Prof. Cohen explores Berlin with students in GER 270

German 270 Students at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate

In October 2012, thanks to generous funding through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Andrew M. Parker, a Trustee of Gettysburg College, seven students of GER 270, "Transnational Writing and Film: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the New European Context," accompanied their professor, Laurel Cohen, to Berlin, one of Europe’s most ethnically diverse cities. There they met with several organizations dedicated to helping Berlin’s migrants and explored districts that house predominantly transnational populations. The students share their experiences here.

Sunday, October 7, 2012
In the early morning of Sunday, October 7, 2012, we arrived by airplane in Amsterdam. Flying through a truncated night, we were finally in Europe. My first impression of the airport was that it was not glaringly foreign. It appeared very similar to JFK with most of the advertisements in English. We all proceeded to the McDonald’s, where we rested and set out to explore the duty-free shops and the food selection. I took the chance to investigate McDonald’s menu in order to see how an iconic American company differed in a foreign land. Since it was an airport, they had several different breakfast menus on offer, each labeled with a different city from a different country. The souvenir shops had a lot of windmills and wooden clogs, and the restaurant named “Bread” seemed decidedly European, offering a selection of breads and sandwiches for breakfast. The first obstacle that befell members of our group was the acquisition of euros. The airport bank contained two ATMs, one labeled “$” and the other “€”. Afraid to lose money, we first found a money changer to get directions in how to withdraw the correct currency. It seemed to go off without a hitch for the members of our group who underwent the ordeal. The second trial we undertook was border control. We waited for well over an hour in a stinking, chaotic mass of humanity just to get our passports stamped and enter the European Union. Fearing that we were going to miss our plane, we high tailed it across the airport to arrive short of breath at our gate. The flight to Berlin was notable only in that every announcement made was repeated in Dutch, German, and English. Looking out the window at the dull, flat farm fields that made up the majority of the Netherlands, I fell asleep to awaken in time to see the landing of the airplane in Berlin. After a quick taxiing, bus ride, and walk, we were out of the door and onto a bus headed for our hostel. Berlin seemed immediately to me to be similar to Washington. There were broad streets, similar sidewalks, and the buildings were all roughly 7 to 10 stories tall. After checking in at our second floor hostel, we struck out down the street toward the restaurants Professor Cohen had pointed out to us on the walk to the hostel from the bus stop. We stopped at a small restaurant and looked over the menu. Not remembering much German, I depended on Drew, Kaitlin, and Kurt for ordering. Luckily, as I came to realize in our travels in Berlin, most Germans, like the lady running the shop, can speak some English. The menu seemed to consist largely of sausage, fries, and fish. I decided to order something German, currywurst, with a Coke. The Coke was small, my first confrontation with the small drink portions in Berlin that would bedevil my mealtimes, but the currywurst was all right. It reminded me greatly of a hot dog. Afterwards, we returned to the hostel, and crashed from jet lag, awakening late afternoon to go to a gallery in the Körnerpark in the Neukölln neighborhood. We traveled by U-Bahn, the Berlin subway, to arrive at the park. Neukölln’s buildings and leafy trees were beautiful, and the park itself was, too. From the walls and structures of the park, I was immediately reminded again of Washington, specifically of Meridian Hill Park. The gallery and associated café were built into the grounds of the park, their front was one of the decorative walls of the park with ivy streaming down. The art installations were the work of Ping Qiu, the Chinese-Swiss artist. There were automated hands tapping oil drums, toilets alternatively spitting streams of water into a pool, and the main feature, a piano with many dozens of wires attached from instrument to ceiling. There we witnessed a concert by what appeared to be a teenage boy. The playing was good, but most of us were so tired that it lulled us to sleep. Following the piano recital, we got dinner in Neukölln at a Turkish restaurant. With Arabic inscribed sheepskins framed on a wall and a Near Eastern décor, the restaurant was one of our first glimpses of Turkish culture in Berlin. We were seated in a back dining room, where we all ordered the döner kebabs we had heard so much about. They were not a disappointment as they turned out to be delicious. With our bellies full, we proceeded back to the hostel, and ended our day with sleep. (Scott Shafer) 

