Category Archives: Germany

Geography, German, and Memorialization

I’m revising a journal article based on my Master’s thesis, and I just had one of those moments when I made up an English word because I knew in the back of my mind that there was a German word for what I wanted to say but I couldn’t quite pull it to the front of my brain.

After I remembered the German word, the concept made WAY more sense.

See, I wanted to come up with a word to express “die Unverständlichkeit,” so the English word that came to mind was “unknowability.” This is apparently not really an English word (at least, not according to Microsoft Word’s dictionary.) So what does LEO recommend as a translation?

Incomprehensibility.

Oh. Well of course. Duh. That’s what I was going for.

Ironically enough, this situation took place in an amount of time shorter than it took to write this blog post, PLUS it happened while summarizing an article about the implication of words in the social construction of memorialization! Now back to work…

The Best Laid Plans…

It’s the beginning of the fieldwork grind – the part where I put in a lot of work and make something out of this trip. Today I observed Gunter Demnig install Stolpersteine at three different sites around the northern Tiergarten area of Berlin (the Hansaviertel, as it’s known locally). They were very different and all very interesting.

We had no idea what activities would be going on at the different sites, but when Karen and I showed up at the first site we could make it to this morning (after a bit of a late start out the door…) we found not an empty sidewalk, but a gaggle of school children,  teachers, and family members.

My initial instinct was to think that this group had to be an example of the school groups who help Gunter Demnig with the Stolpersteine project by doing the research about Holocaust victims’ last home or business. I asked around and ended up striking up a conversation with someone that I thought was a teacher accompanying the group. He said he was actually a social worker from the school, but close enough for me. He informed us that the students were from the local elementary school, and while they had not helped do the research for this site, one girl’s mother was the sponsor for the stones being installed. (Each Stolperstein costs about €95.) The students, it turned out, were the school’s choir program! So they sang several songs accompanied by their music teachers (on acoustic guitar – think of the style of Edelweiss from The Sound of Music. Yes, I know it’s technically Austrian, and technically that Rogers and Hammerstein wrote it. That’s beside the point.) At any rate, the students were very good at singing, and nearly every song was sung as a round with three parts to make it that much harder.

Herr Demnig was running nearly a half an hour late, so we had a lot of time to watch the children sing and talk to the social worker, who also introduced us to the sponsor. When Demnig arrived, the installation only took about five minutes, and then he hurried off to lay a few more stones in northern Berlin that I knew Karen and I would not be able to make it to fast enough by public transit. I found out that Demnig and his assistant travel in a red working van with a lot of room in the back for the stones, tools, cement, dirt, etc. So while Demnig and his assistant drove on to the next few sites, Karen and I stayed to listen as the patron told the story about the girls who lived at this site during the Nazi regime. I didn’t catch all of it, but the important part was easy enough to pick up: “Ermordet in Auschwitz.” Murdered at Auschwitz.

During this mini-lecture, the social worker came up to us and explained that there was another group of students who were also there – a group of middle school-age students from a nearby Jewish school, with their teacher and a rabbi (or at least, I assume he was a rabbi.) They were the group that helped with the research, and their teacher said a few words about the process as well before the rabbi sang a very haunting chant in Hebrew and said the Kaddish.

After this was over, and I handed out some of my business cards to people I thought would be nice to stay in contact with, Karen and I headed off to find lunch before meeting back up with Demnig for more installations. I have the entire list and a map of the locations, by the way, which is how I knew where to find him at different points throughout the day. I’ll be doing the same thing tomorrow.

After lunch, Karen and I went to the next site on the list and met back up, quite unintentionally, with the sponsor from earlier. She had evidently sponsored four more Stolpersteine at this location, and again we waited several minutes for Demnig to arrive. There was no ceremony at this site because the sponsor, Demnig and his assistant, a couple of people from the Berlin organization that coordinates the legal aspects of placing the stones, and Karen and I were the only ones there. Demnig was much more open and congenial at this site, and he didn’t seem at all rushed like he did when surrounded by 50 or so kids earlier in the day! He strikes me as a very kind man with a huge heart to take on a project of this size, despite a somewhat gruff exterior.

The third installation was much like the first. This time, a high school class promoting diversity and tolerance had researched victims who lived at what is now the location of their school. The three new Stolpersteine were added to several that had been placed in the sidewalk in front of the school. Demnig was again surrounded by the students as he worked, and again did not say a word. After the installation, he hung around for a few minutes as the some of the youth talked about fighting against racism but then headed off again for the next site.

