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 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 (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.

Cheers

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 Arzouni: 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 Told and Untold Stories of Berlin: A Walk-Through History

Photo Credit: Talia Silverstein

By Talia Silverstein

Today our adventures in Berlin took us through some of the city’s most famous historical sites. Our tour guide, Kathinka Minthe, walked us through many parts of the city, teaching us about the history, social discourse, and controversy that each place held. We started at the Reichstag Building, home to the German Parliament and finished at Museum Island where we saw Angela Merkel’s home. We visited the Brandenburg Gate, walked through Tiergarten, and explored The Memorial for the Murdered Jews. We walked along Hannah Arendt Straße to get to the site of Hitler’s old bunker, now a parking lot, and later saw Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus, a section of the old Berlin wall. Around the corner was the Topographie of Terror and Checkpoint Charlie,  the site of a historic standoff. We wrapped up at the site of the infamous book burning, across the street from the Käthe Kollwitz Museum. The focus of our tour was to examine the ways in which these historical landmarks allowed us to discuss some of the “hidden” women of Berlin’s intricate history.

One of the topics discussed was remembering history without memorializing all of it. When you visit Germany, the first thing many American visitors think about are the sites where World War II, Nazis, and Hitler stood not so long ago. This horrific history is something every German citizen acknowledges and learns about, but many of the actual sites that had been part of the war are now new or renovated. The historical relevance of the war is not lost on people today. As Michael Stewart writes in Remembering without Commemoration: The Mnemonics and Politics of Holocaust Memories among European Roma, “I came to feel that for many people, the memory of the entire war was condensed into a few images that were normally kept deep in the shadows of the cave, illuminated occasionally and incandescently before being enveloped gain in the penumbra of the past.” While this is a history that Berlin wants to make sure to remember, when it comes to memorializing an atrocity it is hard to find “positive” ways to do this. It seems to me that the people of Berlin are in a constant struggle between remembering and acknowledging atrocities without glorifying those who committed them. We cannot forget the actions of Hitler and the Nazis, but at the same time, Berlin must be able to grow and develop. The people of Berlin have made the conscious decision to memorialize some and destroy others. The sites most often destroyed were those with ties to the Nazi party to deter neo-Nazis from using the places as a pilgrimage sites.

Photo Credit: Talia Silverstein

A surreal moment during our tour was when we visited Checkpoint Charlie. None of the historical or original buildings are there at all. What remains are tourist-oriented museums designed to attract. The streets are full of stereotypical USSR and fake communist propaganda for sale. It was a space flooded with tourists hoping to see a piece of history. In the middle of the street a fake USSR checkpoint hut stands for people to take pictures with, of course only if they are willing to pay a fee. The line to take pictures by the hut stretched over a block and almost every tourist held in hand some piece of fake propaganda or were adorned in Cold War uniform replicas. It seemed like a cheesy a commodification not only of a difficult history, but also of the German/Soviet. Watching people capitalize on the hardships of millions left a pit in my stomach.

Further, the little proof we saw of accomplished women was hard to find and are usually newer and smaller. For example, during our tour on Tuesday, Carolyn Gammon showed us that the women’s wing in Humboldt University was only a tiny hallway. To build on this today, we learned about Käthe Kollwitz, a German artist. Her art depicts poverty, hunger, and working-class struggles. She was the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts, and had a small museum in her honor. We would’ve visited but, like a lot of Berlin, it was unfortunately closed for renovations. Another famous Berliner, Hannah Arendt, a political theorist and philosopher, has a street named after her. The last woman we saw at the Topographie of Terror was Stella Kubler, a Jewish convert to Christianity turned catcher, who went underground rounding up hidden Jews for the Gestapo. She was an open anti-Semite and was eventually charged with war crimes.

