"Eine ganz eigenartige Szene bot sich uns in den Fünfziger Jahren, wenn wir in der Straßenbahn auf der Leipziger Straße zum Potsdamer Platz fuhren. Denn dort mußten die Straßenbahnfahrerinnen aus Ostberlin einem Straßenbahner aus Westberlin Platz machen. Ich glaube im Westen durften nur Männer fahren."

 

 

Valeska Gert und das Theater (mit Peter Penewsky)

Real Audio 6 min

 

 

Sie im Frack, Er im Abendkleid (mit Peter Penewsky)

Real Audio 3 min

einblick

Target Practices: Notes on Loss in New York and Berlin

by Jan Otakar Fischer
March 2002

(c) Frieder Schnock, Berlin

I visited "Ground Zero" for the first time on Christmas Eve. I was in Berlin on September 11th and did not get a chance to go to New York until the holidays three months later. The weather was cold and clear, and the sky was a brilliant blue of the kind that prevailed the day of the attack. My fiancée and I took a subway down to Rector Street, the closest functioning station just south of the WTC site, and emerged warily, uncertain of what we would find. The street was strangely quiet, not dirty or damaged, just devoid of life. Stores were closed, apartments empty. One block away we saw a chain-link fence covered in blue plastic spanning the street, blocking access and any views. Some policemen were standing on the corner, and helped us orient ourselves. I immediately felt uneasy about being thought a "tourist", and found myself explaining to the officers that I was a New Yorker who had been away during the attack and was now back to see what happened. The truth, after all. The officers were nothing if not polite. I wondered if they knew anyone who had disappeared in the collapse, but did not ask. We spent the next two hours walking clockwise along the entire perimeter of the 16-acre site, looking for any gap in the fencing that would offer a glimpse of the wreckage inside. There were not many. I took some pictures, but not when any police or firemen were looking.
When the wind funneled around a corner it sometimes brought a fine dust and the scent of carbonized matter. Police guarded every entrance. Many people ("tourists", "visitors", "onlookers", "the curious"--those like us) were quietly gathered in the freezing air watching the huge trucks drive in and out of the site, some loaded with debris, some having the grime hosed off their wheels. Every truck, squad car, dispatcher's post, uniform and hard hat sported an American flag. Everyone moved calmly, purposefully, repetitively. The only difference between this day and the many that came before it was that volunteer groups were standing at the gates, handing out Christmas care packets to the workers, police and firemen, who accepted them gratefully. To the north of the site on West Broadway I saw how several buildings had had their facades ripped away by the falling South Tower opposite. Down many side streets mostly Asian vendors hawked tee-shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with "FDNY" and "NYPD" logos. On Church Street the largest of the memorial walls was sagging under the weight of hundreds of condolences and flowers. A choir bravely sang a few Christmas carols, struggling with the cold. Nobody seemed to be shopping.
At the end of our tour we had a hot chocolate at an Italian pizza restaurant which had recently reopened. "We lost a lot of customers in the WTC," the owner said. "I used to go over there on delivery a few times a week. I don't know if we'll recover." There was not much more to see, I realized, with some guilty dismay. A week before my visit the last major fifty-foot section of steel wreckage had been hauled down, and the city authorities had managed to block any panoramic view of the site with their fence. My impression was therefore one of absence, of a great blank in the city, rather than of desolation. The towers and their support buildings were all gone, buried, and I could not visit the grave.
The struggle over legacy had already begun, in other words. The argument ran that not only did the crews not want to be hindered in their grueling, dangerous search and demolition work by the ogling of tourists, but many considered it inappropriate for the public to have any kind of access, even visual, to what was both a crime scene and mass grave. The firemen and police wanted to remove every one of their lost comrades before spectators moved in, and it was hard to blame them. Hence the blue plastic. But I had made the trip to test the CNN pictures in my head against the realities on the ground, and the fact that I was limited to a series of restricted glimpses reinforced the counter-productive feeling that I was participating in some kind of undignified peep-show. Was there some morbid sensation in all this? I wondered for a moment. Do tourists go to Auschwitz? Yes, certainly. Do they photograph each other when they are there? Undoubtedly. Do they smile in the photographs? Perhaps occasionally, responding unconsciously to the familiar presence of a camera. At least they are there, trying to understand as best they can. At the WTC site the opacity of the fence was preventing people from paying their full respects because it denied them the ability to get a complete picture of what happened.
There were others in the New York administration, however, who felt the view was important, and just before New Year's a 300-foot-long, 16-foot-high ramped platform was installed alongside St. Paul's Chapel on the east side of the WTC site. Despite the bitter cold, people immediately lined up for up to three hours to get the promised panorama from even that slight elevation. Three more platforms are in planning. The work crews raised no serious protest. Visitors remain sober and reflective. As on the platforms which once lifted West Berliners and tourists to a position from which they could look over the Wall, people come, take their snapshots, buy a tee-shirt and leave, shaking their heads in wonder. The cranes and bulldozers continue their work unobstructed. The dead are still recovered. Perhaps by the summer the clean-up will be finished, and there will be nothing else to see except a great space of expectation.
When the planes struck I was far away, and I did not know anyone who died that day, but I easily could have, and I took it very personally. Many friends saw the horror unfold before their eyes. They saw the second plane hit, people jumping from the towers, the plumes of smoke, the final collapses, the avalanche of dust, the mangled wreckage, the pain in the faces of the thousands streaming away from the devastation. "It was like a movie," so many of them said at first, because they had nothing else to compare it to. Countless New Yorkers have lost friends and family. The death of so many firemen and police has been staggering. The city economy was dealt a crippling blow. For weeks after the attack the city was receiving anthrax in the mail. Anyone living downtown is concerned about the dangers of cancer-causing PCBs in the dust-laden air, and about the pulmonary diseases Ground Zero workers are increasingly reporting. Post-traumatic stress disorder is forcing many to quit or change jobs. The fear of another terrorist attack, maybe even more damaging, has not abated. There are profound levels of anxiety and sadness afflicting nearly every New Yorker, and these feelings are neither typical for residents of this city, nor for Americans generally.
The innocence lost in New York last fall, and felt by all Americans, did not occur because New York had forgotten what evil can do, but rather where it can come from. Now the city must recover a sense of itself, in the uncomfortable role of victim turned survivor, and the process will require the same kind of focus that steered it through the emergency itself. Restoring physical order will be the job of architects working with a legion of planners, developers, officials and bereaved families, under unprecedented conditions. What is new for the USA is that this will not simply entail the replacement of a casualty with a tombstone--the fate of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City--but will mean the restoration of a major chunk of a city once dominated by an icon recognized by the whole world, a structure that broadcast as much about America, for better or worse, as it did about New York. Because memory will play such a significant role in this transformation, it is useful to consider another city's troubled experience--Berlin's.

