2011 Conway Scholarship Report - by Stefanie Ickert

BerlinGermanness has always played a large role in my life, and it’s no coincidence that my master’s research project is centered on it, as well.  Growing up with four grandparents who had emigrated from Germany in the early 1950s ensured that my life was filled with all kinds of Germanness. 

Of course, being German to me meant singing German songs, and eating lots of Spätzle, Klöße, Bratkartoffeln, Weißwurst, Rote Grütze, Roggenbrot, Leberwurst, Bretzel, and Rouladen every Saturday and Sunday.  My research in some way examines these kinds of identifications, among a group called the Volksdeutsche between 1919 and 1939.  The Volksdeutsche in Poland were a group of “ethnic Germans” who were made Polish citizens after the borders were redrawn following the First World War.  While I had been to Germany before, mainly to visit relatives in Essen, I had never had the chance to experience Germany on my own terms, and explore the spaces I felt were much more connected to my own understanding of Germanness.  Further, my research this past year raised questions about the grounding and fluidity of national or ethnic identifications, and the extent to which Germanness was tied to particular spaces.  As the recipient of the Conway Summer Travel Fellowship, I was able to investigate these questions over the summer.  Spending nearly four months in Europe, I had a chance to improve my German, find traces of the Volksdeutsche where I least expected to find them, and reassess my own German identifications. 

I started my travels in what could reasonably be considered the centre of Germanness, Berlin.  I had signed up for a two month intensive language course, at the Goethe Institute, which consisted of 6 hours of class, and at least 2 hours of homework every day.  It certainly was no vacation, but having a better understanding of the German language was crucial for how I would experience Germany over the next few months.  I also was able to make contacts from around Europe, as most of my classmates were from non-German speaking countries with their own insights into Germany’s place in the European Union and their own ideas about Germany’s role in the past.  My goal in exploring the practice of Vergangenheitsbewältigung was well underway. 

One of the most unexpected encounters with the practice of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or perhaps the lack thereof, happened one evening at a Spargelessen party with real “Berliners.”  Fresh from finishing a paper on the practices of remembering and overcoming the DDR, I, over a delicious meal of thick and tender white asparagus, covered in melted butter accompanied with potatoes so buttery I thought my arteries would be completely plugged by the night’s end, excitedly shared my thoughts and “discoveries” regarding Vergangenheitsbewältigung with a few guests.  The conversation quickly became heated, and before I knew it the entire table was involved in the discussion, German flying around too loudly and rapidly for me to even try to follow.  One of the more vocal guests, Stefan, turned to me and said, “This Vergangenheitsbewältigung you speak of, it’s something the rest of the world cares about, not us Germans.  We’re over the past, we don’t care about the wall, or what museum is created where.  We weren’t around during the war, and the DDR is gone; we’ve moved on, and it’s misleading to suggest we’re obsessed with this concept the way the rest of the world is.” 

This  undermined everything I thought I knew about this concept, having read about this German idiosyncrasy in an academic context, and also feeling as if I understood Vergangenheitsbewältigung on a personal level through the identifications I formed in a diasporic community.  This event, to me, exposed the divide between policies of the German state and the people they were supposed to represent.  Did these state practices actually reflect the ways Germans felt?  According to Stefan, being an inheritor of the German state did not make him complicit in anything, and feeling guilty was not only unnecessary, but unproductive and self-indulgent. 

The architecture of Berlin itself, however, was reason enough for me to be skeptical about universalizing Stefan’s comments.  Everywhere I went, I only had to look down to find small gold plates embedded in the ground marking the name of the former resident, the date they were deported, the camp they were deported to, and the date of their death.  These constant reminders of the Holocaust, called “stumbling stones,” were created by the German artist Gunter Demnig, in the hopes that when pedestrians walk along the sidewalk, they would “stumble” over the gold plates and be confronted with traces of the Third Reich’s victims.  These gold plates were everywhere; it was impossible to walk down a block and not see them.  And they weren’t restricted to Berlin; Marburg, Görlitz, Bautzen, and various other cities in Germany were peppered with these golden reminders of the past.   While these stumbling stones are now in part supported by government agencies, the project was conceived and begun by an independent citizen and artist.  The prevalence of these plates, their state support, and private origin, reveal that although Stefan’s comments complicate academic conceptions of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, open remembrance of the past is a part of everyday life for Germans.  Whether they want to acknowledge it or not, the past will confront them. 

