By Joshua Weiner
“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders. This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon. —JW
Saturday, 3 October
Late in the afternoon I headed out to a reading and talk at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, (a cultural center near the Reichstag) titled ‘Time’s Attack on the Rest of Life: Revolution,’ with the German writer Martin Mosebach and the Chinese poets and writers Yang Lian, YoYo (Liu Youhong), and Guo Jinnin. I was intrigued to hear this panel discuss the history of Chinese revolts, and how experimental non-linear literary forms that disrupt our conventional experience of time can play a subversive positive role in workers’ resistance. It sounded somewhat grand, but I was game for anything.
As I pedaled along Invalidenstrasse on my brand new old bike, I came up against a set of police blockades on the stretch in front of the Hauptbahnhof. People with rolling bags and kids in tow were rushing to get through the manned entrance to the train station; it was quickly being closed off by cops reluctant to let people through. I turned around to retrace my route but found myself between barriers. The only detour lead in the direction opposite to where I needed to go.
I approached an officer. What’s happening? Demonstration. Of the left or of the right? This is Berlin: of the left and the right. Where’s it happening? Right here. When? Right now. From around the corner of the train station several hundred demonstrators marched behind a large banner: ‘Wir sind für Deutschland / Wir sind das Volk’ (‘We are for Germany / We are the nation’). White haired women in sensible shoes walked alongside chicksas in spiked heels; guys in army jackets and leather jackets, wearing jeans or dressier slacks; young and old, yuppies and geezers, all were marching in a right-wing demonstration against immigration. From out of nowhere ten or so young men and women rode up on bicycles wearing t-shirts that read ‘Refugees Welcome’ in English, some wearing string bags with the same logo, a yellow silhouette on black depicting a fleeing family. The anti-demonstration protestors started screaming anti-fascist slogans, some in English, some in German: ‘Say it now / Say it clear / Refugees are welcome here!’ ‘Nazis out! / Gegen Nazis!’ The demonstrators responded by singing patriotic songs. Birds were flipped and screams exchanged. As the march left the train station area, the cycling leftists took off in the opposite direction, obviously hip to the detours created by the blockades and determined to navigate around the streets of Mitte in pursuit of the nationalist xenophobic parade. I followed.
Bitte, I called out, pulling alongside a hale lefty chap riding with his girlfriend to the next parade point, ‘Ich bin ein amerikanisher Shriftsteller, ich versuche über die Krise schreiben. Sprechen sie englisch? He spat back, Nie! ’Schuldigen! They sped up. And why would they want to talk to a bulky American writer pushing the pedals? Determined, I pursued from a block behind, and when I caught up to them they had unfurled a ‘Refugees Welcome’ banner of the same design as their shirts and bags. The activist swag made it look like a team sport. I thought of Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘Casualty,’ and his noting the graffiti scrawled on a wall in war-torn Derry, keeping track of the deadly score: ‘PARRAS THIRTEEN, the wall said, BOGSIDE NIL.’ Another war with too many sponsors. Well, not a civil war here, not yet, one hopes not ever; but the proxy wars of the Middle East, political and often divided along religious lines (as it had been in Ireland) now intensified with Russia on the scene in Syria.
As if it weren’t murderous enough. A mixed group of young and old leftists moved en masse into the street and lay down, the demonstration still several blocks away. Thirty seconds later, police picked them up and moved them aside like sacks of potatoes. I had never seen so many cops and vans for such a modest demonstration; it seemed as if a cop was there for every two marchers. A line of them created a human fence between the right-wing marchers and the leftist protestors. From a short distance I peered into the neutral cold eyes of the most stunning policewoman I had ever seen. Without a helmet, her glossy brown ponytail created an athletic look, sehr sportlich. I noticed that the thick power-beard on the stony face of the policeman next to her made a good match. A handsome couple. I pictured them on a sunny day at an open air firing range. I tried my bad German again with a different set of young protestors on their bikes. Yes, they spoke some English. Yes, I could talk to them. Yes, following them was okay. (We spoke in a mixture of English and German.)