In the decades preceding World War I, Berlin successfully consolidated its political and economic power, and the city boomed and expanded rapidly, drawing in thousands of workers for the new industries. The war was a disaster for Germany, and in the aftermath the country swayed on the brink of revolution and chaos, yet Berlin itself flourished. The city suffered no damage during the war, and later as the stage for dramatic social unrest it reflected an energy which gave it its unique personality during the Weimar era. The Nazis were intent on destroying much of Berlin and refashioning it to their liking, but they were distracted by more pressing matters: the assault on most every other capital in Europe. In 1943 Berlin was a city that had endured turmoil and tyranny, but was at the peak of it power and confidence as an urban entity. It had not been occupied since the Napoleonic wars, had encouraged the efforts of radical thinking of all kinds in the 1920s, had thrived under the genius of modern architects before the Nazis arrived, and, to the amazement of many, now sat at the head of an empire that stretched from North Africa to the Caucasus. But 1943 was the beginning of the end, and two years was all it took to bring Berlin down to the "Year Zero".
The siege of Berlin started with aerial bombardment initiated by the RAF in November of 1943 and ended with the arrival of Soviet troops in the city in April of 1945. During that time, 33,000 tons of bombs from 363 air sorties, combined with the artillery of the invading Red Army, killed an estimated 100,000 civilians and laid waste to 900 square kilometers of Berlin. One quarter of all the building stock was destroyed, leaving 100 million tons of rubble. More bombs landed on Berlin than were dropped by the Germans on all of England. 70% of the city center was in ruins. The "city of the future" and Capital of the Greater German Reich was a moonscape within which survivors crawled about like ants, scavenging for anything they could find. Whatever spoils remained were divided up by the victorious powers. Like so many other decimated cities--Rotterdam, Warsaw, Dresden, Stalingrad, London, Hiroshima--Berlin had to find a basis for starting over, an order that could guide it into another life. But unlike the other cities, Berlin was not given a chance to decide a coherent strategy for self-definition, one that might be based either on an abandonment of history or its critical embrace. Instead, competing orthodoxies which quickly transformed normal urban functions into symbolic or propagandist events divided Berlin. The wounded consciousness of the city was cemented in place by the construction of the Wall in 1961, and then held in a sort of schizophrenic stasis until 1989, as the city played host to the deadly controlling follies of others. Berliners have only recently gotten a chance to collectively address the trauma that produced their Stunde Null sixty years ago.
When Hitler and his chosen architect Albert Speer were designing Germania, the city that would replace old, degenerate Berlin, they imagined a capital that would endure a thousand years and then, in incongruous acceptance of the fact that no empire lasts forever, would fall into superb ruin. Rome set the standard for architectural resonance: long after the last Caesar reigned, his monuments would speak for him to a subsequent age, even in fragmentary form. Power would inevitably dissipate, but its memory could be made immortal, encoded in the stones of a thousand temples, palaces and fora. Civilizations would come and go, but the material record of their achievements was quite durable. No small comfort to architects, who naturally see their work not only as extensions of themselves but of their entire culture. The urge to represent is coupled with an almost unacknowledged desire to preserve--to make buildings that say, "Here is what we are, and for those who may follow, here is what we were."
Sometimes, however, in a reversal of expectations, people outlive their monuments. The structures erected in a climate of optimistic zeal prove to be ephemeral, no sturdier than their creators. Both New York and Berlin spent most of their youthful existences as progressive, unrestrictedly metamorphosing cities unconcerned about any lessons of history. In both cities progress meant change, opportunity, expansion and risk, and there was more than enough room to juxtapose buildings of competing status, like trophies on an open mantelpiece. With Nazism, defeat and the destruction of its physical core, Berlin lost its naiveté. In 1945 the stunned survivors of its pulverized streets had to begin re-encoding their values in the midst of a memory that was pervasive and enduring. The buildings of the post-war era had to say, "Here is what we are now, and it is not what we were."