Further reminders of attempts to work through the Nazi past, in particular, appeared in the form of “Gegen Nazis” stickers I would find slapped conspicuously on trash cans and throughout public transit spaces.  Anti-Nazi slogans could be found spray-painted on buildings and train cars throughout the places I visited in Germany.  It was striking that graffiti, which is often conceived of as a defacement of public property, was reminding passersby of the historical burden of being “German.” It complemented government-sponsored projects, and reinforced the presence of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in the daily lives of Germans. As a student of history, in whose field the comment is often made that we study the past to make sense of the present and perhaps prepare for the future,  I found these reminders ironic in their plea to not only ensure the past was remembered, but to prevent the past from repeating itself in the future. 

When I wasn’t busy in class or studying German, I took time to explore the city and visit some of the exceptional monuments and museums of Berlin.  The very first museum I visited, the Jewish Museum, also turned out to be my favourite of my four months in Europe.  The museum charts the history of Jewish life in Berlin for the last two thousand years, using an interactive model to create one of the most engaging exhibitions I have ever seen.  The architect in charge of the museum’s design, Daniel Libeskind, used space in a way I had never experienced before; in addition to the unconventional zig-zag layout, he had created five cavernous “Voids” running vertically through the building.  For Liebeskind, the Voids, not really classified as museum spaces, refer to “that which can never be exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin history: Humanity reduced to ashes.” One of the Voids, in particular, caught my attention.  The Israeli artist, Menashe Kadishman, created a steel sculpture, “Shalechet” (Fallen Leaves), which consisted of thick steel discs, slightly reminiscent of human faces, covering the entire floor of one of the Voids.  The idea, or so some people believe, is to walk over the discs and listen to the sound they make, which might symbolize the millions of people whose voices are forever lost. Thus, the very architecture of the building is inextricably bound up with the problem of memory. 

Another favourite museum was ­the Topographie des Terrors, a museum which seeks to expose the “European dimensions of the Nazi reign of terror,” and is built on top of where the headquarters of the Secret State Police, the SS and the Reich Security Main Office were located during the “Third Reich.”  Thus, this site of remembrance, one of the many in Berlin, is built on the actual “site of the perpetrators,” providing a striking juxtaposition between the past and the performative functions of remembering. 

Several times, our class at the Goethe Institute received assignments to explore districts of Berlin and talk to the residents about the district.  On one such assignment I discovered Kreuzberg.  After spending a few afternoons exploring the eccentricities of the district, we quickly discovered that Kreuzberg was one of Berlin’s most diverse districts, and home to the majority of Berlin’s Turkish population.  One resident described Kreuzberg to me as a place with “an anarchist soul.”  I was lucky to be in Berlin while the annual festival called the Karneval der Kulturen was taking place in Kreuzberg.  The festival celebrates different cultures and heritages with street parades, concerts, art, crafts, and food.  The cultural diversity in Kreuzberg also made it home to some of the best small restaurants in Berlin.  Aside from the gastronomical delight of Il Casolare, a small Italian restaurant beside the Landwehrkanal (a 10.7 kilometre long canal running parallel to the Spree River) that arguably makes the best Bufalina pizza outside of Naples, there were falafels, döners, Mexican food, and an ample supply of gelato.  Needless to say, I spent what free time I had in Kreuzberg. 

Of course I couldn’t visit Berlin without going to the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, Alexanderplatz, Treptower Park, the government quarter with the Reichstag Parliament, the East Side Gallery, Humboldt University, the Schloss Charlottenburg, and the Tiergarten.  I saw the exact location of Hitler’s bunker,  Museum Island, Potsdamer Platz, Unter den Linden, Bebelplatz (the scene of the Nazi Bookburning), the T.V. Tower, and the spectacular architecture found at Gendarmenmarkt.  Gendarmenmarkt was amazing, not only for its beauty, but because it is home to Fassbender & Rausch Chocolatiers,  the largest chocolate department store in the world.  It has multiple levels and a chocolate restaurant!  Locals claim that just stepping into the store and breathing the air will make you gain weight - I spent a lot of time there. 

