Notes From Berlin (Part II)

In the introduction to Part I of this essay I wrote:

Every time I come out from America I feel as if I am waking from a dream. The plane descends, I disembark, proceed through passport control and out into the air of wherever I am; the fog lifts, the curtains part – choose your metaphor. We are so insulated here: by geography, by media, marketing and materialism, by the overwhelming multitude of consumer choices between virtually indistinguishable products and services; by our luxurious distance from the brutality and violence in the world of which we are largely unaware.

Berlin served as a site for intersecting axes of experience, like a Venn diagram where my personal experience of otherness came into dialogue with my experience of privilege. History, culture, politics and aesthetics collocated here, reminders of essential questions and signposts towards future inquiry.

As much as I’m an American, I’m a Jew and my experience of Germany was inevitably through the lens of the Holocaust: it doesn’t ever go away.  How do you explain the experience of growing up Jewish in America in the shadow of the Holocaust, amongst survivors and their children?

One of my earliest memories was asking my father about a book on his nightstand: While Six Million Died. “You mean Jews like us?” I asked, “I thought everyone was Jewish!?”

I heard firsthand stories from my paternal grandmother about fleeing the pogroms of Lithuania prior to World War II, trudging across snowy plains and hiding in eviscerated horse carcasses to keep from freezing, barely making it to America alive, just barely avoiding the coming tide. As a child my family watched The Holocaust as a TV mini-series starring Meryl Streep, we sat through all nine and a half hours of Shoah.

Even today my parents’ upstairs neighbor Mrs. Kranzler will tell you of how she left Berlin after Kristallnacht as a young girl; how her father somehow, miraculously, saved the family by refusing to get on a transport on Shabbos, by maybe knowing somebody, by getting that extra day to get the passports to get the hell out, just barely.

The plane lands at Tegel and we deplane via rolling stairway, walking across the tarmac onto waiting shuttle buses that take us to an entryway with this sign above:

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The lines at passport control are surprisingly disorganized given the German reputation for orderliness and efficiency; we enter an antechamber crammed with weary, baggage-laden travelers being randomly sorted and directed to stand in one line or another. Fellow travelers disappear through doorways into unseen other rooms where their papers are reviewed by indifferent civil servants who will either wave them through or detain them for reasons unknown. It is at once totally normal and ominously familiar.

We take a taxi to the hotel, but the room isn’t ready; we go for a walk to the Flea Market at the S-Bahn Tiergarten. As we wander the rows and rows of booths displaying jumbled heaps of old china, silverware, eyeglasses, shoes, vintage clothing and antique jewelry, I try to refrain from making darkly inappropriate jokes about the imagined provenance of these orphaned possessions.

One day I go for a morning walk and see this:

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I turn the corner and find this:

Wittenbergplatz Station

Wittenbergplatz Station

The impressive KaDeWe department store on one side and a vibrant, bustling boulevard of shops on the other; here a sign commemorates the victims of the Nazis who left this station on trains headed to Auschwitz, Maidanek, Treblinka, Theresienstadt, Buchenwald, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbruck and Bergen-Belsen.

Because although I cannot see Berlin but through the lens of the Holocaust, I’m not alone in this: Germany, it seems, not only acknowledges but wrestles publicly with the legacy of the Nazi era.

At the same time, they are diligently working to raise the visibility of German culture and values that predate Nazism, as signposts for what Germany is now and hopes to become.

Over the course of the week I began to experience Berlin as if watching a time-lapse movie of biological metamorphosis. I could see what I perceived to be a kind of essential German-ness, one that cohered in the 1700s and subsequently metastasized into Nazism, and now, after almost 70 years of crisis, introspection and commitment, that German-ness is emerging transformed. But as with all things, we never emerge fully new; we always carry with us who we’ve been.

Meeting colleagues from Iraq, Bosnia, Venezuela, Ukraine, Belarus, Hungary, Indonesia, Japan and so many other places heightened my awareness of being an American. I always hope to convey that America is a complicated place and that not all Americans are as we are portrayed in the media or sometimes appear through the actions or policies of our government. At the same time I wanted to extend the same desire to be expansive and understanding to Germany, despite my deeply embedded prejudices and preconceptions.

We’re all looking through a set of experiences and history that doesn’t go away.

Time and again when talking to my peers I was reminded of the peculiarities, fragility and insufficiency of language. Trying to talk about art across cultures and languages was constant education and amusement. How do you say that in your language? Are you sure that’s what you mean in English? What about if we try French? Spanish? German? Japanese? Arabic?

One morning we are in symposium asking questions of Rimini Protokoll’s Stefan Kaegi whose work Remote Berlin we had experienced the day prior. Sinan from Iraq raises his hand and says, “I liked it very much. I don’t have any question for you but I have a few notes…” and everyone in the room who has worked in English-language theater laughs. Sinan is offended, “Did I say something funny?” and the room quiets down, awkwardly ashamed. Afterwards I tell him that in the English-speaking theater world the director “gives notes” to the actors after rehearsal to tell them what they did right but, more frequently, what they did wrong and must fix. To us, Sinan’s question sounded funny because it appeared that he was offering unwarranted advice to Kaegi on how to improve his show. The word Sinan was looking for was “comments.”

Over a week of collegial conversations I am told that in Ukraine the conservatives speak Russian while the artists and liberals try to preserve Ukrainian. Belarus is losing its language to Russian altogether. I am  told that in the German language, sentences end with a verb so you have to know what you’re going to say before you start speaking, which is perhaps why they are so methodical and precise? Generalizations persist but in every cliché there’s a kernel of truth. Does language inform how we experience the world or is it merely a fragile system of symbols, an attempt to bridge the gap of existentially isolated Selves trying to connect and make meaning with Others?

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