Photo Credit: Liza Bering

Reflecting on the absence of women’s history, they truly are hidden. With a critical eye, you can begin to uncover the stories of these powerful and notable women. As Sidonia Blättler and Irene M. Marti write in “Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt: Against the Destruction of Political Spheres of Freedom, “Internal contradictions, incompleteness, and obstinacy characterize the work of Rosa Luxemburg as well as that of Hannah Arendt […] Due to their respective Jewish and Jewish-Polish origins, their gender (which they hardly ever mentioned and when they did, only in private) and the prevailing historical-political situation, both women were strangers in a world whose imposing list of identifications they flatly refused.” As a Jewish woman who has grown up in a predominantly Jewish community, I can’t help but to recognize the importance of remembering this history.  As Stewart writes, “Rather than focus on the means of ‘forgetting’, ‘obliterating’, and ‘downplaying’ the past’ I focus on the ways in which, despite Gypsy ‘presentist’ rhetoric, the past is ‘remembered’ among Gypsy populations.” Until now, I have never understood the struggle for those who it so closely surrounds to be able to escape this history in order to be recognized as more than it.


Photo Credit: Liza Bering

Talia Silverstein is a rising sophomore from Port Washington, NY. She is planning on majoring in Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies and double minoring in Political Science and Feminist and Gender Studies at Colorado College. She is passionate about her photography, drawing, and poetry. During her time at CC, she hopes to have more opportunities like this class that allow her to travel, explore, and participate in hands on learning. While in Berlin, she plans on getting lost as much as possible unless it makes her late to class.

Finding Their Presence: A Women’s Perspective Tour of Berlin

By Nia Abram

Penelope

Penelope “Pen” Hassmann

The rain trickled onto our freshly awakened faces this morning as we bustled to the Brandenburg Gate to begin our day. When we arrived at the gate, we met our tour guide Penelope Hassmann, or Pen as she likes to be called. She leads the Women’s Perspective Tour, which gives insight into the women who have contributed to the history of some of the city’s most talked about and controversial stories, museums, and memorials. As the tour kicked, off I began to realize that although Berlin is a fairly young city, it is rich with so much history even in just the past 100 years. So, I began to wonder how Pen located and choose the bountiful information about the women’s perspective. How did she begin to piece together the female presence that is woven throughout German history? To paraphrase Penelope’s response, there’s a part of the women’s experience in everything. She says that she chose to mention the women’s perspective in relation to the places she passed through every day. This seemed especially important to me when thinking about how we can bring women’s issues and experiences to light—we need to recognize women’s experiences in our daily lives.

The FemGeniuses in Berlin with Pen Hassmann at Brandenburg Gate

The FemGeniuses in Berlin with Pen Hassmann at Brandenburg Gate

We walked with intent through the damp streets of Berlin, and Pen told our first fact about one of Berlin’s historical women.She was the first person to die due to her attempt to cross the Berlin wall, Ida Siekmann. As Pen pointed out, in the official government memorial and the “book of the dead,” Siekmann is listed as the first death at the Wall. However, Pen points out that the narrative at this memorial (which is managed by a private company) begins with the first shooting, which was a man, rather than the first death. In cases like this, Siekmann’s death wasn’t considered the first to mark the tragedy of the Berlin wall. It couldn’t. She was a woman.

Hannah Arendt Straße

Hannah Arendt Straße

One of our next stops was at the Memorial for Murdered Jews. As I exited the memorial, I noticed the street sign hanging in the gray sky: Hannah Arendt Straße. A political theorist by trade, Arendt was also a highly acclaimed feminist philosopher. She was Jewish, and her work explored many topics, including anti-Semitism. She had strong opinions about how our political actions relate to our social and economic ones. According to Sidonia  Blättler, Irene M. Marti, and Senem Saner in “Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt: Against the Destruction of Political Spheres of Freedom,” Arendt argued that freedom is the direct aim of political action. More specifically, she argues, “Freedom in the positive political sense is bound to an interaction in which the agents acknowledge each other simultaneously as different and as equal beings.” Arendt’s philosophies changed perspectives and policies; hence, the site of the street sign could not be any more fitting for a brave heroine and the work she did for the Jewish community.

