An art exhibit, an Auschwitz survivor, and an interview: My first few weeks in Berlin

Sorry for being so lame on updating this site over the past few weeks. Hopefully once you know what I’ve been up to, you’ll be able to forgive me!

Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum) of Berlin, 10/19

For the class Germans & Jews, we made an excursion to the Jewish Museum in Kreuzburg. The architecture of the museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, is extremely modern and very famous – it’s shaped like a squiggly arrow! Apparently this symbol is supposed to mean whatever you want it to mean. Lightening bolt, etc. There is a claustrophobic underground exhibit with stark black-and-white colors and slanted floors and walls. Then a more “normal” museum exhibit to walk through above ground.

Our tour experience was quite interesting. Our professor wanted to lead us on a tour herself, but that was not allowed so we had to get a tour with one of the museum staff. Our professor told us all about the architecture of the museum and showed us around the outside while we waited for our tour to begin. Then our tour guide came and introduced herself, but before she could begin telling us anything, our professor cut her off and said something to the extent of “I’ve already told them about the architecture so you can just skip that part. We’re studying German and Jewish history and have gotten about up to Moses Mendelssohn so far, so everything before that you don’t really need to review, so could you just talk about Heinrich Heine instead?” Our tour guide very politely explained that that was not part of the planned tour. Tension was in the air!

It was by far the worst museum tour I’ve ever been on, partly because I had a nasty cold and wasn’t feeling good, and partly because of our guide and our professor’s interactions with her. Her idea of a tour was to walk straight through 3 rooms filled with artifacts and not talk about any of them, then to stop in front of one exhibit – a painting, a teacup, etc. – and talk about that one item for 20 to 30 minutes, before skipping to the next room. It was so boring, which is such a pity because it seemed like a really cool museum! I was feeling sick and tired of standing, which didn’t make it any easier to pay attention to our tour guide, particularly since her German was quite a bit more advanced than what I’m used to. I’m at the point where I can carry on a decent conversation with someone on the street, but academic lectures are still really hard for me to follow unless I’m paying close attention. I definitely intend on going back to this museum in my own time though and going through at my own pace.

Theater: Fräulein Julie, 10/19

For my Women & Literature class, we read the play “Fräulein Julie” by August Strausberg, then went and saw it performed live at the Schaubühne (Show Stage) on Ku’damm. I didn’t care much for the text we read since it consisted entirely of two people standing in a kitchen and arguing with each other for an hour – oh sure, there were subtle developments within the characters and in their relationship with each other, but it really didn’t capture my attention, all this dithering dialogue about what is and isn’t proper for a lady and about who is or is not in love with whom.

Therefore, I was completely surprised to see an incredibly modern adaptation of the play. It was a stage set up like nothing I’d ever seen before. There was almost an entire house onstage, complete with moveable walls. Cameras followed the actors around and were projected in real-time onto a large screen above the stage, so you could see the subtle changes in facial expressions and hand movements (which was good, because there was certainly no extravagant body language like I’m used to seeing in theater.) There was far less dialogue, but all of the sound effects – stirring water, footsteps, shaving – were extremely apparent, because there was a whole other sound stage off to the side where two people dressed in black held up various objects to microphones (a bowl filled with water, a shoe on a wooden floor, two pieces of steel wool being scratched together) to make the sounds. And most of all, the play was not told from Fräulein Julie’s perspective, like in the text, but rather from that of the maid, who played an extremely small role in the text but was much more important in the play. What a neat experience!

Art Exhibit, 10/20

Talk about only in Berlin! Our art teacher invited us to an exhibit his work was going to be featured in one Saturday. The exhibit was held in a big apartment building that–get this–was being renovated at the time! So there were wires hanging out of walls, the floors were plywood, and there was no furniture. You just walked up the flight of stairs and spread out over about 5 stories were art exhibits… very modern stuff, lots of painting and drawing but also some sculptures. On the bottom floor was free soup and wine. This is definitely something you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the world!

Noah Klieger, Auschwitz survivor, 10/26

One Friday evening there was an Auschwitz survivor speaking at some council building in Berlin: Noah Klieger. He was the second Auschwitz survivor I’d heard speak (the first was at the Holocaust Conference at PLU last year) and it was just as intense of an experience. He started out with some background to the Holocaust, World War II, the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem, which wasn’t too interesting since I’d learned it all before, but the personal experiences he shared were incredible. I talked to him a little bit afterwards and got a signed copy of his book, “Zwolf Brötchen zum Frühstuck” (Twelve pieces of bread for breakfast).

