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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Berlin Diary 1995 - Prelude

The first time I returned to Germany was in 1990. The Berlin wall had fallen and I was wondering whether the wall to my past would now also fall. Helping this wall disappear was my second task. The first task had to do with my profession. I am an anthropologist with years of research in Africa behind me. Now I was researching a project with global dimensions and that project took me to Germany.

On that first trip to Germany I found several people and learned several things. In Buxtehude, near Hamburg, I found some old school friends and a cousin whom I had last seen in 1953. Then in Werdau, a small hilly town in Sachsen, I discovered that my father's grave had been moved to Berlin. By whom, I wondered? It had to be one of my sisters. But which one and where were they? And how could I possibly find them when they had probably married and changed their last names?

Back in Canada, I followed a German colleague's suggestion and began to write to various Einwohnermeldeämter, registration offices, in various cities, starting with Werdau, to find out where my sisters might have moved to. One day I had an address and then an answer from each of the four living sisters. On the next research trip to Germany I would try and meet these four sisters. That opportunity came in 1995.

I tried to remember what I still knew of my sisters. My mother refused to speak about the past. All I knew is that these sisters were the offspring of a different mother but the same father. Since my mother was 19 years younger than my father had been, these sisters were also considerably older than I. Finally I knew that there had been terrible conflicts between the oldest sister and my mother. Where were we separated and why? We were in an orphanage together near Berlin, but where exactly and when? It must have been in the 1940s, possibly 1947, for in 1947 my father returned from Russian imprisonment and in 1948 he died from the horrible consequences of this brutal imprisonment. Around this time was the moment of permanent separation. With our father dead, each group of children was placed somewhere with its maternal kin--or so I assumed--and one of these maternal groups lived in Berlin.

In 1995, then, all roads led to Berlin. My research would take place in the Archives of the Berliner Missionswerk on Georgenkirchstrasse, in the eastern part of Berlin. We would live in a small apartment in Zehlendorf-Dahlem, in the western part of Berlin. Near Berlin would be the orphanage where we were last together and the cemetery where my father was granted his final rest. Each day I would criss-cross the city and criss-cross too, the heart of my own and my country's history - a country and a history that had become stranger to me than the Africa of my first field trip.

This Diary is a simple record of my equally simple thoughts, encounters, research findings, and tasks in Berlin. My husband and I arrived in Berlin after five difficult years of unrelenting stress. In this state I would do my research and sort out my personal life. I was not at all certain that I would succeed.

The Diary is reproduced as I recorded it, primarily on the route to and from work, usually archives or interviews. It starts in Bonn and Köln with a friend and colleague - one who had helped me find my way home on my first return to Germany in 1990.

December 31, 1994
We left Calgary December 28th. It had turned bitterly cold; the trees stood covered in ice. There was a question as to whether or not the plane would take off. It did.

Calgary, Alberta, Canada

The flight was straightforward and pleasant except for the incident with an elderly woman who sat in our assigned seats but refused to believe it. She also refused to show us her stub with the seat number. By her demand, we had to call the stewardess. When she spoke, I detected an accent. Let it be English, I prayed, not German. But German it was - or so Irving insisted. Let it be an example of human absurdity, I thought, not - already - an introduction to German pigheadedness. But pigheadedness it was. Eventually we had our rightful seats and I could follow peacefully my dreams of anticipation.

From Frankfurt/M. we took the train to Bonn. Our suitcases were lost, but they were delivered the same afternoon in Odendorf where we stayed with our friends and colleagues. Lufthansa delivers lost suitcases promptly. In this case, it saved our having had to carry them.

At the H's the atmosphere is cosy and warm and our friend is filled with things to do and say. His knowledge of languages is superb. So are his desktop publishing ventures.

The question that haunts me, however, is whether or not I shall overcome whatever it is that I am overcoming: anxiety, the past, fear of continuing in the same manner, fear of September and the university routine. Will I last and learn in Germany and enjoy the country as well?

On the evening of the 29th, M's son drove us to the Köln symphony. The avant-garde pieces were fascinating to hear, but what appealed to me most were the old pieces by Brahms. - Of this we must do more in Berlin. - The symphony hall was large and spacious with high ceilings and superb acoustics. Then the wonderful human element: suppression of coughs during the performance, a cacophony of them at each break.

December 30, 1994

Back to Köln to straighten out train tickets, see the dome; see the Römisch-Germanisches Museum, and the Käthe Kollwitz exhibition. Many years before me, Käthe Kollwitz was born but two or three houses from where I was born, on the Weidendamm, in Königsberg, which was then part of East Prussia.

The streets of Köln's inner city are bursting with people. We walk in the rain under a grey sky. At the end of the walk, we reward ourselves with a Torte. I think how similar the western world is and yet how different. Expressions of human bitterness are plastered on the scaffold surrounding the Kölner Dom. Resentment against Christianity is expressed in a crisp, bitter saying - when the crisp, bitter saying expressed only human ignorance of a long tradition.

Did Käthe Kollwitz's anti-war art make the least bit of difference? Did it increase our understanding of human suffering - could it if we were to let it? I found the fixation of her art on motherhood oppressive. But is that not my problem? What she said about World War I, namely, "never again," also looks hollow in light of the fact that World War II followed on its heels, indeed, is its direct consequence. Instead, should not her art have expressed a foreboding of the Second World War? Was her visual expression of suffering too politicised, too centred on stereotypical symbols? - On sterile phrases? - On mother and child? - On solidarity? Take solidarity. To my mind, solidarity is to communism as gay is to homosexuality. And while the meaning of gayness holds no further significance for me, the meaning of solidarity-cum-communism is palpable. It is there in every grey and dilapidated building of East Berlin. It is there in every out of shape and out of work East German.
to be continued
Berlin Parliament Buildings and Spree River

Potsdam - Happy Moment with Irving