The immediate concern in the first years after the war was pure survival, so it was not until 1957 that the city, already well-divided into opposing sectors but not yet walled, held its first major planning competition, in West Berlin. The submitted proposals, which offered solutions to the redevelopment of Berlin's historic center, then under Soviet control, reflected an impulse to start from scratch, to accept the cathartic purging of the 19th century city by 20th century conflict and rebuild with no recourse to memory. Two schemes stood out: Le Corbusier's, which imposed a rational grid of isolated institutional structures culled from a catalog of his modernist building forms; and Hans Scharoun's, which proposed a freely-associated web of organic building elements that rejected an overall order in favor of more local arrangements based on specific need. Both schemes denied the history of the ground upon which they projected their visions; both assumed that the accepted hierarchies of the past were no longer valid; both rejected the idea that Berlin needed to recover its familiar contours to recover a sense of itself. And in the end, both schemes were deemed unacceptable.
Scharoun was able to realize some of his radical conception with his Philharmonic Hall and State Library, which came to occupy the wasteland west of the Potsdamerplatz in the early 1960s, despite an unconvinced city government that does not appreciate Scharoun's work to this day. Le Corbusier had to settle for a commission to build a single high-rise block on the edge of town near the Olympic Stadium, finding more willing clients for his urban ideas only much further away in India. In East Berlin the Communist authorities held their own planning competitions, which ignored the presence of the western zone entirely and followed the prevailing Soviet dictates of monumental social realism to create such avenues as the Stalinallee. By the late 1960s, however, both sides of Berlin were erecting tower blocks on open land--in the West they were considered more modern, in the East more efficient. The planning ethos of the Bauhaus found some currency in the divided city until the early 1980s, when a return to street-making and the traditional 22-meter roof height was endorsed by West Berlin authorities, an ideological shift that gained a city-wide imprimatur after the Wall collapsed and has held sway since.
Now, nearly sixty years after the destruction of Berlin began, you would be hard put to find any prophets of a new order like Le Corbusier and Scharoun plying their trade, because the innate conservatism of the city, really only briefly tested during the Weimar years, continues to inform planning decisions. It makes sure that whatever holes are left to be filled in Berlin will be occupied by buildings that do not call attention to themselves, that reinforce and restore rather than assert. In the minds of many Berliners, the best Berlin was the one that was lost, the one that belonged to emperors and Romantic painters. And Germans have shown, through their industry and expertise, that it is possible to build remarkably accurate replicas of historic buildings or even whole neighborhoods--you have only to visit cities like Wurzburg or Weimar to see what is possible. Technology can clone the beloved, remembered past into being. It is not merely idle nostalgia that is at play here, it is a most serious reckoning of identity, part of the post-war rehabilitating wiedergutmachen process which seeks to identify and return the best aspects of German culture.
The way the German capital speaks to the world through its architecture reveals a curious effort to use the modern to recapitulate the traditional. Berlin, like Bonn fifty years ago, has rejected the idea of monument, but unlike Bonn, it has a monumental legacy it cannot ignore, and which it finds acceptable, even preferable, as long as it is not Nazi or contemporary. The result is a situation in which the sleek new Federal Chancellery can be criticized as "overscaled" and "bombastic", the false ambassador of a re-emergent Germany, while serious consideration is given to the complete reconstruction of the Royal Palace, the ruins of which were dynamited by the Communists in 1950. Contemporary urban design must avoid association with the evils of a tyrannically manipulative order, yet authoritarian icons of the pre-Nazi past can be resurrected with impunity. The destruction of 1945 humbled Berlin in that it eliminated its desire for ostentation, but the city has crucially preferred to take its cues on rebirth not from the design ideals of its most innovative period, the Weimar Republic years, but from those of the earlier, more staid Prussian imperial epoch.
Berlin is no Rotterdam, which after its destruction became a test-bed for progressive architecture. The city's new Jewish Museum is an anomaly, not an exemplar. It is possible that when all its remaining cavities are filled, the German capital will feel as homogenous--and characterless--as Stuttgart or Frankfurt, cities that had a half-century head start in the recovery process. Memory, which locals have learnt to fear as much as indulge, may be partly to blame.