The FemGeniuses in Berlin with Pen Hassmann at Bundesministerium der Finanzen

The FemGeniuses in Berlin with Pen Hassmann at Bundesministerium der Finanzen

Our tour continued, and we made our way to the old Nazi government district. We reached a building called the Bundesministerium der Finanzen. This building was used during the height of the Holocaust by the Nazi party, but it was later used by the last German parliament when the Soviet Union took control. Now it’s where the Finance Minister is and decides the budget. On the side of the building is a mural of people celebrating and nearly half of the people are women. One woman is holding a sign that says “socialism.” Pen told us that this mural was made under the Soviet control when East Germany was a communist state. This meant that there was not only more equal economic opportunity, but there was also more gender equality at this time. As Karen Honeycutt claims in “Clara Zetkin: A Socialist Approach to the Problem of Woman’s Oppression,” Clara Zetkin believed that the solution to gender inequality would be to create economic equality for everyone. This meant that women would be just as valuable workers as men are. This was evident in East Germany during the Soviet communist state, as Pen told us that one woman went back to work as early as three weeks after her pregnancy. Pen indicated that the amount of time between a woman giving birth and going back to work seemed to vary widely, and was very much influenced by the point of history at which she gave birth (at times being anywhere from three months to a year). She also notes that it is difficult to get accurate information on official government policy at that time. This challenged Clara’s point of gender equality because it was soon realized that women’s lived experiences were different from those of the men, women were mothers and needed recuperation after giving birth, making her socialist equality principle a utopia that sounded good in writing, but proved to exacerbate social problems in practice. Although communism has had a controversial standing in Germany throughout its history, this mural represents its particular relationship with the women’s experience.

IMG_8702

Penelope “Pen” Hassmann

After stopping in a café to grab coffee and some WiFi (to post pictures to Instagram, of course), we eventually ended up at Humboldt University where we learned about Frederick the Great’s wife Elizabeth. While Frederick was fighting wars, Elizabeth was banished to a villa in northern Germany. Although Frederick treated her poorly, she kept up with all the court ceremonies and traditions, and she donated half of her annual $40,000 allowance to charity. But no one knows about her deeds, because Frederick is always the historical main attraction. Pen continued to tell us about a number of incredible women throughout the tour, too many for me to mention, and as her extensive knowledge rolled off her tongue and into our whirring brains, the rain began clear. As we closed our umbrellas and pulled down our hoods we ended our tour conversing about how Germans remember and reconcile the history of the Holocaust. How do they sort out their guilt about the events of the past if they even have any? We concluded that our responses to history are sometimes individual, which has prompted me to end with a quote from R. Ruth Linden’s “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” “Historical ‘truths’ lie in triangulated points of view, for any given event of historical consequence is experienced from multiplex, situated perspectives. The impact of such an event is felt by many actors, each of whom has a biography fraught with idiosyncrasies (which mediate the event’s meaning).”


Nia Abram

Nia Abram

Nia Abram is a rising junior, an Environmental Science major, and an avid dancer at Colorado College. She has lived in central New Jersey, Atlanta, California, and northern Jersey (in that order), but in the end, she calls north Jersey her home. Nia enjoys hiking and creative writing, as she often retreats to nature to write short stories and personal essays in her free time. Some of her favorite movies include Coming to America, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Mulan, Howl’s Moving Castle, and, of course, Harry Potter. She has taken an interest in Feminist & Gender Studies; although she does not plan to major or minor. However, she hopes to use her knowledge as a feminist and an academic to address environmental justice issues through an intersectional lens. Optimistically, her future career will allow her to start a non-profit organization that brings environmental science and outdoor education to underprivileged urban girls through a program that teaches science, empowerment, and social justice.