While in Berlin, I was also able to explore some of those sites from my family’s history.  I spent a lot of time hanging out at Kurfürstendamm, a broad, long boulevard considered the Champs-Élysées of Berlin, as my great-grandfather had worked as a waiter at the restaurant of the Kempinski Hotel – one of many luxury hotels that could be found on Kurfürstendamm.  When I called my grandmother to tell her I had been to the Kempinski, she proceeded to give me a long list of other places that were important to her.  For me, as a kid who had grown up listening to stories about Berlin during the war, the Russian occupation of Berlin, and the Berlin Blockade, it felt like I had already been to these places, and that I had some kind of personal connection to them. 

After a few months in Berlin, I travelled southwest to Marburg, in the state of Hessen.  Marburg is a small university town built on a hillside, at the top of which stands the Landgrave castle, built in stages between the tenth and sixteenth centuries.  I was able to eat lunch every day in the castle park, as it stood next to the Herder Institute, where I was undertaking research.  My penance for all of the chocolate, pretzels, and beer I had consumed in Berlin was the daily hike to the Herder Institute, which to me might as well have been Base Camp of Everest. 

Marburg was important to me for a number of reasons.  First, it was home for a while to the Brothers Grimm, whose fairytales helped to form part of my childhood sentiments of Germanness.  The story of Frau Holle has always been my favourite.  The Grimms are supposed to have taken the story from an oral tradition originating in Marburg.  Obviously my grandmother received another exciting call, as she and my mother were instrumental in nailing home the moral of this story that exalts cleanliness at the risk of gruesome suffering and death.  Furthermore, my grandmother had spent quite a bit of time in Marburg before and during the war, and I came equipped with the names and addresses of her old acquaintances. 

Marburg also holds the oldest protestant founded university in the world,  Philipps-Universität-Marburg, founded in 1527. In 1529, a great debate between Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli took place, organized by Philipp I of Hesse. The importance of religion in  Marburg’s early history was evident in the number and beauty of the various churches of the relatively small city.  Elisabethkirche, in particular, was of interest to me, as it was not only the most striking example of gothic architecture in the city, but the site of Paul von Hindenburg’s grave, as well as a weekly farmer’s market. 

While these places were amazing and reason enough to be in Marburg, the real reason I was there was the Herder Institute, and Marburg as a site with Volksdeutsche connections.   After the Second World War, most of the Volksdeutsche were expelled from east central Europe, and relocated in various cities throughout Germany, forming diasporic communities of their own.  Marburg was home to one such community, and living in Marburg for three weeks gave me small glimpses into the spaces where expellees lived as I combed through their paper traces in the archive. 

The next stop on my adventure was Gdansk.  Though I hadn’t planned my journey in any logical order, the moves I was making seemed to follow a path of tracing the diaspora back to the spaces where German-Polish identity was contested.  Gdansk, or, as my grandparents would call it, Danzig, was particularly germane to my research interests, as it is one of the most clear examples of overlapping identifications – Poles, Germans, Russians, and a host of local regional identifications stake rival claims to this area.  Gdansk also has a certain amount of personal meaning to me, as both of my grandfathers grew up in East Prussia.  I had grown up hearing stories about swimming in the Baltic Sea and the peculiar character of the white sand in Sopot/Zoppot.  In order to get to Gdansk, I had to take two trains east to Berlin, fly northeast to Latvia, and take an aircraft of questionable integrity west to Gdansk.  The convoluted nature of my travel seemed fitting given the complicated narrative of identity that I had set out to explore. 

Although I had no real picture of what to expect, my first impression of Gdansk would have exceeded even my wildest expectations.  Perhaps one of the most poetic expressions of the competing claims in this city was presented on the city’s walls, where art and architecture had juxtaposed images and portraits of Germans, Poles, Russians, from the regions past. 

Some of the key places of interest I took in during my stay in Gdansk were the medieval Torture House and the Prison Tower, the Great Armory, the Golden Gate, and the 17th century Neptune Fountain, which serves as one of the city’s most prominent symbols. A favourite site of mine was the “Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers” at Stocznia Gdańsk, the Gdansk Shipyard, where Lech Wałęsa led his infamous strike and Solidarność was born.  While most of the plaques and memorial stones were in Polish, it was the steel sculptures depicting the struggles of different workers that were at the centre of the monument, and a written explanation was hardly necessary to convey the purpose of the sculptures.