Berlin's wounds close, and, contrary to the hype, with a yawn of bureaucratic certitude. New York's wounds have been opened up. Disaster, of course, has not been unknown in New York during its busy life span. Fire, civic disturbance and especially disease were responsible for many deaths in the city since the 19th century. A cholera epidemic killed 5000 people in 1849; influenza killed 12,500 in 1918. The Draft Riots of 1863 left over 1000 dead, and 16,000 New Yorkers died in W.W.II. Yet these events were spread over a period of months or even years. They generated untold suffering but were eventually distilled within the general flow of urban experience, processed like a fever within a normally functioning constitution. They inspired response--hygienic improvements, political reform, solemn commemoration--but were not transformative.
The worst single-day disaster to hit New York before last September's attack, and the only one that even begins to compare in magnitude, occurred nearly one hundred years ago. In 1904 the ferry "General Slocum," overloaded with passengers on a weekend excursion, caught fire in the East River. Over 1000 people died, mostly German immigrant women and children from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The only trace of that tragedy you can find today is a small marble fountain memorial in Tompkins Square Park, erected two years after the accident, which features the figures of children carved in delicate art nouveau relief. The memorial is so subdued its purpose is revealed only under close inspection. Most of those who died on that day were recent arrivals to the USA, poor and hoping for a better life, and their passing was not mourned for long. Many more arrived to replace them, and the incident, which was not the result of an act of malice, was soon forgotten. For the rest of the 20th century, New York continued to grow with unbounded confidence into one of the world's great cities, plagued like most cities by waves of crime and corruption, poverty and discontent, but unmolested and unchallenged by hostile forces or ideologies. New Yorkers were proud to see their city become the chief emblem of American potential, and while the rest of the world increasingly fell victim to war and terror, New York never imagined it could be at risk. Even the bombing of the World Trade Center parking garage in 1993, which killed six and injured scores, did not serve as a warning. When the planes struck eight years later, the incomprehension was as great as the fear.
The terrorists chose well. The World Trade Center was the symbol par excellence of New York chutzpah, of American capitalist might, of financial invincibility, of a special kind of architectural hubris--the most prominent skyscraper in a city that set the standard for such exotic structures. To obliterate the World Trade Center in a matter of two hours, with minimal means and logistics worked out within the USA itself, was quite simply beyond belief. The iconic value of the World Trade Center gave it its power, and its sudden removal seemed to dissolve an essential part of New York's, and America's, identity. The question was: how to respond?
Despite the shock, New Yorkers handled the initial crisis with impressive calm, devotion and dignity, and in this they share something with the Berliners of sixty years ago. From the mayor on down, the people of the New York confronted an unprecedented reality with sympathy and composure. And now, six months after the attack, after some false starts, it appears that the same sort of clear-headedness may dictate how the physical wound is encouraged to heal. This process cannot be separated from the necessary psychological rehabilitation, whose duration no one is in a position to predict.
The scale of the crime demands that an extraordinary memorial be built, and the importance of the site requires that people return to the neighborhood. This much is agreed by a general consensus. The debate about the extent to which both can be accomplished--the perhaps conflicting demands of memory and of continued urban life--will be vigorous. It is easy to imagine that the clean-up could eventually be so complete that no damage will remain. The scars will be patched and paved and the real evidence of the crime will be untraceable. Berlin is rapidly losing the imprint of world war, and the Wall has been so thoroughly dismantled that no tourist unfamiliar with the city can find its former course. "Don't erase the erasure!" warned one of the viewing platform's co-architects, Diller-Scofidio. Unpleasant legacies have a way of disappearing. How much is their loss a blow to future understanding? Some agencies were quick to suggest a memorial to the firemen who perished (commemoration is hastened for those whose loss is felt most dearly), and proposed a bronze statue based on a photo of three surviving firemen who raised a flag at Ground Zero, Iwo Jima-style. The group was supposed to depict one white, one black and one Hispanic fireman, to reflect the diversity of New York, but astute observers quickly pointed out that all the firemen in the photo were white, like 97% of the NYFD itself. The memorial was soon rejected without further comment.