There’s no single umbrella or even sizable organization of activists in Berlin; everything is improvisation as the situation develops, small groups posting information on Facebook, Twitter, and the like, with very short notice, from distributing the marching routes of nationalist demonstrations, to regrouping the Oplatz effort, opening up homes to refugee families, picking them up in Hungary in private cars and driving them across the border, to protesting the very idea of national borders altogether—Keine Grenzen! Are you guys putting up refugees in your apartments, I asked. Philip and Johanna, both in their mid-twenties, gave little smiles at my naïve question. No, we don’t have room to do something like that, said Philip, we don’t have the space or the money. I am doing an internship and she is a student. Our friends are the same. Do you think, I said, that the crisis, die Krise, is creating new feelings against immigrants, or is it waking up feelings that have always been there. The feelings are old and new, he said, but they have always been there, deep down. Do you see more young people such as yourselves joining the right in their efforts to stop the refugees, I asked. Yes, always more young people are joining the right, they are open about it now. I pointed to a cop carrying a large video camera. Even the cops are filmmakers now, I said. Oh, ja, everyone likes movies, he said. They looked at each other. We’re going now, he said. And they rode down Ackerstrasse, further south into the tough East Berlin neighborhoods of Friedrichshain.
I looked around. I was in the area between Alexanderplatz and Rosenthalerplatz that Alfred Döblin brings to life in his 1929 novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, a physically brutal and idiomatically vital story unlike any capital-centered work in Anglophone modernism—the rough pathos of Frank Norris, the camera-eye technique of Dos Passos, and something like Joyce’s feeling for city life at street level. Döblin’s talent consummate with his environment, he was one gold standard in the measure of adequate attention.
Powerful thick rock music, abrasive fast melodic, was blasting from a single large stereo speaker on Ackerstrasse pointed at the demonstrators marching along Torstrasse. I listened for a minute and approached a leathered-up sixty-something guy in horn rims and with a gray ponytail standing outside the storefront where the speaker was plugged in. What’s this music, I said, it’s great. Ja, this is a band, he said. My German is bad, I said, but I’ll try. He smiled faintly; he’d humor me. What is the band? Freygang Band, he said. I don’t know it, I said. Oh ja, he said, started in the DDR; it’s playing here tonight. I looked up at the sign over the club’s door, Shockoladen (literally, Chocolates). What time? Eight. I looked at my watch. It was only five. Are you in the band? Yes. He gave me a little smile. What instrument do you play? Lead guitar. His head angled toward the door. Do you want to come in, he said.
The club owner popped a Berliner Pilsner, a local favorite, and put it in front of me. Egon downed a shot of vodka and lit a Galouise. (We spoke in a mixture of German and English). So, you’re a writer, he said. I’m a poet, I’m trying to write about die Flüchtlingekrise, I said, I think you probably have a good perspective. When did the band start playing, I asked, opting for a crabwalk towards my agenda.
Freygang Band is the kind described as seminal. Although it came together in 1977 in East Berlin, inspired by American bands such as the Rolling Stones, Kinks, and MC5, they were instrumental in more than one way in broadcasting the energy, attitude, and style of American music in East Berlin at that time. From behind the wall, der Mauer, American music of the 1960’s and 70’s was hard to hear, but once heard impossible to forget; and it inspired Egon Kenner to somehow find an instrument and play it. He still plays the guitar an American musician gave him in 1973. The band is a seductive fusion of rock & blues, hardcore attitude, political lyrics, and an open free approach to playing without any jaded irony. Freygang Band is still earnest, serious, straight ahead. But, as I would hear that night, they don’t preach, they just destroy through total commitment and conviction. The structures are simple, the execution resolute, the vision epic with an awareness of history’s long view; but like great poetry, it starts with the sound. (The sound and the sentiments that fueled it earned them persecution in DDR-days that only amplified their bona fides as artists deemed verboten by the state).
With a second round my German was definitely improving, as was Egon’s English.
And what about the refugees? Things are changing always, he said, the most important thing is solidarity. No one can say what’s going to happen. 200 years of colonialization of one kind or another have led us to this moment. But when immigrants come, he continued, the insularity of ethnic groups also becomes a problem. Andreas Kick, the keyboardist, joined us. I asked him what he made of the reports of violence between Syrians and Afghans in the crowded shelters in Leipzig, Bonn, Hamburg, Kassel, and elsewhere. Of course, he said, they will fight, it is too crowded. Now the right can say, you see, they are violent, we must control them. This is just the way it happens, he said. I said, young people forget this history. Egon smiled wryly and added, old people also forget this history.
