Monday, May 22, 2017

Gedenksstaette- Places of Thought and Memory

This entry picks up on day 11 of my journey back to Germany after I last visited in 1995. From 1993-1994, I studied at Freiburg University during my Junior Year Abroad program at the University of Michigan.  This time, I'm visiting Munich and Berlin, two cities I didn't have the opportunity to spend time in before.

Walking through the Jewish Holocaust Memorial site (near the Brandenburger Tor) was a disorienting experience, to say the least.  The ground was slanted, a feature that's hidden from one's sight when looking straight across.  Coffin-shaped towers grow upward, built out of cold slabs of concrete, but their height wasn't evident unless you're walking through. From a few inches above the ground to what seems like 20 feet high, the towers stretch along a square city block. The memorial site was in stark contrast from the glitzy tourist section near the city gate that surrounded it.  (...such as the party-cycles going by and blaring "Apple Bottom Jeans.")

Janet encouraged us to walk through on our own. We didn't have a plan of where to meet up.  I noticed that I felt impatient about waiting for others at the end. Then it hit me that I have a choice. From my 21st century vantage point, as a European woman born as a citizen of the U.S., I have security about my daily existence and being able to continue my relationships into the future.  I was compelled to think about what it would be like to be stolen from community and family and brought to a concentration camp, herded onto trains like cattle. Victims of the Holocaust didn't get convenient answers. There was almost no hope for survival and finding your family members afterward would be a game of slim-to-zero chances.  Going through the memorial, thoughts like "What should I be feeling?" were  replaced with, "How do I feel?" Along with my feeling that it's risky to walk at nightfall as a single woman, the height of the towers and the experience of falling toward the slabs while navigating across uneven ground made me want to stick to the periphery.  The conclusion that I drew, which seems to be of intentional design, was that while there were no walls preventing the visitor from entering or exiting, there was no escape for the people who were murdered inside the walls of the concentration camps.

On Tuesday, I visited the Jewish Museum of Berlin, designed by American architect Daniel Libeskind.  I could have easily spent an entire day, but I managed to spend about 4 hours.  To say it was fulfilling would be rather strange.  To learn about the Holocaust is really like dwelling in the heart of misery itself.  It was only fulfilling in the sense that learning about the daily lives and traditions, language, and values of the Jewish people lent itself to a sense of balance in understanding what happened not just as a stand against genocide, but a stand against the grain of thinking that leads one to devalue the lives of others.  How does a whole society get misled to the level that Hitler's followers were from his earliest forays into the public eye? In my opinion, this is a question that we should never stop asking.

I was reminded that Jews in Europe went through persecution during periods occurring far prior to the Holocaust, including the Crusades in 1096 when massacres were led in communities of the Ashkenazi- Speyer, Worms, and Mainz. There are accounts of peasants ruthlessly slaughtering defenseless people, attacking Jews while in synagogue, and storming royal buildings to massacre the Jews.  In 1348 - 1350, during The Black Plague, the epidemic was blamed on Jewish communities. Jews were taken as scapegoats, being said to have caused the disease by deliberately poisoning wells.

Stories of discrimination, following Enlightenment, also came forward. While less dramatic, they were nonetheless alarming.  Prohibited from taking jobs with professional craft guilds, as non-Jews could do, many Jewish men earned their living by peddling wares.  Through the city streets and the countryside, they traveled through the week and returned on the Sabbath to rest and see their families. Some had greater success at subverting the limits on life brought about by laws enacted against them, by entering fields like merchandising, banking, teaching and medicine.  There was a time, after World War I, that legal discrimination against the Jews decreased, as several new measures were passed.  Of course, these positive changes would not last.

I chose to enter on the ground floor first, where the basement was subdivided into 3 axes going across the building diagonally, containing Voids, which the architect intended "to address the physical emptiness that resulted from the expulsion, destruction, and annihilation of Jewish life in the Shoah, which cannot be refilled after the fact. He wanted to make this loss visible and tangible through architecture."  The Axis of Exile led to the Garden of Exile. Built on tilted earth, with tall rectangular towers, green olive plants grew on the very top, where birds chirped high above and the wind gently rustled through. One can imagine what it was like to look out beyond the walls of the concentration camp, toward freedom.  Like the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europasstanding in this space was immediately disorienting. Outside, of the garden, there are simple displays of Jewish families and their stories.  

Another "Void" was Shalekhet or "Fallen Leaves," a steel-girded room in which small metal plates with children's faces resting in layers across the floor: Memory Void and Schalechet installation by Menashe Kadishman

One has a sense that Germans have worked hard to foster a sense of tolerance.  It was also good to experience, through German theatre and art, that issues are being grasped and processed head-on. Through my informal observations getting around in Germany as a tourist, immigrant communities are highly visible across the areas I visited, from suburbs near Munich, to the young people drawn to the city streets of Berlin.  It's impossible for me to speak from a recent immigrant's point of view, but it appears that the German people are welcoming them and making efforts to assist them. There's a sense of Nachbarshaft (neighborhood) and Gemeinschaft (community) "Sie kommen nachbarlich gut miteinander" is a way to say, "They get on well as neighbors."