It is clear that any memorials must involve a good deal of meditation and agreement if they are to be successful. On the supposedly less controversial question of urban planning, it was not edifying to see how quickly architects leapt into the breach. Many unsolicited opinions about the reconstruction of Ground Zero were offered while the site was still smoldering, and they ranged from proposals to build even higher towers, sow the area with grass, or flood the building footprint with Hudson River water. In a slightly more organized approach, the Max Protech Gallery sponsored an exhibition in which 61 established architects were asked for ideas, and the results were mixed, ranging from the exuberant to the solemn to the weird. What most of the entries shared, however, besides over-indulgent computer graphics, was an impulse to conflate practical and symbolic functions, making the architecture serve as a memorial, and vice versa. As far as I know, nobody declined to submit a proposal on the grounds that it was too soon to make such judgments. Every architect knows the commission for the site will be one of the most important of any career.
But despite the many designers already on the prowl, and the interests of so many different parties, the signs are that the city government, under the guidance of the new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, will pursue a deliberate policy. The World Trade Center will not be rebuilt. There is an understanding that the urban forces that produced the twin towers in the 1960s, a time when modernism was enlisted in the cause of progress that demanded ever higher and bigger buildings, are obsolete. There is an awareness that such high concentrations of workspace, cut off from the city and requiring enormous infrastructural expenditures, are no longer humane or efficient. Even in the immediate aftermath of the attack, there were few declarations of love for the WTC from architects or the public, or from anyone who worked in the buildings. The towers were scaleless and monolithic, provided no expansive views through their slit windows, did not provide a comfortable working environment, took time to ascend and were surrounded by vast, empty plazas. Their appeal, as many were surprised to discover with their disappearance, lay fundamentally in their iconic value, which is beyond the realm of aesthetics or function. There is no mood, now that they are gone (despite the suggestion from certain quarters that new towers would show the perpetrators that, "the USA will not be intimidated"), to reproduce the kind of gigantism that went unquestioned thirty years ago. There is also an unspoken desire not to provide any more obvious targets for future attacks. The city wants to reclaim a bit of territory it lost long before the attack, in 1973, when the towers sucked the life of downtown up into the clouds. Monumentality has few fans these days in Manhattan.
In this sense the attitude is much like that of Berlin after the war, when the overbearing hierarchies of Nazi architecture and urbanism were shunned, at least by the democratic West. This is not to say that the skyscraper is dead as an American archetype. Tall buildings will continue to be built, especially in New York, but perhaps in ways that will not draw so much attention. They may become sleeker, more plastic, more cognizant of their surroundings. Ground Zero will get a memorial, probably the result of an artist-won competition, and by it or around it will most likely stand a mixed-use ensemble of buildings between forty and sixty stories tall, about the same size as the surviving buildings in the area. With any luck, the buildings will be more integrated with their neighborhood and ground level services, and will include more space for public use.
Does a rejection of bigness and a reluctance to offend mean the WTC site will disappear into a practiced anonymity, like most of Berlin? It is surely too soon to say, but a radically new paradigm along the lines once proposed by Scharoun, or even an organicism that a Gehry or Libeskind might prescribe, is unlikely to be endorsed for Ground Zero because corporate developers are still a rather conservative bunch, and any design will face an unusual share of dilution through compromise. Before the attack the omnipresent New York developer Larry Silverstein secured a 99-year lease on the WTC, and he has already retained the services of America's best-known corporate architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, to begin feasibility studies. The Max Protech Gallery scramble may endure only as a footnote when the larger story is written. But most Americans want to see something remarkable built on the site of the disaster, and the pressure to do so will be great. Millions of people will come to visit the site in the future, and they will not want to be disappointed as they are at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, where office-block banality has removed all traces of what was once the world's most famous flashpoint.
When I watch New York responding to its crisis nonpareil, I am struck again by an instinctive American unwillingness to allow pessimism or reproach to inhibit action. Just as New Yorkers can learn from the perseverance and meticulousness with which Berliners went about rebuilding their city after the war under the intense scrutiny of a new world order, today's Berliners can still learn something from the way New Yorkers are willing to abandon old organizational models when they have outlived their relevance. Cut your losses, forge ahead, as the brokers say. In the wake of September 11th, New York is stressing renewal, not reconstruction. It does not feel the need to replace what was lost, in the absence of any compelling arguments to do so, even when the technology allows it. New York will remember, but not be seduced by nostalgia or paralyzed by memory. Those Berliners who wish to resurrect the Royal Palace, who could not decide what to think about a Holocaust Memorial, or who consider every hole in the urban fabric a shameful disruption rather than a site of possibility, should take note. They forget that Berlin, too, was once a forward-looking town, an engine of change and reaction like New York.