More of the band showed up, along with the merchandise. Egon gave me a copy of their new cd, Tanz Global, and I unfolded the lyric sheet. There I found a photograph of the legendary East German poet, Bert Pappenfuss, and a poem with his long lines lapping any of the other lyrics penned by the band. Why, I asked, is there a photograph of Bert Pappenfuss and a poem by him on the lyric sheet? Oh, said Egon, he is a good friend of mine; we’ve set many of his poems to music, we sing them all the time. But not tonight: too many words. Would you like to meet him, he asked. Pappenfuss is little known in the US, but his work (translated by Andrew Duncan) jumped out at me from the pages of Rosmarie Waldrop’s anthology, 16 New (To American Readers) German Poets. Later I discovered—late again—that he was one of the heroic figures of the alternative art scene in East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg Kiez, publishing underground magazines, playing in rock bands, and re-vitalizing East German literature before the Mauerfall. I looked down at the little photograph. Electric eyes peered out from under a plain cap brim and a thick nose bridged to a long fuzzy beard a la ZZ Top. I looked up at Egon. Sicher, I said, for sure. The next day Egon would text me the phone number. (I would write to Papenfuss, but he would decline to respond).
At some point they had to get ready to play, and they left me. I helped myself to some salami and cheese on buttered dark yeasty bread and remembered the stunning judgment of a French baker who set up every weekend in the open market in Winterfeldplatz near where we lived two years ago in Schöneberg: Don’t tell anyone I said this, said the Frenchman, but the Germans make the best bread in the world. I looked around. This small club had filled with a couple hundred people. Time had gone down smoothly with the pils. I moved through a room of foosball and waiting musicians, past the barroom, to the stage area, packed with fans. Smoke from cigarettes folded, furled, and uncurled in the red stage lights. Ann Jangle, the opening act from South Africa, introduced herself and launched into a ferocious and beautiful set of folk rock accompanied on her acoustic guitar by Cami Scoundrel on electric bass. Jangle’s voice hung in a middle range, capable of dynamic and dramatically meaningful changes. She had an impressive tawny lion’s mane of hair. The duet played with sympathetic joy and personal relish.
Then Freygang Band took the stage. They killed it that night, and for the first time I felt the great positive energy of Reunification Day, not between East and West, and certainly not between left and right, but between musicians and their audience. Teen fans slammed against fans dating from the Mauerfall, and devotees from the band’s earliest days welcomed the physical contact from the pit’s periphery. Everyone sang along, wet with each other’s sweat and the sporadic fountain of beer from an over-jostled bottle. The music ended promptly at 10. This well known club for alternative music and culture, that had started as a squat in 1990, has had its unruliness trained back by gentrification: new neighbors insisting on the German institution of the 10 pm curfew (I thought of the scolding notice in the laundryroom of my building: No Washing After 22.00 Uhr).
Cooling off outside the club, Eric, a young man who had introduced himself earlier, approached me. Hey, American guy, I want to ask you something. Wide eyes and a wide smile played on the most animated expressive face I had ever seen on a German. He could’ve been an actor (maybe he was one). Hey, let me ask you: is war the last opinion? What, I said. He repeated the question. I repeated the question, not quite sure what he was asking. Is war the last opinion? Was he asking me if war is the last word in an argument between nations? Or if history, in order to be written, requires war, and victors in war to tell their side of a story? Whatever, I got the drift, given the context of the evening; there could only be one answer.
No, I said sincerely. The back of his hand gently thumped my chest. Everywhere I go, he said, around the world, in Europe, in South America, I ask this of Americans, ‘is war the last opinion.’ They all say, ‘yes.’ You are the first American to say ‘no.’ Well, I said, I think you’re hanging out with the wrong people; I’m not the only American who would say that. Yeah, he said, but what kind of country do you live in? There’s no democracy there. Everything is controlled by money. Your democracy is controlled by money. You can’t even vote for who you want to, he said, you can only vote for the names on the card. That’s not true, I said, but I couldn’t deny that the political system was appearing more like a plutocracy, what with Trump still leading the run for the Republican nomination and billionaires funding super-PACS to protect their interests. Is Trump your next president, he asked. He had a crazy smile on his face. I couldn’t tell if he was being friendly and ironical, or menacing.
No, I said, but right now he is our Berlusconi. What about the refugees, I said, exercising my prerogative non-sequitur, I’m trying to write about what people think here, and nobody’s asking people like you. Oh, Mann, he said, I should take you to my parents, in Saxony, in Dresden. My father is an engineer. When the wall came down, he lost everything. Reunification ruined him. Now he’s spent 25 years paying into the new system; and the refugees, they want to come here and take. And he says, That’s my money, they want to rob me! Hey, American guy, we are going to a very alternative party, you must come. But I have only my bike here, I said. You’ll get it later, come with us. A taxi pulled up. This is our taxi, he said. I got in with him and four other friends.