One trend throughout my journey, besides the prevalence of food, was that I continually and unintentionally came across sites which spoke to issues of diaspora and identity.  In Gdansk, the Post Office was one such site.  Never having heard anything about the importance of the Polish Post,  I was thoroughly surprised when I stumbled across the site on my way to the Gdansk Shipyard.  Beside the Post Office stood the “Monument of the Defenders of the Polish Post Office in Gdańsk,” unveiled in 1979.  Although any text at the monument was only in Polish, I was able to flip through the English guidebook I had picked up earlier on, where I learned that, during the interwar years, the Polish Post Office - extraterritorial  Polish property established during the Treaty of Versailles - had formed an important component of the Polish intelligence group “Zygmunt.”  Given that Danzig was established as a free city,  the Polish Post Office had been a site of contention between different groups living within the city.  The conflict culminated in a showdown between the Polish Post and German soldiers on September 1, 1939, with the Polish post workers fighting off assaults by the SS Heimwehr Danzig (SS of the city Danzig) for 15 hours before being overtaken.  Only four of the 57 post workers escaped the building, and avoided execution on October 5.  The place now stands as a tribute to those defenders of the Post Office, and a symbol of the braveness and heroism of Poles. 

And of course, in keeping with the other trend of my summer in Europe – the food – I had heard much about the fish in Gdansk before, and was eager to try it.  Being from Vancouver, my standards for fish are quite high, natürlich.  And I am happy to report the hype was not misleading;  the fish was amazing!  They served their fish – of all kinds – in a variety of ways, but my favourite was the Gdansk fisherman’s soup, which incorporated several types of fish in a delicious aromatic broth.  And the colours were amazing!  Pink, white, and green flecks sparkled in the golden broth.  It obviously came with a side of thick, dark bread smothered in more butter than anybody should consume in a year, and a dark amber-coloured beer.  I was in heaven.  Unglaublich

I wouldn’t have noticed it yet, but, in Poland, there was a conspicuous absence of German, which perhaps speaks to the political claims to these ambiguous spaces.  What I would find once back in Germany would be that, in borderland cities, Polish and German co-existed in street signs, plaques, etc.  However, even Auschwitz, a significant place in German history, was entirely lacking in German.  One exception to this rule was the German inscription on the famous Golden Gate in Gdansk: Es müsse wohl gehen denen, die dich lieben. Es müsse Friede sein inwendig in deinen Mauern und Glück in deinen Paläste.

If I thought Gdansk exceeded all expectations, the city that quickly blew it of the water was Krakow.  Krakow was, ironically, never supposed to make it onto my itinerary, but thanks to some unforeseen timing issues, it became a substitute for Kaliningrad.   It was certainly the best mishap I could have asked for.  I stayed in Krakow for five days, and undoubtedly only scratched the surface of what the city had to offer.  Staying in the old Jewish quarter of the city, Kazimierz, I was able to not only fill myself up on matzo balls and latkes, I was only a few minutes away from the Main Market square, the biggest medieval market square in Europe, and therefore within easy access to most of the main attractions. 

After a tour of the city on my first day there,  it quickly became apparent that Krakow should’ve been on my list all along.  I had the chance to visit Schindler’s Factory, immortalized in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which is where Oskar Schindler succeeded in saving approximately 1200 Jews during the war.  To my surprise, however, only about one sixth of the museum was dedicated to the story of Schindler and his Jewish workers.  The rest of the factory had now been turned into a museum devoted to life in Krakow during the Second World War, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that at least half of the museum displayed the dynamics that developed between the Poles, Germans, and Volksdeutsche of Krakow before and during the war.  It perfectly intertwined with my own research questions, and exposed that this space had been claimed as an important site for so many different groups.

A surprisingly useful part of my Krakow experience was my trip to Nowa HutaNowa Huta, a small town in one of the easternmost districts of Krakow, was built in 1949 by the Soviet Union in an attempt to create the ideal “proletarian city” that could also be used for communist propaganda.  Built in the style of Socialist Realism, walking through the city was the height of kitsch, which obviously thrilled me.  The kitsch of Nowa Huta was further enhanced by the drive from Krakow, as I was sitting in the front seat of an old Trabant. 

The best part about Nowa Huta, however, was my tour guide.  During our long drives in the Trabant, we discussed my research, and he informed me that his own grandfather, categorized as a Pole, had been forced to attend a German Volksschule before and during the war.  Of course, I had to push this discussion further, and we proceeded to discuss the experiences of his grandfather.  My tour guide told me that his grandfather had nothing but fondness for the Germans, and even now will only watch German television.  He went on to tell me that his entire family considered themselves both “Silesian” and “Polish,” but that their Silesian identifications were most important. 