(c) Frieder Schnock, Berlin

 

"Wir haben immer so gefroren und es gab ja ganz wenig zu essen. Daher ist mir ein Erlebnis immer gegenwärtig geblieben. In unserer Straße in Schöneberg gab es eine Bäckerei. Eines Tages wurden wir von Bäckermeister Hannemann und seiner Frau eingeladen. Der große, schwarz-weiß gekachelte Backofen war noch warm und mein Bruder und ich durften uns auf den Ofen setzen. Und zwar in richtige Liegestühle. Dazu gab es dann Fruchtsaft und herrliche Brote. Und um unsere Beine schnurrte eine elegante braune Katze mit einer weißen Nase. Ich war mir damals ganz sicher, daß das weiße Mehl aus der Backstube die Ursache dafür war." Elisabeth F. (Winter 1948)

 

 

REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST
by Hilary Lewis

It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better.
John Steinbeck*

With great interest, I read an article in The New York Times, "Uberkitsch Artifacts Evoke Old East Germany," which discusses the growing fascination in today's Germany with the imagery of the former East, something termed Ostalgie, a combination of the German for East and nostalgia. At a time when Germany is still absorbing the full costs of reunification and suffering 12% unemployment, it is imaginable, though hardly laudable, that some would look back with fondness on what used to be on the other side of the Wall.

No matter how challenging the current economic climate in Europe may be, I have no doubt that few in the now unified Germany want in any way to return to the time when East German border guards shot those desperate enough to attempt to flee. The Times went on to describe a current exhibition in the German capital, "Art in the G.D.R.," which in fact contains items that are highly critical and far from nostalgic in their references to the now defunct government of the East.

Surely, there is a difference between amusement with the graphics associated with state-sponsored cosmetics and the embrace of full-blown state-sponsored propaganda and perhaps the show presents that. When the artifacts are kitschy products, they hardly seem threatening. What's the harm in enjoying their passe look? But, it bears noting that the East's visual culture now being celebrated is inextricably linked to its own failed state. As the Times mentioned, many in Germany feel just this way and reject Ostalgie.

Having not yet been to the exhibition, which I'm sure is interesting, I will leave it to others to comment fully on it. However, I am willing to address the nostalgic take on the visual remnants of a truly lousy political regime. Unfortunately, it is nothing new to be taken in by a visual culture and yet be ignorant, or in denial of its roots. Some pretty heinous societies have produced some very impressive art and architecture and many claim that you can appreciate these things as separate and distinct from politics.
But can you?

I recall sitting in a rather swank private club in Hong Kong a few years ago. It had been fully outfitted with art depicting the Communist government of Beijing. Ironic in its placement, but not in its creation, the stuff was the real thing, brought over to the capitalist outpost as perhaps, a playful statement about the other China. Large murals of intense workers in Mao jackets graced rooms that today fill with businesspeople sipping whiskey. The images had a potent, yet kitschy earnestness -- honest-to-goodness political artifacts. One has to assume that there was no great nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution among the well-heeled members at the bar. But there was also an element of loving pride about these very Chinese things.

It is understandable that there can be an attraction to state-sponsored imagery. Totalitarian regimes have known about this for a very long time, which is why they produce it. The so-called nostalgia, or in the German case Ostalgie, for such stuff comes not only from a deep longing for things past, but the necessary absence of those things in the present. Democratic governments that embrace diversity do a pretty poor job of producing such imagery. There are too many brands, too many objects and too little desire on the part of the government to put its imprimatur on the culture.

All this talk of nostalgia made me re-examine the word's etymology. Based on the Greek "algos," pain, and "nostos", to return home, nostalgia is less a happy sentiment than one of disturbance. Reading about Germans's longing, however misplaced or ironic, for a time when the Wall was up and human rights and economic opportunity were down, I feel a fair amount of algos myself. Transitioning to a market state from a state-sponsored one is hardly an easy voyage. Perhaps some people in Germany just need a little comfort food for the journey.

Those who weep for the happy periods, which they encounter in history, acknowledge what they want; not the alleviation but the silencing of misery.
Albert Camus *

Copyright 2003 Hilary Lewis. All rights reserved.

*Both quotes: The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press.
Copyright 1993, 1995, 1997, 1998 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

 

Berlin, Alexanderplatz.


