, al-Samarai and Lennox write, “Sinti and Roma were immediately criminalized as a threat to social order” (171) in the postwar period, therefore validating their genocide.

After learning about who executed the persecution, we were taken to one of the few memorials to the Porajmos, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime. The guides gave us a few minutes to walk around and explore it ourselves. Created to remind the public of the grief the Sinti Romani people endured, the memorial consists of a timeline of the persecution of the Sinti and Roma and a large pool, symbolizing the tears of the people. In the middle of the pool is a triangle, representing the brown triangles the Romani people were forced to wear during Porajmos. Around the edges of the pool is a poem written by Santino Spinelli, a Roma poet:

Eingefallenes Gesicht (Sunken in face)
erloschene Augen (extinguished eyes)
kalte Lippen (cold lips)
stille (silence)
ein zerissenes Herz (a torn heart)
ohne Atem (without breath)
ohne Worte (without words)
keine Tränen (no tears).

Not only does the memorial recognize the tragedy of the Porajmos, but it also celebrates the Roma people’s love of music; if you are silent, you can hear a faint song playing for this reason.

After we took some time with the memorial, the guides talked to us about the reparations the Sinti and Roma received, or rather, did not receive, after the war ended. Some of the survivors were given small sums of money, which the state thought was appropriate for compensation. This small amount, however, did not even begin to cover their losses. Many survivors lost all of their belongings and loved ones. In addition to these unsatisfactory “reparations,” the state did not formally recognize their harm to these people and the perpetrators were not punished. While this was going on, Jewish survivors were receiving both more money and more recognition for the harm done to them. Due to these injustices, many Romani people refer to their reparations as the “second persecution.”

At the very end of the tour, we asked the student tour guides about Roma and Sinti experience today. First, they talked about how little their family speaks about their past. They told us that their parents and grandparents rarely discuss the Porajmos out of fear for their safety and to avoid saddening their descendants. This lack of conversation causes a rift in the Romani people’s collective memory; the people as a whole, due to the younger generations’ lack of knowledge, don’t know much about what happened to them, which also impacts their lives today. Still, they told us that their families are very proud of them for creating and giving this tour.

We also discussed the derogatory nature of the word “gypsy.” I had never thought of this word as belittling before. I grew up with this word being tossed around as if it were nothing; there is even a restaurant near my house called “Gypsy Soul.” However, these young Roma people talked about how this term implies thievery and dirtiness, and therefore is an insult. Another reason this news shocked me was that a film we watched, Michelle Kelso‘s Hidden Sorrows: Persecution of Romanian Gypsies during the Holocaust, contained the slur. The word was used both throughout the film and in its title, causing me to question its use. Kelso is not of Sinti or Romani descent, so a lack of knowledge about the harm caused by the word could be why it is used.

Spending the afternoon hearing about these buried histories was eye-opening; I had never learned about the Porajmos before, and gaining this information completely changed my perspective on the Holocaust. What made this experience especially extraordinary was getting to hear these narratives directly from Roma youth living in Berlin. The fact that very few people know these stories, however, is disappointing. Both in American and German schools, students are left uneducated about the genocide of Sinti and Romani people. The first memorial to the Porajmos that we visited today wasn’t even built until 2012. Still, even with the memorial in place, many people are still oblivious to the erasure of this group. Some visitors of the memorial do not even read the signs and throw pennies into the pool for luck. This lack of recognition is tragic, but initiatives such as this tour are working to educate the public, both in Germany and around the world, about the tragedy of the Porajmos.


L to R: Dana Asbury, Talia Silverstein, Olivia Calvi, Nikki Mills, Samson (tour guide), Elisei (tour guide), Iosif (tour guide), Professor Heidi R. Lewis, Estera (tour guide), Iosif (tour guide), Annie Zlevor, Liza Bering, Hailey Corkery, Nora Holmes, Ryan Garcia, and Jannet Gutierrez [Photo Credit: Sarah Haupenthal]

CorkeryHailey is a rising sophomore at Colorado College from the Washington, D.C. area. She plans to major in Sociology and minor in Feminist and Gender Studies. At CC, she is part of Students Against Sexual Assault (SASS) and Ellement, an all-women acapella group. This is her first course with Heidi and first time in Berlin, and she is extremely excited for all the learning and exploring to come with this experience.