A Post on Laughter and Remembering in Berlin

Diversity, tension, relief, and the Stolpersteine

“…and this woman in the chic coat: is she going to clean also?”

Responding to advertisements calling for people to “actively remember,” on November 9 and 10, 2013, in Berlin and other German cities, the commemorative Stolpersteine (or “the stumbling blocks”) were physically cleaned. The Stolpersteine are little brass plaques placed at the entrances of houses whose inhabitants, most often Jews, were deported and murdered in the Nazi period. This form of commemoration was initiated in 1993.

The cleaning of the plaques was itself commemorative, marking the events of the once-named “Reichskristallnacht” of 1938. Though taking place on November 10 and 11, and often in broad daylight, the infamous attacks on Jews in Germany and Austria are officially remembered in Germany on November 9 and commonly thought to have been only nocturnal. The attacks have since been renamed, in both state and popular language, as the “Reichspogromnacht,” or the November Pogrom, foregrounding the anti-Semitism at their core.

November 9 is a loaded day in German history, dubbed “the fateful day,” or “the day of destiny” (Schickstaltag). The Weimar Republic was announced on that day in 1918, and in 1923, it was the date of the infamous Beer Hall Putsch. Finally, the Berlin Wall fell on November 8, 1989. The date’s extraordinary symbolic density has given rise to an abundance of memorial events, which both juxtapose and link diverse dimensions of German history.

The abundance of memorable events around this date is potent, as I discovered when I personally took part in the cleaning of the plaques. As I did so, and followed the media around that week, I observed how the memories of some of these events were mixed up in a way that revealed a focus on Jewish life in Germany. This focus became obvious when reviewing the results of surveys in the leading German press. See for instance these alarming results in Der Spiegel, reporting that Jews are worried about their “religious visibility.”

This visibility was evident in the German press’s depiction of Jews in the majority of visual and written texts: orthodox men going to or coming from synagogue or taking part in other “religious” activities (like erecting a menorah by the Brandenburg Gate). However, among the Jews who were interviewed (for instance, by the daily Berliner Zeitung that day), none were orthodox, and all spoke about how they and their families have affinities to Jewish religion but are not really “practicing.” Berlin set out to remember the “destroyed diversity,” created by getting rid of the Jews of Germany’s past, by looking at today’s Jews and not seeing their diversity.

This notion of “destroyed diversity” was a theme for the year in Berlin. Dozens of museums participated in observing this theme, and the German Historical Museum held a “portal exhibition.” On November 10, short clips about diversity uploaded by young Germans were projected on the Brandenburg gate, and the night after, more than 200 orthodox rabbis, their spouses, and friends, walked through the Brandenburg Gate. The “destroyed diversity” theme culminated in the acts of cleaning the Stolpersteine.

As a sociologist interested in memory action in Germany, when I read about these initiatives, I set out to conduct what I imagined would be an “ethnography of the polishing.” In doing so, I was joined by two colleagues in a walking tour of the Neu-Koelln neighbourhood. We were interested in that particular tour because it was guided by a member of the Stolpersteine initiative, and because this neighborhood is known to have a large number of immigrants from Muslim countries. We assumed we would be confronted with questions related to the various “inclusionary-excluding” ways Turkish migrants and their offspring have been invited to join in remembering the Holocaust.

We started as a group of 25 people of diverse ages and later grew to about 50. We began by the local town hall and embarked on a 1.5-mile walk between Stolpersteine, during which some people joined and others left. My interest was chiefly in public enactments of memory on such a day loaded with competing memorable events, and not German representation of Jewish history in general, which is a larger, fascinating issue on which I will not write here. I thus anticipated that I would view moments of self-embrace and catharsis in which a semi-religious act of “doing something small”: the Berliner told me about what I will see, “on one’s knees, among a group of disciples in the twilight hours of a Saturday afternoon.” (The Israeli in me would add “cold” to give a holocaust chill to it.)

Instead, however, I observed and participated in a public, interactive drama through which the meaning of “doing memory,” or enacting the call seen on billboards weeks before—“actively remember!” and “diversity is freedom”—could have collapsed, but was then ironically restored in using humour and in keeping “diversity” at the margins. I will show how this took place in a couple of ethnographic vignettes through which readers can sense the energy of short interactions in and around the guided tour.

The first demonstrates the restoration of meaning through allusion to the fall of the wall, laced with humour.

Passer-by, apparently Turkish: What is going on here? [We stand on a busy street corner, blocking an entrance to the bank.]

Participant: This is a memorial day for November 9.

Passer-by: Bananas, free bananas! BANANAS!!

(The crowd laughs and the passer-by walks away.)

To take on the very interesting discussion started by Siobhan Kattago’s piece on victimhood and European Memory, what makes this interaction so telling is that another historical reference to the German unification was referred to. The man clearly was aware of the historic date and the specificities of its memories in West Berlin. His “bananas” cry was based on a widespread story that in the GDR there were no bananas, and that GDR citizens responded by storming into supermarkets and spending the welcome money bestowed to them by West Germany on bananas, following the fall of the Wall. As the story goes, there was then a shortage of bananas for months in German supermarkets. So long as meaning is shared to some extent, by the acknowledgement that the day is worth remembering (even if those who remember are compared to monkeys and they all remember different events), the heightened tension of wondering “What will the Turk say?” obvious in the nervous looks exchanged by participants in the remembrance, was relieved in the Turk’s very clever joke. The irony, however, is that when the Turk subsequently left, no one attempted to invite him to stay for the remembrance, and so actual diversity was kept at the margins on this walk.

At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned a woman in a “chic coat.” This woman has a central role in the municipality. She cleaned every Stolpersteine with a cloth, which was given to interested participants in the beginning of the walk (but not offered openly).

Woman (passing by, wearing a head scarf): What is going on here?

Woman (participant): There is a Stolpersteine cleaning action in memory of the 9 of November.

Passer-by: Stolpersteine…

Participant: You know what they are?

Passer-by: For the Jews, who were not allowed to live here and were then killed?

Participant: Yes.

Passer-by: And this lady, in the chic coat, is she going to clean also?

Participant (laughing with the woman): Yes.

Passer-by: Nice! [She stays until the guide finishes talking about the deported family, observes the cleaning, and then leaves.]

Here again there was visible tension in waiting to see whether the Muslim migrant could acknowledge the act. She did, in the same way as the man from the former example: she refers to how the German actors look in her eyes, to a historical date, and acted in the same way—with a joke and then by leaving.

In both cases those local citizens, as expected, did not join the “actively remember.”  The campaign was a well-orchestrated form of flanerie, and the passers-by did something very clever to shake the scene without destroying it, shedding light on the fact that the city, at least in this part, does not lend itself too easily to the flanerie. All forms of “Wahrnehmungspaziergang” (“awareness walk”) must pay attention to outsider jokes. Active memory and diverse freedom is much more easily declared on billboards than enacted on the streets.

That said, not all jokes are created equal. I left the tour an hour and a half later, when a Turkish boy of about 10 made fun of the guided tour as we stopped by a playground. Our guide angrily dismissed him: “Go home and watch sports on TV already.”

Irit Dekel

Previous post

Remembering Janet Lippman Abu-Lughod

Next post

Kierkegaard’s Frenemies: From Adorno to Zizek