Feeling emboldened by his willingness to speak openly about his identifications,  I decided to bring up a rather recent and contentious issue: in the last few years there have been calls in Germany to create a centre or visible symbol commemorating the expulsion of the approximately seven million Germans expelled from east central Europe following the Second World War.  These plans have been rigorously opposed by critics living in the regions where Germans, or Volksdeutsche, were expelled from.  My guide was quick to answer: “Yes, well, of course the Germans were victims.  We know that.  No one disputes that many Germans were victims, just like us.  But the problem is about the future.  While people may now still remember what really happened, future generations will see that monument and only remember German victimhood.   That’s the real problem.”  This conversation started to give me a new understanding of the nuances involved in assigning perpetrator and victim status; if everyone is a victim, can anyone really be the perpetrator?  It also made me think differently about Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  Were the practices of remembering more about the present, or about the future? 

Of course, I couldn’t come all the way to Krakow and not see one of the most infamous sites associated with the Nazi regime: Auschwitz.  Having read a great deal about the Holocaust, the historiography of it, and debates over commemoration,  it felt as though this was a site familiar to me.  It was the first time I had ever been to a death camp.  I had been to Sachsenhausen in Berlin, which was primarily a concentration camp for political prisoners, and I had recently been to Theresienstadt (Terezín), a concentration camp just outside of Prague that was created mainly for propaganda purposes, but I had never experienced anything quite like Auschwitz.   I was able also to discuss with my guide the Polish responses to Jan Gross’ controversial Neighbors, which raised questions about Polish complicity in the Holocaust.  She gave me some useful insights into how Poland has reacted to the publication, and also commented on the relocation of the narrative of the Holocaust to the “borderlands.”  I walked away from Auschwitz with a lot to think about, but something that was striking was the complete absence of the German language.  While arguably Auschwitz is a site as important to Germans as it is to any other national group, and many victims of Auschwitz spoke German, it appeared as though there was a concerted effort to erase the language of perpetrators from this space of commemoration. 

I ended my unbelievable five days in Krakow with a memorable Chopin concert in the oldest church in Krakow, the Church of St. Wojciech (or the Church of St. Adalbert) .  Located to the side of the Main Market Square, the Church of St. Wojciech displayed the stunning Polish Romanesque architecture of the early Middle Ages.  The legend of the Church holds that St. Adalbert had consecrated the church in 997 before he undertook the task of bringing Christianity to Prussia, where he was killed and made a martyr.    The Church was tiny, and could only hold four musicians and twelve guests at a time.  This was the perfect way to end my stay in Poland. 

Although I enjoyed my time in Poland, the language barrier was beginning to take its toll on me, so I was happy to return to Görlitz, on the German side of the Polish border.  As I mentioned before, one of the most striking differences I noticed was the prevalence of Polish alongside German. Whereas in the places I went in Poland there was an almost conspicuous effort to leave out German on road signs and plaques, in Görlitz Polish was displayed equally beside German. 

Görlitz is a quaint little city, and houses many beautiful churches and museums.  The best part of Görlitz was my visit to the Silesian Museum, which documents the history of Silesia from its earliest conception to its present incorporation in the state of Poland.  Silesia, according to the museum, is an actual country, which has oscillated between the states of Germany and Poland for hundreds of years.  The location of Silesia has allowed it to form its own fusion of Polish and German cultures into something unique and non-national.  The museum also held documents from Volksdeutsche of Silesia, reaffirming for me that national categories may not apply so easily and unproblematically. 

From Görlitz I made my way back to Berlin, ready to say goodbye to Europe, return back to Vancouver, and prepare for the upcoming semester and all it brings with it.  I packed up my things for the last time reluctantly, but happy that living out of a backpack would be at an end shortly.  My time in Europe had provided me with all kinds of unexpected insights, as well as amazing experiences I never could have prepared for or even had without the Conway Summer Travel Fellowship from Dr. Conway. Unwittingly and unknowingly I had followed the traces of my own diasporic roots from Berlin, Marburg, and the German-Polish borderlands. Thus in the process of exploring Volksdeutsche Germanness I had explored some aspects of my own claims to German identification. What did I discover?  I’m still working it all out.  But I can tell you this: it’s more complicated than what is written on a census, and it definitely includes pretzels, beer, and spätzle.  Prost und Hau rein!

Stefanie Ickert, 2011