While riding on the trains and reading throughout the trip, I read the novel All the Light We Cannot See by Pulitzer Prize Winner Anthony Doerr.   It added to the Stimmung (mood) that followed me through my time in Germany, 20-plus years after I first visited. In the novel, circumstances unfold in two different settings in France and Germany during the pre-war years. From the intimate perspective of its protagonists, no one knows who the good guys really are, and confusion surmounts.  They get drawn up in circumstances they cannot control.

Americans certainly lost family members in WWII, but our grandparents and great grandparents didn't survive bombings, famine, and military occupation like the people of Western Europe did.  In the U.S., we haven't experienced war on our soil in centuries.  The circumstances of contemporary life are completely different now, but tragedy might still unfold under  a new guise. Upon returning to American soil, I feel newly invigorated to resist against tyranny here and abroad. Of central importance to me, "The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant." ~Maximilien Robespierre

P.S. Many of us learned of the Holocaust through the eyes of one little girl, Anne Frank.  Life magazine celebrates "The Diary at 70" this month. I'll be picking up a copy today.



Farewell Post

On our last day in Berlin, the weather was absolutely gorgeous. In the morning, a few of us took the S-Bahn down to the northernmost part of an island in the Spree river to go see the famous Museuminsel (or "Museum Island"), which is a collection of some of the most well-known museums in Berlin. We saw everything from modern art to ancient Egyptian relics dating back to 3000 B.C. After stopping in a nearby cafe to have a final piece of Kuchen, we spread out on the grass in the sun to gaze at the river and listen to a local musician jam on a marimba.

In the evening we shared a final meal, during which we took time to reflect on the trip as a whole. Janet encouraged us each to order a glass of Berliner Weisse, which was absolutely delicious. After the meal, we headed down to a dance studio to watch a modern dance performance put on by members of the local dance community. Coincidentally, one of the movements was inspired by a Michigan alum, which was a real treat.

I was definitely sad to say goodbye to Berlin. I had an excellent time in Germany, and I feel so incredibly fortunate to have had such an excellent opportunity. Thank you so much, Janet, for such an outstanding trip. Thank you to my trip-mates for making everything an absolute blast, and thank you to our donors and sponsors for making this experience possible.

Vielen, vielen Dank!

- Zofia

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Thinking of past trips

I'm going to post a link to a blog from a former study trip to Berlin. In 2009, I led the second group from my theater class (RC Cultures in Dialogue) to Berlin. It was our first trip where we worked with kids at MORUS14. In years leading up to this, our trips had been to Munich and the Alps. Recently, the study trips have been to both locations as was the case this year. Our program has officially ended, though I'm still seeing some theater with a couple of former students here in Berlin until I head back home.

I view these study trips as some of the most important aspects of learning in the RC German program and I will always, always, always encourage students to immerse themselves abroad.

Here is a link to our 2009 blog.
http://rcberlin.blogspot.de/

It's another beautiful sunny Berlin day.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ich bein kein Berliner...

Today is the true test to see if I can get around Berlin by myself.  We are splitting up until 3pm when we meet for a tour of the Boros Collection, located in the center of Berlin inside a former air-raid shelter. I plan to do a little second-hand shopping then visit the Jewish Museum of Berlin.  Later tonight, we will see a show at the Berliner Theatertreffen, a Festival of plays here. The play is entitled All Genius All Idiot.  (Sounds like something everyone can relate to...haha!)

But let me back up a little bit since I haven't written in this blog since I arrived...

On the first day, we got in a little late after a flight delay from Munich to Berlin, but naturally, we still made it to the theater! (Thank you Janet for planning everything out so efficiently.) We saw One Day I Went to IDL at Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, a theatre and music project featuring a very diverse cast from a number of countries, speaking  a number of different languages.  In Germany, postmigrant theatre, which is the "house specialty" at Ballhaus, is meant to disrupt the narrative that often dominates discussions of the "migrant experience."  The well-known MC, Afrikan Boy, invited everyone onto the stage to dance with the cast.  I was one of the first to join! That won't be a surprise to those who know me.