Einst das lärmende Herz der deutschen Reichshauptstadt, später die Vorzeigeplaza des ersten Arbeiter- und Bauernstaates auf deutschem Boden und heute die größte nichtangefangene Baustelle des wiedervereinigten Regierungsberlins. Ein Platz mit Geschichte, aber ohne Geschehen. Eine Handvoll Menschen, die sich in seiner zugigen Leere verlaufen.
Doch der Eindruck täuscht, denn das wahre Leben spielt nicht auf dem Alex. Sondern darunter. In jenen grün gefliesten und spärlich beleuchteten Katakomben, die im Minutentakt ungezählte Menschenmassen zwischen dem S-Bahnhof und den U-Bahn-Haltestellen hin- und herpumpen. Ein Stück Stadt, das sich unter der Oberfläche seine eigenen Wege sucht und unerwartete Zusammenhänge schafft.
Vor 1989 verband der lang und elegant geschwungene Bahnsteigraum der heutigen U2 zwei völlig gegensätzliche Orte der realsozialistischen Bedürfniswelt: Ein großes Buchgeschäft im Ostflügel des Behrens-Baus am Südausgang und den Intershop im Hotel International an der nördlichen Platzseite des Alex. Wenn es regnete, konnte man die U-Bahnstation als unterirdische Passage benutzen, um mit dem neuesten systemkritischen Prosawerk unter dem Arm die westliche Konsumwelt bewundern zu gehen, sozusagen einmal durch die Mauer.

Andreas Ruby


THE OTHER AT THE ODER
by Hilary Lewis

America's National Public Radio (NPR) has been running a series on illegal immigration from Mexico into the United States. The tales are uniformly sad. One morning, the profile was of a young woman who had made it across the border to a ranch in Texas, where the owner was apparently most displeased to learn that, not only was there an illegal on his property, but also she had dared to bathe in water normally used to refresh his cattle and had contaminated it with soap. NPR reported that the rancher was incensed that she cared so little for his property. When asked why she had rinsed herself where cows normally drink, she responded that she was simply so dirty. She had just crossed the rugged Texas frontier. One must hope that listeners were a bit incensed too that any woman faces such a predicament.

Another story was of a young man who wore many layers of clothing so he could get across the extremely tough terrain of the borderlands. He explained that in order to traverse these, he had anticipated his need to roll across jagged land and scrub and therefore assumed some layers of clothing would be torn off. The strategy was a difficult one considering that temperatures at that time were on par with a summer in Baghdad.

It is beyond the imagination of most in the West to fathom how severe conditions must be that human beings are willing to undertake such miserable expeditions. I have to accept that things are pretty grim south of the border on hearing these reports on my morning radio. Mexico, while poor, is not Cuba or the former Iraq - not a place where the average individual fears great political repression. It is, however, greatly lacking economic opportunity. Clearly, that is enough for people to make a run for it across an inhospitable landscape and perhaps end up in an even less welcoming political environment of immigration law.

This past spring, I had the privilege of attending a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York of a new German film, Lichter (which in the U.S. was titled "Distant Lights") by director Hans Christian Schmid. This beautiful and sober film depicts the struggle of Eastern European economic refugees seeking a better life in the West. When you're coming from Poland or the Ukraine, your target is more likely Germany than Texas, and in particular, Berlin. Like the Mexicans described above, Poles and Ukrainians (and surely many others in neighboring countries) are willing to subject themselves to difficult and demeaning circumstances in order to have a chance in a Western economy. Schmid's exquisite picture painfully lays out the soul-damaging paths so many people follow because they have decided there is so little offered back home.

In Europe, where one's place of origin matters far more than in the United States, this displacement seems all the more wrenching. The film makes clear what most of us already know, Poles and Ukrainians are not Germans and probably never will be. This does not deter them from spending money they don't have, or suspending their morals, in order to obtain what they feel is a more important goal, economic security for their families sought on the other side of the Oder.

It is a very old story, the search for opportunity where none exists back home - and one that predates the rise of the Iron Curtain. However, in Berlin, the pressing need for jobs by nearby populations appears to have taken on a greater urgency since the Wall came down and so many Eastern states and their communist structures have collapsed. People need work and they want to go where it is. Who can blame them?

Heartbreaking films like Lichter have shown us this reality time and time again. The locations change; the stories are similar. Andre Techine's Loin details the miserable lack of jobs and hope for Moroccan youth, who yearn for escape to France. Back in the 1970s, Franco Brusati's Bread and Chocolate made light - somewhat - of the predicament of job-needy Italians (and others) in Switzerland. Here, the positions for immigrants were low and the social treatment by the locals, even lower. One doesn't wish this difficult process on anyone. But, given the alternatives, the participants consider themselves fortunate.

When people are displaced from their homeland because of war committed by outside forces or internal tragedies such as those perpetrated by the Nazis, departure makes sense. Of course you get out - if you're lucky. And if it means that you end up as a farmer in Africa instead of a judge in Germany - as the story line of the German Jewish refugees in Caroline Link's Nowhere in Africa shows us - it is tragic, yet an understandable triumph, because survival trumps degradation and death. However, when you see people leave their homes, countries and countrymen, because there is simply no decent work, you have to wonder why the system in so many nations is so broken.

We've known this in the United States for a very long time, since it is our history. Most of our past generations came here as economic refugees - not just political and religious ones. Today, America still functions as a place where people from all over the world come for opportunity, but the process is not new. Just one example: in the 19th and early 20th centuries, plenty of Poles and Ukrainians - and Germans - sought refuge in the U.S. from economically desperate times in Europe. The result - long term - was the integration of those populations into the mainstream of the nation and their participation in a great economic expansion.