I hope to follow him around tomorrow to several more installation sites, and hopefully can talk to him a bit as we go along. As always, I’ll keep you posted as time allows.

Survey Says…

Stolpersteine at 15 Prenzlauer Allee
Stolpersteine at 15 Prenzlauer Allee

Well, one day into my fieldwork and the initial results show:

 

This is going to be hard.

Well, maybe not too hard, but nonetheless at least as difficult as I thought it might be. I observed 90 pedestrians today at three different Stolpersteine sites in our neighborhood, and two people looked at them. And by looked at them, I mean they glanced at them. No one stopped to read them, but I kind of expected that with these particular Stolpersteine because they were located in out-of-the-way parts of the sidewalk.

One, in fact, was almost covered up with a restaurant menu/sign. I plan to follow up with the owners of the restaurant in the next few days, after I build some rapport with them. I just had a coffee today as Karen and I used their space to do observations, and I didn’t explain what I was doing, but I’m going to attempt to show up regularly over the next few days to strike up more conversations and see what happens. Despite the menu board almost covering up the memorial, this was the best observation spot in our neighborhood because I could sit at the outdoor table and observe people without looking awkward (walking around with a brightly colored clipboard and pen.)

However, before anyone things I’m discouraged or anything, allow me to explain some of my other thoughts about this set of observations. First, Prenzlauerberg is well-known as a hip district that has been thoroughly gentrified. What was once a squatters neighborhood has been replaced with trendy 30-somethings, including quite a few Americans, with baby strollers in tow. Seriously, I would bet that more than half of my observations today were women, and quite a few men as well, with kids in strollers, babies in slings, or with slightly older children riding bikes at pace with their (walking) parents. Makes for a great neighborhood to stay in while abroad, but it might not be the best neighborhood to find people interested enough in the past to be on the look out for small memorial stones.

At the same time, there are some interesting things that can be gained from this observation: A vast majority of Berlin (geographically) and Berliners themselves have moved on. From the Holocaust, from the Cold War. They have come to terms with the past for themselves, and I think that will be confirmed once I get survey and interview information as well. I don’t really want a hypothesis to skew my research in any way, but I have a hunch that this might be the major finding.

At any rate, there is still much to learn and much to uncover. Hopefully I’ll find the time to keep everyone posted!

Time flies when you’re having fun… in Berlin!

Seriously, I need time to slow down. It’s already Day 5 of being in Berlin, and I feel like we haven’t accomplished much yet!

Sunday and Monday are pretty much excusable because of jet lag. I thought I might be doing myself a favor by being a grad student – used to less sleep and such – but it really just meant that there was no chance I could sleep on the plane from D.C. to Brussels. My normal bed time of 12 a.m. is 6 a.m. here in Berlin. So that’s no good, but I think I’m getting closer to adjusted now. That’s a really good thing, because so far if I had to give a synopsis of the trip so far it would something like:

  • Sunday: Arrival, jet lag
  • Monday: Jet lag, grocery shopping, exploring Alexanderplatz, IKEA, Skyping into my 641 seminar until way to late at night here
  • Tuesday: Woke up at 11:30 a.m. Blasted blackout curtains/jet lag. Back over to Alexanderplatz to buy a printer and some other supplies. Attempted to go bed at a normal time. Laid away until 4 a.m.
  • Wednesday: Woke up at 11 a.m. Still jet lagged? I felt that at least my natural wake up time was shifting the correct way (backward).

Yesterday I was determined to get some real work accomplished, despite the cold weather and threat of rain all day. So Karen and I walked around our neighborhood (Prenzlauerberg, part of the Pankow district) and identified five sites to do observations of pedestrians interacting with Stolpersteine. I’ll be doing this in other districts as well over the next several days. Then I took Karen to The Story of Berlin, a history museum that focuses solely on Berlin. On the way, we took the subway stop at the zoo and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church – and I couldn’t believe my eyes when we got there! They are currently tearing down an old shopping building next to the zoo, and on top of that, the entire memorial church cannot be seen because they are about to start a renovation project on it this summer.

Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, May 2011

For now, I’ve got to sign off and get to work, but I’ve uploaded some photos of our apartment to Facebook to appease everyone. It seems that Karen may not get around to it!