The next day was a tour with UM alum and historian Carol Scherer through the Bavarian Quarter. Starting in the park, we  There were several signs indicating moments in history when Jews in Germany experienced more and more severe restrictions starting in 1933 when the Nazi Party took power. (Hitler was appointed the chancellor of Germany by the President of the Weimar Republic, Paul Von Hindenburg. In 1934, when the president died, Hitler declared himself Fuehrer.)  In March of 1933, an ordinance declared that Jewish people couldn't get reimbursed for medical costs.  By 1937, if state employees had Jewish spouses, they could declare themselves divorced.  In 1938, Aryan and non-Aryan children were no longer allowed to play together.  By 1939, if a synagogue was destroyed, rebuilding was prohibited. Also on our route, we came across the site of a synagogue that had survived until 1956 only to be demolished.  The justification was that it no longer had a congregation to care for it, it  A sculpture now commemorates the site. What a lack of foresight.

All Genius All Idiot turned out to be a circus act of sorts, featuring aerial dance, contact improvisation, and music. The performers were very talented, although the direction, especially in terms of pacing, wasn't stellar.  A lot of potential though...

Photos from Berlin



So many updates. So little time. I cannot imagine seeing a greater variety of performances than we have seen, from a grass roots DADA performance by found object "marionettes" on wheels to multi-media theater performances to a play in which the audience determined the verdict in a court trial to personal stories and hip hop by refugees, raising awareness of their situation in Germany to circus-inspired performance art at the Theater Treffen to classical ballet. We saw 8 performances in Munich and with 3 more nights in Berlin, we still have 3 to add to the 4 we've already seen in Berlin. Whew!

Yesterday, we also met 3 more RC German students, who are studying at the Goethe Institut in Berlin. We invited them to join us in a private tour of the Sammlung BOROS, which features installation art in a bunker that was built in 1941. We learned that the bunker after the wall was used as a storage place for fruit and vegetables at one point and as a club in the 90s. Those walls have seen many different scenes! Its owners renovated the bunker, leaving most of it since it is a historic landmark. They did remove 800 tons of cement to renovate the place (remove some ceilings, build the penthouse where they reside) and they rotate their own private collection and invite artists to design installations on site. I've seen two exhibitions there on prior visits and it is always incredible. One room I remembered from a previous installation, in which a popcorn machine (the type in movie theaters) was situated in the corner, popping away non-stop. (The sounds from parts of the exhibition from other areas are a big part of the atmosphere at BOROS.) The popcorn at that exhibition grew to fill the room. and spill out. I think one of the best things about BOROS is that the art historians who present the art are so knowledgable. They help visitors understand the purpose or possible interpretations of abstract, contemporary art and sculpture, they explain the value behind the investment the collectors have made, the history of the building itself, and contributions of the various artists represented.

Waiting for the BOROS tour
Today the students are out exploring on their own (a flea market and museums) before we go out as a group to another show. It feels like we have been in Germany for months because we have already done so much. On the other hand, it seems as though we just arrived yesterday.





Tour of "Counter-Memorials" by RC Alumna and historian, Carol S.

When we see these shows and discuss them later, I think: This is what all education should be like!
GDR Aesthetics and architecture with Sputnik--a gift from Russia
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Die Gedächtniskirche
Show at the Schaubühne. Fabulous technical effects and excellent acting.
Tour about the GDR.

Yummy, affordable food is everywhere in Berlin.



And always interesting posters and advertising. Everywhere.


 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Berlin, Berlin

Berlin is a an intrernational city full of life and it is so exciting to be here. I love hearing the different languages on the street and trying so many different kinds of delcious food. And as Helmut pointed out, our wonderful tour guide, the architecture cannot lie. The buildings in Berlin tell the truth of its history. He showed how the DDR changed the landscape and the reliefs or designs of buildings still stand for the working class. He was an intelligent tour guide and willing to answer any of our questions. He, like Carol the day before who gave us an amazing tour of counter memorials, tied his personal history in with the history of the city. Both tour guides gave unique and intellectually challenging tours. I left thinking about the role of memorials in cities and of the fall of communism in east Germany. Both are tough topics but Carol and Helmut informed us and challenged us to not let history fall to the side. As always, I'm having an amazing time in Berlin and I can't wait to go explore he city today. And I must mention, the show last night—Ungeduld des Herzens—was the most amazing one yet.

-Amy

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Pics from the alps, Munich, and Berlin

Germany is absolutely beautiful and we are soaking it all in. We are also very tired! : )
For this trip, I tried to build in more alone time, but it still seems to get absorbed by transportation time. Anyhow, even the travel time tends to be beautiful.
Program from Kleines Spiel: Performance based on his poetry


Set for Performance of Eugenides' Virgin Suicides
Kleines Spiel is really, ummmm, klein. About 35 people fit in the theater.
We met two more RCers at the Kammerspiele main stage
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So proud of this guy. Over half way through the script for Schiller's Räuber which we saw in Munich.


A sample of our absolutely gorgeous views from the train.
(pssst. Don't look now, but Zofia is sitting in the Kinderspielecke of the train.)