In his many installments of New York: a Documentary Film, Ric Burns weaves many stories together to create a picture of what makes one of the most populous, prosperous and diverse cities great. Burns and his team make one very important point clear: New York's best qualities are the result of generations of immigration. As the city absorbed more people, different cultures and new ways of doing business, the metropolis burgeoned in a multitude of ways. The case is not isolated. Other cities - hardly all American - have grown into important centers for commerce, culture and political strength due to waves of immigration.

Berlin, which has waxed and waned in terms of population - one hopes - will take great advantage of the opportunities for growth, as its neighbors to the East become full members of the European Union and the exchange of labor and capital improves. What a great advantage to have access to a willing labor market - that is a recipe for success. Even as Germany faces its own internal challenges of 12% unemployment, longterm the strategy has to be geared towards expansion of its markets rather than contraction. There's no reason to believe that the German capital cannot benefit as Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis, not to mention New York, did a century ago.

Copyright 2003 Hilary Lewis. All rights reserved.


 

"Antifaschistischer Schutzwall"
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visiting: insights and expectations (2002)

Real Audio 2 min

 

 

 

 

 

 

Die sehr große Gattung Ficus hat zahllose Arten, die im tropischen Urwald gut angepasst sind. Dazu gehören sowohl der großblättrige aus dem Metzgerladen als auch der F. benjaminus, den heute jeder hat, weil er so leicht zu vermehren und so billig schon groß zu haben ist. Auch die Geigenfeige ist inzwischen schon in vielen Büros zu Hause, sie heißt so, weil ihre großen glänzenden Blätter Geigenform haben. Am sympathischsten ist der Ficus mit den eßbaren Früchten und bei diesem ist der Bestäubungsmechanismus auch erwähnenswert. Die Feige, die wir essen, ist der becherförmige Blütenstand, der nur noch ein kleines Loch oben hat und dessen innen befindliche Blütenblätter bei der Reife süß und fleischig geworden sind. Dieser Blütenstand steht bei allen Feigen in einer Blattachsel und enthält zahlreiche männliche und mindestens eben so viele weibliche Blüten, wovon allerdings 50% steril sind und nur der Vermehrung des Bestäubers dienen, einer kleinen Schlupfwespe, welche mit einem langen Legestachel diese Blüten teilweise belegt und dabei Blütenstaub an ihrem Legestachel transportiert. Die Larve entwickelt sich in der sterilen Blüte und schlüpft als flugfähiges Insekt noch vor der Reife.
Die Würgefeige (F. bengalensis), auch Banyan genannt, ist etwas spezielles. Denn Baumbewohner lassen ihre Samen gut gedüngt auf Äste von Urwaldbäumen fallen, wo diese bald keimen und zuerst ein paar Blätter ausbilden um ihre Jugend als reine Aufsitzerpflanzen zu verbringen. Sie zeigen aber bald ein beachtliches Wurzelwachstum, auch von waagerecht wachsenden Ästen aus. Diese Wurzeln, nachdem sie oft aus großen Höhen den Boden erreicht haben, tragen wesentlich zum Erstarken der Pflanze bei und während diese vielen Wurzeln durch Dickenwachstum baumstark werden, geht der alte Tragbaum (wahrscheinlich auch aus Lichtmangel) in dieser Umklammerung zugrunde, weshalb die Pflanze auch Baumwürger genannt wird. Soviel von den Ficus-Arten.


An diesen bemerkenswerten Pflanzen - eine Verwandte von Monstera (Fensterblatt) und dem einheimischen Aronstab, Familie Aronstabgewächse (Araceae) - entdeckten Tierphysiologen, nicht Botaniker, dass die Blütenstände vieler Arten zu unglaublichen Leistungen hinsichtlich der Konstanthaltung einer hohen Temperatur am Grunde des Blütenstandes, also in diesem von der Spatha umschlossenen Hohlraum in der Lage sind. Sie experimentierten mit den zufällig gewachsenen Blüten an den Pflanzen, die ihr Labor verschönern sollten und die sie als Gag zu einer Geburtstagsparty mitnahmen. Da sind Temperaturdifferenzen zur Außenwelt von bis zu 30°C möglich (beim Aronstab, wenn es draußen bloß 5°C sind). Die Pflanze verwöhnt damit als Bestäuber taugliche Insekten, welche nach tagelanger Gefangenschaft bei gutem Futter pollenbeladen und gut vorgewärmt bei Öffnung der Gefängnistür trotz widriger Witterung ausschwärmen und das nächste Hotel dieser Klasse suchen, wobei sie leicht für die Erhaltung dieser Art sorgen können.

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