The General Lee…Berlin Style

I’m amazed that this photo (taken on a whim, and snapped really fast without composing) has become my most popular photo on Flickr.

Flickr has added a nice statistical tracking package to their feature that lets you see how many views each of your photos has received, where that traffic has come from (other sites that link to the photo), etc.

Most of the hits for this photo have come from Yahoo Image Search and Google Image Search, so I tried it out and sure enough, I’m on the second page of Yahoo Images when searching for “General Lee.”

(Edit 2/1/2010: I’m no longer on the second page of Yahoo Images, but I’m in the top 5 pages of Google Image search. Still not bad.)

Let’s get the creative juices flowing again…

It’s been about a month since I’ve really worked on my University Scholars project. I’ve done some data-gathering and organizing over the break, but I really wanted to get more written…and it didn’t happen. Now it’s time to start cranking out a page or two every day (except Sundays) from here until mid-March or early April.

And I can’t seem to get started. I’ve false-started two or three times this week. (That means that I’ve gotten as far as opening the Word document, scrolling down to the place to start writing, and then I’ve let it sit there.) So far, on my next two-three page segment on Unter den Linden that I’ve been wanting to finish for a month, I’ve got this much written:

“Throughout its history, Berlin’s most well known boulevard”

And that’s it. I can’t even write a complete sentence!

Anyway, I’m blogging just to get a feel for writing a few things out again. I don’t know if I’ve hit a road block to creativity, writer’s block, or whatever. I don’t think it’s senioritis creeping in, cause I’m really interested in most of my classes this semester and I’m not even that busy yet.

Well…Karen came over and wants to eat lunch now so I’m off the hook for the moment. Any inspiration you want to send my way, readers, would be appreciated.

Post-Berlin

I am back!

And now with nearly one whole day behind me since flying back yesterday, I feel like I’m recovering nicely from any jetlag.

My travels to get here were certainly interesting, as some of you have already heard. For those who don’t know, I almost had to spend the night in Amsterdam yesterday after I was put “on standby” when I got to the AMS airport. When I checked in at Tegel Airport in Berlin the check-in people couldn’t give me a boarding pass for the flight from Amsterdam to Memphis, so they told me to go to the transfer desk at AMS. As it turns out, there are 8 transfer desks at AMS, but I quickly figured out with a transfer desk near the beginning of every specific gate hallway (B through H and M) and assumed that I should go to the desk for the gate of my flight (E9).

I was correct, and stood in line at the desk for nearly half an hour just to have the attendant tell me that they overbooked the flight because they have so many transfers (whatever that means) and that at that point I didn’t have a seat on the plane. She told me to go to the gate and go through security (at the gate) and that at the desk for that flight they would try to get me a seat. I wasn’t the only one waiting; four other people were currently seatless. One guy who looked like a business traveler got his seat fairly quickly, within about five minutes of sitting down. Then about 15 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time the other three got seats, and I was the last person waiting. Finally, after all the last two or three last-minute passengers showed up and went through security, the staff found me a seat. I then went into the tunnel to get on the plane (nearly the last in line) and as I waited a stewardess came up the tunnel from the plane asking for a Mr. Cook. She changed my seat on the spot in pen, as I assume someone had the seat they assigned to me.

In the end, it was a great seat. I had the aisle seat on the second row of the economy class seating, which meant that I was one of the first to get food and drink service and was one of the first people off the plane in Memphis. The flight itself was pretty much uneventful, if not a little annoying because my “neighbor” in the window seat next to me was a 9 or 10 year old boy whose family (of 4 other kids plus his mom) were somewhere in the back of the plane. The first several hours were the annoying part, as he kept the window shade up, letting in the blinding sunlight on the video screens. I eventually switched to my iPod (for as long as its battery would hold out) and eventually went to sleep. The service was great, the food was better than usual, and the flight arrived in Memphis about 40 minutes early, so on the whole I can’t complain.

After riding to Jackson with Mom and Dad, we ate at Chik-fil-a and went to Granny and Pop’s house for dessert and to get the key to Anita’s house were I spent the night. I’ve been doing laundry, working on photos, and entertaining myself online while waiting for them to get back from their Destin vacation. They should get back at 6:15 according to their borrowed GPS. Only 37 more minutes to go!