An image from my last trip to Berlin

An interesting article appears in the New York Times today about a contest of memory over the date, November 9 in Germany. The date carries double-meaning as the date of the “Kristallnacht,” as well as the day the Berlin wall was breached.

From the article:

Germans take the business of remembering very seriously, and so Nov. 9 has always presented a bit of a challenge — how to celebrate the joy of the wall’s coming down while at the same time commemorating the night of terror known as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass….

Years ago, Germany decided to sidestep the awkward historical coincidence by emphasizing Oct. 3, 1990, as the day of unification, and playing down Nov. 9, 1989. But that effort seems to have lost steam. “Memory is about self-interest,” said Maxim Biller, a prominent writer and commentator who is Jewish. “The Germans wanted to reconcile with history, to have a better corporate identity for society, in a way, yes.”

Read the full article here.

Berlin! (Part 2)

November 9, 2009

berlin3As part of the Eleventh Berlin Roundtables on Transnationality, the Irmgard Coninx Foundation organized a city tour for participants. We traveled through the grey streets of Berlin to the Jewish Museum, the Stasi Prison, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the nearby Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism. Given that the Roundtables focused on “The Politics of Memory,” the sites sparked a lot of discussion between participants. For example, the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism was set away from the street, so it could not be seen unless you turned and walked away from the street in order to see it. The large block (pictured above and below) had a small hole cut out with a looped film running. The film showed two men kissing. (Apparently, this film alternates with two women kissing.) But you have to peer through the hole to see it. Again, there has to be effort on the part of the visitor to 1) see the monument at all, and 2) to see the film.

The memorial was striking in several ways. On the one hand, it used a similar form to many memorials. For example, the grey concrete structure was similar to the stelae in the memorial across the street, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (a memorial that I found very moving). On the other hand, certain techniques, particularly the use of film, set it apart from most memorials I’ve visited. I’m not sure what the memorial is communicating through the use of this looped film – Is it a gesture towards inclusion? A reminder of ongoing persecution? A provocation to understand the past and present in a new way? It remains unclear, but it’s stayed with me – perhaps this lack of clarity and the unanswered questions are the point.

Note: Berlin is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. The New York Times has a cool interactive feature focusing on images submitted by readers. Check out The View from the Wall for more.

berlin2

The Berlin Wall in New York

September 9, 2008

A large piece of the Berlin wall resides in Lower Manhattan, not far from the site of the World Trade Center. Nearby is a Police Memorial, comprised of a short, long, stone wall engraved with the names of the police officers who had died in the line of duty. A pool of shallow water stands in front of it and a small plaque and wreath decorate its edges.

It was the Police Memorial that I saw first. It was standing against the innocuous background of the boardwalk in Battery Park City. It stood facing the absence of the World Trade Center. The piece of the Berlin Wall stood inconspicuously nearby – so inconspicuous in fact that I had trouble finding it. Eventually, I tapped on the window of the security booth located outside the World Financial Center.  “I’m looking for the piece of the Berlin wall. I think it’s near here,” I said. The guard, a large man with a West African accent, pointed in the general direction of the water. “See that painted wall with the face? That’s it,” he said. As I walked away, he mumbled, “It’s just a wall, why would someone want to look at it?” and laughed to himself, puzzled.

I was glad though to have found it. The wall had been painted: on one side – a  large green cartoon-ish face with deep red lips; on the other side – a more subdued but still whimsical abstract design in hushed nude tones. It represented several important moments in history: the construction of the wall after World War II, when it came down in 1989, and the years in-between where families and old friends were suddenly separated by both physical and ideological realities. There seemed to me something beautiful about this fragment of concrete. Perhaps it was in part that the wall had made its way to New York, that it stood here, not far from the Police Memorial as a reminder of a larger, global context.

As I raised my camera to take a picture, I felt the tension between viewing this site as a witness and viewing it as a tourist. The difference between the two subject positions is vast: one commands a position that is engaged, the other suggests a removed distance, an outsider observing but not acting.  In snapping a photo, was I actively engaging with this history? Or merely collecting it for display alongside less emotionally and historically charged landmarks: the Empire State Building or Central Park. Leaving the question unanswered, I took the picture and continued walking south.

At this point, it had started to get dark and by the time I walked back towards the World Trade Center site, the sky had turned from light blue to pink, then to navy. I noticed people on the street, walking quickly past the site, engaged in their everyday lives. Others stopped and posed for pictures in front of the backdrop of cranes, fences and rubble. Again, I felt a sense of disruption: the tension between the everyday and the traumatic, the enormity of history, and the intersection of past and present.