I couldn’t make out in what direction we were heading; I had gotten turned around too many times in pursuit of my two-wheeled anti-nationalist protestors. Maybe we were heading south into Kreuzberg’s more derelict bar scene. The mood in the taxi was frothy, though the German jumping between my five party Virgils was too fast for me to follow. Eventually we pulled into an apartment lot. The door opened. Ann Jangle and Cami Scoundrel, the musicians from South Africa, were standing there with drinks in hand. We’re leaving, Ann said, this party sucks. The others de-cabbed, and Ann and Cami got in. I stayed seated. I had no idea where we were, at least I was in a taxi. The door closed and Ann punted an address to the driver and we took off.
Hey, I said, you guys were fantastic tonight. You speak English, Ann said, oh thank god, where are you from? Washington D.C., I said. Oh, man, I’d love to play there, said Ann. Well you should, I said, you were great. Where are we going? To a bar in Kreuzberg, she said. A flurry of chitchat got us acquainted and I explained why I was there. Where are the refugees, I asked. Oh, man, they’re everywhere, said Ann. But where? Just look around you, she said, human misery is everywhere in this city. Go to Warschauerstrasse or Hallesches Tor, she said (two metro stops in East Berlin), you’ll find them. (I would go there the next day, but I never saw any refugees there, only grimy career bums, young bushy beards with dreads hanging or roped back, playing guitars, drinking beer, and hanging out on narrow strips of trashy grass with happy well-behaved dogs). You’ll find them, said Ann, the situation. Cami has to leave in two days because of her passport situation, she added. Borders. There shouldn’t be any borders. You shouldn’t need some piece of paper to go where you want, where you need to go. (A world without borders. It sounded like an anarchist theme, but I’d hear it over and again, more centrally au courant in Berlin now–and of course the existence of the EU was predicated, to begin with, on loosening control of the borders).
The bar was a simmering warm Kreuzberg scene, crowded, edgy, friendly. Everyone seemed to know each other but to come from radically different sectors of society. At one table, a beefy goth guy in studded leather, make up, spiked hair and a metal bolt shooting out of his chin was talking to a thin dapper cat in a cardigan and tie. Girls on the lam from American sororities rubbed shoulders at the bar with broad, thick-handed guys in durable work shirts. At least in the bar it seemed to be a world without borders. I asked Ann and Cami where they were living. Nowhere, was the answer. Where were they sleeping? In the flats of friends, or on a park bench. On a park bench? Yeah, said Cami, I woke up on one this morning. Were you guys paid for the performance tonight? Yeah, said Ann, fifty bucks. Fifty bucks for both of you? Yeah, and I sold a few cd’s, but we’ve already spent that. She handed me a Mexicali shot. What’s this, I said. It’s for your health, she said. We clinked and bottomed up.
Ann turned to play a dice game with a huge guy at the bar who looked like he had just walked off a Fassbinder set, Expressionism itself sitting at a bar, killing time as civilization waned into darkness. I asked Cami about her life and her music, what inspired her in each, and she told me about Cape Town and the music she loved, such as Fuzigish (the ska punk band from Gauteng) and the slam poets, Kyle Louw and Roche du Plessis, as well as her grandfather, who emigrated with such resourceful determination to South Africa from Lithuania. Are you sure you guys have a place to stay tonight, I said, you shouldn’t be sleeping on park benches (I was showing my age and sheltered lack of experience). Another round and Ann and Cami were reciting their poems to me, egging me on to do the same.
I had now been drinking slowly but steadily for eight hours. Some things simply are not possible at that point, at least for me, and one of them is calling up any of my poems to memory (a real poet’s memory, of course, would only be turned on by drinking . . . Will there ever be a time, I thought, when you won’t feel like a poser). Cami patted me on the head and looked me in the eye. I see a lot of white, she said. I was being told my age. At some point the two of them disappeared down a staircase. My offer of shelter no doubt having looked like a proposition, they had properly ditched me. I sat and studied the bartender as he tried with some difficulty to light short candles set in glass that he then haphazardly slid along the bar. Berliners love candles, a fetching impulse in a dark city. A sign on corrugated cardboard cut from a box was sloppily taped to the wall. ‘How to Survive Kreuzberg,’ it read. Clocking in at 3 am, one suggestion stood out, ‘Don’t open a map.’
Eric of the bright eyes and broad smile had walked in 30 minutes earlier, but I couldn’t bear another political entanglement, I was fried. I went to say goodbye. He jumped up. You going? He gave me an enormous bear hug. I will look you up on Facebook, he shouted across the two-inch chasm between us. A taxi and a bike ride later, I walked into my Scheunenviertel flat and stood at the window for a while, staring blankly at the shadowed bulk of the new CIA in Berlin.
Read Joshua Weiner’s essay on the modern refugee novel, Transit, by Anna Seghers at B O D Y.