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.

“I Want You to Listen to My Story!”: An Afternoon with Mutlu Ergün-Hamaz

By Jade Frost

MutluAfter our class’ harrowing experience with the tour guide on Friday, I was particularly yearning for this session, because we had the pleasure of meeting Mutlu Ergün-Hamaz. When we all had shuffled into the room and sat down at the table, Ergün-Hamaz set the tone by saying, “I didn’t prepare a PowerPoint presentation with pictures, because I want you to listen to my story and my narrative. I read about the tour that you guys had, so I want you to pay attention to my story.” After hearing this, I was quite elated that our class was finally going to hear a narrative of Turkish people in Berlin that was not going to be misrepresented.

Ergün-Hamaz was born in the late 1970s in Berlin. Both of his parents came as guest workers from Turkey in 1965. He and his family actually lived in our cozy town of Wedding for a short while before they moved to a more predominately White area in Charlottenburg due to his father’s job with the civil service. This was an exception since there was a German law that mandated Turkish people to live in certain areas like Kreuzberg, Neükolln, and Wedding rather than areas that are predominately White. Ergün-Hamaz went on to discuss how he and his brother’s education was very different in their new neighborhood. The White teachers in Wedding often assumed that Turkish children were dumb and taught them the bare minimum. In their new neighborhood, however, the students received a more advanced education.

IMG_9250Their peers isolated Ergün-Hamaz and his brother, because they were Turkish. So, as he grew older, Ergün-Hamaz became interested in Hip-Hop. He said, “I liked Hip Hop, because it was a culture of resistance.” He talked about listening to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and watching Beat Street. His reasoning was not that Turkish people are the same as Black Americans, but that both cultures experienced oppression and developed a commitment to resistance. In Heinz Ickstadt’s “Appropriating Difference: Turkish-German Rap,” he states, “Turkish-German rappers (in Berlin and elsewhere) have indeed appropriated especially black cultural assertions of protest and of difference to articulate their own difference from a dominant and hostile German culture” (572). Along these lines, hip-hop in Berlin was a vehicle through which Turkish Germans could begin to reclaim Germany for themselves. Ergün-Hamaz, under the name Sesperado Lyrical Guerilla, even began to write hip-hop lyrics. While he no longer writes and performs rap, he continues to use Sesperado as a stage name for various other kinds of performance.

As far as the “dangerous 36 Boys” that our misinformed tour guide told us about, here is the real story. There was a young Turkish woman who was attacked and beaten in Kreuzberg by a Nazi gang. The Turkish community in Kreuzberg was enraged by this, and started to carry knives and baseball bats to protect themselves and their neighborhood. They wanted to send a message, “Don’t fuck with us! This is our neighborhood and we protect our own, so don’t think about it!” These groups weren’t formed to create tension within the community, they were formed to protect and keep their community safe. However, racist interpretations of these communities cause them to be primarily interpreted as extremely dangerous.

DiariesAfter the fall of the Berlin Wall, things changed. The problem was that Turkish-Germans were excluded from Germany’s reunification narrative. White Germans were telling Turkish-Germans to go back to Turkey, and would rant about the Turkish-Germans “taking” all of their jobs. 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 claim, “With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a chaotic social environment and cheap labor from East Germany led to mass unemployment in the Western part of Berlin” (50).  During the same time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was published, and continued to skew the narrative of Muslims. This book, along with the end of communism, led to the scapegoating of Muslims. When 9/11 happened, the Turkish-Germans and Muslim community were under suspicion again. As Yurdakul and Bodemann point out, 9/11 “cast a dark shadow on all Muslims in Germany and at the same time paradoxically perhaps, intensified anti-semitism” (51). The Germany government sent records and files of all Muslims or people with Muslim-sounding names to the FBI.

Still, Turkish Germans have consistently resisted such racist efforts to dangerously misrepresent their history and culture. Along these lines, Ergün-Hamaz discussed his membership with Phoenix, where he began to participate in anti-racism and empowerment training sessions. It’s important to point out that these trainings do not necessarily teach people how not to be racist. Rather, they focus on how we are all racialized. For this reason and many others, Ergün-Hamaz said that we should be aware of the implications of using the term “people of color,” because it is important to not blanket other races experiences as the same. Phoenix’s work reminded me of Sidonia Blättler and Irene M. Marti’s “Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt: Against the Destruction of Political Spheres of Freedom,” in which they write, “The knowledge that mattered to them is tied to concrete experiences articulated within the context of thinking and acting in a community with others” (89). It is the knowledge the communities develop and disseminate that matter.

IMG_9256Now, Ergün-Hamaz has finished his Master’s degree and has written a book, Die geheimen Tagebücher des Sesperado (The Secret Diaries of Sesperado), which he wrote for the minority audiences who may be empowered by his experiences. He is also continuing his work with Phoenix. I am truly grateful to have listened to his story and to hear a narrative of the Turkish-Germans that was told with passion and complexity. It was in this session that it really hit me why we are here. Throughout this trip, we have listened to narratives about what it is like here from those who have been marginalized and oppressed. We are here to find these often hidden spaces and listen to these often hidden and silenced narratives.


JadeJade Frost is a rising junior at Colorado College from Salt Lake City, Utah. She is double majoring in Feminist & Gender Studies and English Literature, with the hopes of becoming a journalist or working at a publishing firm. She is involved with Black Student Union and The Cipher magazine on campus. Jade’s hobbies are reading, creative writing, binging on Netflix, going for drives, dancing spontaneously and hanging out with friends and family. She enjoys discussing topics such as Black feminism, women with disabilities, and social constructs. Her favorite TV Shows are Law and Order: SVU and Gilmore Girls, and her favorite movies are Love & Basketball and Mulan. Jade loves pretty much all types of music, but her top hits are “Ladies First” by Queen Latifah, “Video” by India.Arie, and “A Change is Gonna Come” covered by Leela James. Jade is excited for this course, so she can learn and discover new things.