Monday, October 8, 2012
Everyone was expecting Monday to be a trudging day of getting over jetlag after arriving in the middle of the afternoon Sunday, but getting to sleep early that night surprisingly gave us enough energy to jumpstart an entire day of sightseeing! We started off the day catching a bus to Alexanderplatz and later Potsdamer Platz. Professor Cohen shared interpretations and descriptions of many of the buildings and monuments we saw including: the Berlin Cathedral, the Reichstag Building for German Parliament, the Federal Chancellery, the Red Town Hall holding today the Berlin Senate, the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, the Gendarmenmarkt, the TV tower, the New Guard House, and pieces of the Wall separating East and West Berlin. One thing we found interesting on Alexanderplatz was the world clock that was built in East Berlin after the wall was constructed. The clock shows times in various countries around the world in their respective time zones. Later on, after seeing the interior of many of these historical buildings, Professor Cohen took us to her close friend Sylvia’s apartment for dinner. There, we had some of the most delicious pasta as well as a large variety of juices and sodas. While drinking these beverages, we described them in very different ways than we would American beverages. Instead of using terms like “strawberry” or “lemony” to describe the flavors, we used terms like “foresty,” “light,” “dark,” and “sticky” because of these atypical tastes. It was interesting as well to understand German etiquette at the dinner table, learning phrases like “Guten Appetit,” while learning to wait until everyone at the table has their food and drink before consuming. It is truly a privilege to have someone like Professor Cohen to show us the extra nooks and crannies of Berlin so that we can see everything on the surface while simultaneously seeing what most tourists do not. (Kurt Mathisen)

