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.

Memorialization: The Past in the Present and Why it is Important Today

 

By Liza Bering

As our time in Berlin nears an end, I am noticing more and more the relationship between capitalism and sites, memorials, tours, and museums—especially how the importance of these places sometimes gets lost in a whirlwind of ignorance. This ignorance is one that allows for little discussion or critical remembrance and instead creates space for an insensitivity that masks the problems that “remembered” people face today. Before snapping a selfie or indulging in the appropriated souvenirs, a visitor should think about or ask themselves: What is the significance of this site? Who is it for? Why is this important? The truth is that most don’t bother to ask these questions. Instead, they settle for a cool key chain, an Instagram post, or even just to say they’ve been there. With this, I wonder how these places, museums, sites, may function as memorials for the people they “remember” or as a Band-Aid for historical traumas and the erasure of groups or if they are simply there to eagerly take money from seemingly clueless tourists, because the reality is that monuments and memorials prescribe history.

This past weekend, I traveled to Teufelsberg. Located just outside of the city of Berlin, near West Berlin’s Grunewald Forest, lies a large hill made up of 12 million cubic meters of war rubble pushed together and created what is now Teufelsberg, which literally translates to “Devil’s Mountain.” I arrived, payed the entrance fee, and set off on my way to explore. I had fallen into the vicious cycle that allows tourists to visit a place they know absolutely nothing about, take some pictures, and then leave—still knowing nothing. After leaving the site, I asked myself, “What is this place?” I still knew absolutely nothing about Teufelsberg, except that it had beautiful street art covering the walls of the abandoned spy tower. I later searched Google, and found what I was looking for: tangible information that would allow me to appreciate the site and understand its importance and how it functions today as a place of artistic expression. The tower was built on a former Nazi training school that was utterly invincible as it had survived multiple demolition attempts. Instead, truckloads of war rubble from World War II were dumped on the center, and the U.S. built a spy tower to use with Great Britain to spy on communist East Germany during the era of the Berlin Wall. After the fall of the Wall, the site became a place that was going house an air traffic control center, apartments, or a school, but it ultimately became a site open to the paying public and a haven for graffiti artists.

Bering III

Photo Credit: Liza Bering

Spending a relaxing Sunday strolling around the spy towers had me thinking about a prevalent theme that we have been discussing in class: the memorialization of sites and how they function as institutions of remembrance, knowledge, and recognition while sometimes simultaneously catering to capitalism, especially pertaining to collective guilt. Along these lines, in “Sites of Remembrance? Jewish Museums in Contemporary,” Sabine Offe writes, “It is a time gap between both institutional functions [collecting/sheltering cultural heritage and obscuring of past and history of guilt] that turns museums in general and Jewish museums specifically into highly ambivalent places, established to transform collective guilt and banish it from memory and thereby enhancing its commemoration” (78). During our class, the lens through which we view and discuss various sites of “remembrance” allows us to critically examine the ways certain acts of memorialization are sometimes fueled by personal, political, and/or capitalist interests rather than changing the way the memorialized subject is seen and treated today.

Berlin is city filled with historically deep wounds that are not forgotten and sometimes not even fully discussed. A common mentality I have picked up from some sites in Berlin is one that seems to scream, “Okay, Berlin has given you and your people a sign, memorial, or museum…isn’t that enough?” We saw this during the Africa in Wedding Tour when we discussed street signs that give recognition to the African countries that Germany colonized, like Ghanastraße, yet the city still fails to do much justice to the people or bring the invisibility of Germany’s colonial past to the present. We saw this at the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime, where clueless tourists throw pennies into the memorial’s basin of “tears” or continue to use derogatory language when referring to Sinti and Roma people. We saw this at Checkpoint Charlie, where tourists from all over waited patiently in line to dress up in old army uniforms and pose with a replicated U.S. checkpoint hut, while still not fully understanding the lasting effects that the Berlin Wall had on Berlin even after its fall in 1989. The common theme here is that the memorials do not necessarily change the stigma that surrounds these historically marginalized groups today. Just because you dedicate a statue, fountain, or street to something doesn’t mean the pain and suffering is over. Still, these sites are powerful, because they give recognition to groups, events, or people that otherwise might still be unrecognized. My question is, how can we memorialize people in a way that does not suppress their past and present experiences?

Bering I

Photo Credit: Liza Bering

Memorials have become institutions that collect and shelter cultural heritage while sometimes obscuring the past, which contributes to an obscured sense of collective guilt and collective memory. Along these lines, in “Coming In From the Cold: The Black German Experience, Past and Present,” Marion Kraft comments on the recognition and memorialization of Afro-Germans, writing, “Despite the presence and achievement of Black Germans, racist notions and conceptualizations of nation and ‘race’ have not vanished from the mainstream German collective consciousness” (10). So where do we go from here? The beginning of this issue lies within the people—we must slough off shallow, surface-level approaches to sites of remembrance and enter with an open mind and the understanding that the issues surrounding such memorials are issues that are still deeply rooted in society today. The public attraction and capitalization that inevitably attracts tourists isn’t always bad, because after all some kind of remembrance or recognition is better than none. However, we must be careful and compassionate and critical of how and what information tourists and outsiders are seeking and being fed.


BeringLiza Bering is a sophomore at Colorado College hailing from Des Moines, Iowa. She is planning on majoring in Geology and minoring in Middle Eastern Studies and Feminist and Gender Studies. She plans on combining the three different disciplines in way that with impact others on more than just a shallow surface level. When she isn’t studying (or touring Berlin with her fellow FemGenuises) you may find her checking out street art, walking around Berlin’s beautiful city parks, or getting lost on the subway.