Some quotes from him I wrote down (translated from German):

“Yiddish is the language of the dead.” (In one of my classes we had been talking about Jewish authors and what language they choose to write in when describing the Holocaust, since there really is no language for the Holocaust–no existing languages are capable of fully conveying the atrocities that occurred.)

“The survivors survived because they had much better luck. Nobody survived Auschwitz because they were stronger, younger, or smarter.”

“…Doctor Josef Mengele, the doctor who was not a doctor, because doctors try to save lives. This man took the lives of countless innocents.”

“One’s Bauchgefühl (roughly translates to gut feeling) – it’s important in a concentration camp.” (I read an anecdote about another survivor who survived because she had a similar feeling… A Nazi officer came around demanding to know who the pregnant women were, saying they’d get extra rations… Even women who were not pregnant stepped forward at the promise of extra food. This woman had a “bauchgefühl” that she should lie, which saved her life, because all of the women who stepped forward – pregnant or not – were sent instantly to the gas chambers.)

“You can’t explain it, you can only describe it, or try to describe it. There is no human language for it.”

During the Todesmarsch (death march) after Auschwitz was in danger of being discovered by the Allies so they forced all the prisoners to evacuate – “At that time I wasn’t a Jew anymore.” He talked about how surviving the Holocaust made him lose his faith in God, because how could God ever let such an atrocity occur?

“I wanted to live after Hitler, and I wanted to live in order to tell my story… Some survivors want to talk about it… other simply can not.”

The Rocky Horror Picture Show – 10/27

The Saturday before Halloween I talked Mischo into coming with me to the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I had never seen it live before so it was quite a new experience! It was fun shouting all the smart-assy lines at the screen, and the shadow cast was EXTREMELY talented, including the well-known Berlin drag queen Jack Woodhead as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Overall though Germans are a rather reserved culture, and Rocky Horror is a pretty American phenomena (I’m pretty sure most of the audience was tourists) so there wasn’t as much participation as I would’ve expected to see in America, and not very many people dressed up.

The Interview – 10/30

For my German class we had to do an interview project to learn about the reunification of Germany after the Wall fell. Since my host seems to have approximately zero interest in talking about the DDR, I was forced to find a random person off the street, which is actually quite scary in a big city where everyone walks around in a bubble trying really hard not to interact with each other. I walked down the street a short ways and made eye contact (a rare occurrence) with an older man sitting at a Döner Kebab stand drinking a beer. I introduced myself as a student and asked if I could interview him, and he was falling over himself happy to oblige. He bought me a coffee, which was rather unexpected. He talked to me for a long time, and whether he was using words I didn’t know or just had a really strong Berlin accent I don’t know, but I understood maybe half of what he was saying. I got that he was 55 years old and was born, raised, and still lived in Prenzlauer Berg (in fact, after the interview I’m starting to doubt whether he had ever left that place in his whole entire life.) He had very interesting opinions. I guess most of the former Ossies I’ve talked to have been relatively independent and educated people who didn’t like the lack of personal freedom in socialism, but he missed the security and openness of people. “We were always there for each other,” he said. “When somebody needed help, even if you didn’t know them, you helped them. Look! Look at the people on the streets around us. They’re so wrapped up in themselves.” But then when I asked him after what point he felt Germany truly reunited was, he said “There is no Germany anymore. No Berlin. It’s all just Europe.” He made some comments about immigrants that could be interpreted as racist. We talked for 40 minutes and I got half a page of scribbled notes out of it, but man, what an experience. The professor was quite proud of me for finding a stranger on the street when most people interviewed their hosts.

Mosque Excursion – 10/29

Because you’ve been so patient reading all this text without looking at any pictures, I’m going to reward you by posting a slideshow of pictures of a mosque we visited for the class Portable Roots. Berlin has a huge Turkish minority, and many of them retain their Islamic religious tradition. Lots of them live in Kreuzberg, which right now is sort of the city that’s not very nice to walk through during the day, but has all the best parties at night.



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