DemonstrationTuesday, October 9, 2012: It's Always Windy in Neukölln
In the course of our adventures in the city of Berlin, we went to Neukölln so many times that we all knew how to get to the subway station at Kottbusser Tor quite well by the fourth day. The neighborhood sits squarely on the Landwehrkanal, a body of water that meanders through the city. This vicinity to the canal makes it windy there quite often, making you want to pull your scarf around a little more tightly. But there is more than the Landwehrkanal that drives the winds in Neukölln. It is a place in Berlin that sits in stark contrast to the old wealthy neighborhood of Charlottenburg, where we lived, which seems to be frozen in the past, forever the pleasant shopping boulevard on the Kudamm. Rather, Neukölln seems to be always changing and alive, a place where the currents of the times sweep through its streets and courtyards like a sandstorm - constantly shifting, never still. We had the privilege of getting to tour this neighborhood first hand on our third day in Berlin after a somber visit of the Berlin Wall at Bernauer Straße and a lunch of Turkish falafel. We attended a tour called Route 44, which was led by a German-Turk by the name of Gül-Aynur-Uzun. Rather than show us the tourist attractions on the main road of Karl-Marx Straße, she instead led us into the deeper heart of the neighborhood, where we were shown a Bohemian village that was inhabited by 18th Century Czechs fleeing Hapsburg religious prosecution and a park that they established to fight the violence they found in their new home. We then moved to more recent times by visiting the site of a former female guest worker's living quarters during the Cold War, who turned out to be Gül’s mother. Being swept into the present, we found ourselves next in a Turkish mosque that was hidden in a courtyard off the street otherwise completely hidden from view. It was funded by the Muslim community in Berlin and had adopted an air of openness that allowed even the women in our group to relax in the men's prayer room. The tour was followed by a visit to a Turkish market that took up the sidewalks of an entire street and bought food that we used to make a very nice dinner at a friend's house that night. The currents of not only the past, but of the problems and shifting sands of change in the present that we discovered in this exploration of Neukölln were breathtaking. The buildings and community changed with the times, a testament to the unwritten story of those not put in the history books, but also of the memories and the people that made the city of Berlin what it is today from the bottom up. We had only to look off another side street to find a demonstration march that was protesting the rising prices of rent in Germany to prove the point. The constant wind that I mentioned earlier seemed all too appropriate for the neighborhood, like a personification via nature of what was happening on a social level in the side streets and courtyards of Neukölln. Maybe that's why no one we passed on the streets seemed to mind the wind: they were part of the current themselves. (Drew Hoffman)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012
We spent Wednesday afternoon in Berlin at the Kurdistan Cultural and Aid Organization. We went in and sat around a large wooden table in a small alcove. We were immediately greeted warmly and served tea in Turkish cups before the director explained the beginnings of the organization and what its goals are. In the sixties, Germany was experiencing a labor shortage and made an arrangement with Turkey to recruit workers. It was through this that many Kurdish people immigrated to Germany. The organization itself was founded in 1975 due to the strength of the Kurdish movement. Originally it was started to foster and develop the identity of Kurdish immigrants in Berlin. It was the first association of its kind in Berlin and has grown over the years. In order to be eligible for government aid the organization has expanded its services to all immigrants. The various programs offered are now utilized by people of many different backgrounds. These programs help to promote integration and participation of the Kurds and other immigrant groups in Berlin. The organization has German integration classes, language courses, intercultural dialogue and even a Kurdish folk dance course. Besides these structured programs we also learned that workers fulfill many different roles when they assist people, from translating official documents to attending court proceedings. During a question and answer period we learned why there was a need to develop and promote the Kurdish image in Germany. The director described how many Turks see all Kurds as being part of the PKK terrorist organization (The PKK is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and has been using violence against the Turkish state in order to achieve an autonomous Kurdistan). In reality less than 5% of the Kurdish population in Germany is actually involved with the PKK, yet Kurds are still often prejudiced against because of this. In fact we learned that some Kurds pretend to be Turks in order to use the same mosques. We also learned that German citizens without a recent immigrant background tend to view all foreigners as the same even though foreigners themselves tend to categorize each other. After we left the Kurdish organization we headed to the Kreuzberg Museum. Once inside we put on some sterile booties before entering a white room with a floor painted as a map of the area. There we were given a headset and an iphone loaded with over 100 local stories. Each one of us walked along the mapped floor and stopped at a circle which we matched with a story. We were then able to hear an individual tell us an event that occurred at that spot while scrolling through pictures of the area on our iphones. The stories were from different time periods and different locations but all within Berlin. We heard about a Muslim boy who took comfort in a nearby church, a new café in which people of all ethnicities were encouraged to have discussions and about life on the other side of the wall. Later that day we were able to visit the remains of the Anhalter Bahnhof. During WWII the Anhalter Bahnhof was one of three train stations used to deport over a third of Berlin’s Jewish population. The deported Jews were sent to Theresienstadt in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and were then sent on to death camps. The station was demolished in 1960 except for the center façade, which still stands today. Seeing the still standing remains and reading about its history was a completely sobering moment. We were able to connect, for many of us for the first time, what we have read and learned so much about to where events like this actually happened. As it got closer to the evening we went to Checkpoint Charlie and were once again able to connect what we saw in person to what we had only seen in pictures before. The street had a section dedicated to informing people about what Checkpoint Charlie was and included a brief history of the area. We were able to read about the Berlin crisis of 1961 and learn even more about this symbol of the Cold War. At night we traveled to the Topographie des Terrors, or the Topography of Terror in English. It’s an outdoor museum located on the site of the former headquarters of the SS and Gestapo during the Nazi regime. Inside we walked through and read hanging posters that described events, personal stories and both the SS and Gestapo. Each poster revealed the monstrosities that occurred during the time. We learned about the public hangings of those who were considered having done a “moral crime” such as adultery. We saw pictures of the SS on special retreats in which they would discuss plans. Poster after poster exposed the calamities that not only Jews but all minorities in Germany were faced with. (Anna Gomez Domeneche)

Thursday, October 11, 2012
Thursday was one of the most enlightening days of the trip. After talking so much in class about what it’s like to be an immigrant in Germany, it was truly fascinating to experience it first-hand from students and staff at the Bildungswerk Kreuzberg, a vo-tech school in Berlin. Here, immigrant students learn the practical and analytical skills necessary to achieve success in Berlin. They can take language classes at different levels and can learn trades such as hairdressing and tailoring. We had the opportunity to talk to a C1 level German class (about the equivalent of an American 300 level class) filled with students from all over the world, including Turkey, China, Poland, Russia, and Iran, among others. When asked whether they felt Berlin was their “Heimat,” or homeland, many of them gave a resounding “Yes!” We were all surprised by the quick response, but they explained that they felt most at home in this multi-cultural city and have developed a strong sense of community with the other students in the class. After talking with the students, we had lunch in the cafeteria. Kevin, one of the chefs who worked there, sat down to talk with us about his experience as an African American from Texas who has been living in Berlin for the past thirty years. He reflected on his relationship with his workers and the lessons he teaches them about having respect for him, the other workers, and themselves. In addition, he talked about cultural differences between Germany and America in terms of racism. He found that Americans tend to try and hide their racism and discriminate in subtle ways, whereas Germans are upfront about it. One of the most interesting things that he said was he prefers this straightforward racism, because then at least he knows how to handle the situation when he is confronted with those types of people. Kevin also told us a great deal about his family, how all his kids know at least two languages, and the value he puts on education as well as family identity. Talking with Kevin gave us a lot of personal insight into the immigrant experience, and, as Americans ourselves, his story really hit home for us. After visiting the vo-tech school, we went to East Side Gallery on the Spree River where part of the Berlin Wall was turned into a canvas. The artwork was truly moving and we could get a sense of the stark emotion and the memories that were left behind after the wall fell. Then we were off to the supermarket to get some candy after a long day (I guess we were good kids!). Later that evening, we enjoyed the Oktoberfest celebration at Alexanderplatz where we let loose with some polka dancing. Finally, as exhaustion set in, we headed back to the hostel where we prepared for our next adventure. (Hannah Joyce)

Friday, October 12, 2012
This day was less busy than the previous few days, but it was certainly no less engrossing. In the morning, our group headed to the Weißensee Cemetery, the second-largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. We were lucky to have found a place in Friday’s schedule to visit it, as we had initially missed closing time on Thursday evening. Professor Cohen mentioned sometime before we arrived that we may very well learn as much, if not more, about Jewish culture here than in a Jewish museum; once inside, complete with each of the men respectfully wearing a yarmulke, it was easy to agree with her statement. The cemetery and its atmosphere were incredible. Nestled in a seemingly endless wood, many thousands of graves and hundreds of mausoleums extended as far as the eye could see. Some were new, some were old, and some were in shambles. Each told a slightly different story – a doctor here, a sister there, with all resting here in God (“hier ruht in Gott”), and together, they combined into what felt like a mosaic of the Jewish community spanning several generations. Once the group managed to reconvene after wandering free in the cemetery, we parted from Professor Cohen for the afternoon. This was our chance to be tourists for a bit and do some needed shopping. The KaDeWe shopping center was our biggest stop, particularly enjoyable for the many sights and smells on its diverse gourmet floor. We did not stay to eat, however; rather, we stopped for the second time at the currywurst café near our hostel for dinner. It is worth noting that our ability to be customers in a German establishment had improved considerably since our first stop earlier in the week. In the evening we met again with Professor Cohen and took a bus tour for the Festival of Lights, which while not particularly amazing, was at least quite relaxing after a long day of walking. There was certainly humor in the mediocrity, though, and a particular running gag was borne out of one of the tour guide’s statistics about the “green” city: There are four trees for every dog in Berlin. We concluded the evening at a small restaurant near the hostel. The atmosphere there was warm and conducive to good conversation. This gave us a chance to reflect a bit on the week together, as well as to acknowledge the group’s cooperation and the success of the trip up to that point. (David Thompson)

German Studies students in NeuköllnSaturday, October 13, 2012
There could not have been a better end to the most fantastic Berlin trip. The day started with a river tour along the Spree and side canals. Even though the tour was very cold, the coffee and hot chocolate were warm, and it was a good way to end the trip by seeing everything again. For me, it helped piece all the sections of Berlin together, rather than just hopping on the U-Bahn and ending up in Kreuzberg or Charlottenburg. Seeing Berlin as a whole further confirmed how much I loved being there. After the river tour, we went to get a late lunch at a small restaurant in Kreuzberg. This was also a birthday celebration for LCP and Kurt because their birthdays were during our trip. When I think back on this week in Berlin, the first memory that comes to mind is sitting in this wonderful little restaurant. It was such a pleasant lunch with pleasant people, including some Berliners we had interacted with over the week. It was nice to be with them one last time to converse and share a meal. The “lunch” lasted until about dinner time, but that was okay because it was the most at peace I have felt in a long time. After lunch, we returned to the hostel, and there I reflected on what the week had meant to me. During the night, we were able to meet up with Steffi, our former Fulbright teaching assistant, and we went back to Alexanderplatz and the Berliner Dom to view the festival of lights again. This trip was one of the best weeks of my life because I felt like I was able to see the world differently, as clichéd as that sounds, and in a way, I realized what direction I want to take my life. Berlin is such wonderful place, especially since we got to experience it in a unique way; for what it really is. (Kaitlin Wingard)