Berlin’s “Quivering Heart”

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. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the“Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.

—JW

Saturday, 17 October

I had plans to meet Karsten Eckardt, who has been helping me with German conversation, this afternoon at Alexanderplatz, for the demonstration organized by Moabit Hilft — the volunteers at Lageso come primarily from this Kiez association, that organizes and mobilizes at the registration office in response to the crisis as it [has] built up in their district. Without the volunteers’ work ladling hot meals, pouring water, providing shelter and medical care, many of the refugees would be even more desperate and frustrated and despairing. No doubt, Moabit Hilft (Moabit Help) kept the situation at Lageso from spiking in tension and, potentially, violence. While the government should’ve been preparing for dramatically increasing numbers of refugees, it dragged. When the crisis hit Berlin square on, it was unable to meet the demand. Government failed; many had never seen it do so. Local volunteers saved the day, the week, the month, the season. But they need more support; and they want to push the government hard to increase the processing speed. That means more hiring by the government, more training. And Moabit Hilft needs more volunteers. They are exhausted.

But before I met Karsten there, at Alexanderplatz, I wanted to revisit the Winterfeldplatz Markt, in Schöneberg, where I once shopped for local produce, handmade cheeses, cured meats, and fresh bread. Today, I’d also shop for a little nostalgia. (Is there a German word for the guilt you feel indulging in nostalgia? Should be one . . . ) The Market sets up on a block-sized Platz in front of a church, and one block from the Nollendorfstrasse that Christopher Isherwood helped make famous — and my favorite street in the neighborhood, with its wide cobblestone avenue blocked off from car traffic and shaded by a canopy of trees I should know the names of, but don’t. On a Saturday, the market was quite tight with Berliners and tourists squeezing round each other through narrow aisles created by trucks and stands.

I suddenly see the same hard luck woman I always saw, with a prominent beak and slightly crushed in face, doggedly moving from person to person, asking for change. The formula is concise, she hardly waits for a reply (almost always a refusal) before moving to the next person. But she seems to have gained weight since I saw her last, two years ago; and she has a new haircut, long on the left, buzzed short on the right. She’s not begging for change now, she’s selling one of those newspapers that the downtrodden are given to sell — in Berlin it’s Der Strassenfeger (The Streetsweeper). Seeing her in clean jeans and Doc Martens and a studded belt marks something like good incremental change in one person’s fate.

Her presence collapses time for me; it could be 2012. I had forgotten she existed, and to her I was just a weekly penny score; my face just a blur, I hardly existed. Yet my recognition now links me to her. And having seen her again in this way, as a kind of full rhyme with a former self, she’ll stick to me and maybe make me more real (she’s as real as it gets). Is this connection what Lian calls “the grammar of exile”? I buy a paper from her. Nothing special happens. She’s already gone.

But all the other regulars are still here. The Greek selling olives, humus, feta. The friendly German family from a local farm with the big-boned fleshy son who spent a year living in Boston. The Turks still overcharging for dried fruit (I buy some). The fish lady with her lovely raucherlachs brötchen — I buy one; it’s disappointing. (The sandwiches in Europe are always disappointing; they simply don’t know how much stuff to put between two pieces of bread.)

I see the seamstress I once bought some hats and gloves from. After some careful deliberations at her stall, I buy a new hat for Sarah, and a pair of what they call “pulse warmers” — basically long tubes of colorful boiled wool that cover from wrist to mid-forearm. I pay her and ask her about the refugees. Oh, she’s not so worried about the refugees, she says, she’s worried about the TTIP/CETA trade pact. Ja, I say, it’s not good for workers or consumers. It’s not good for children, she says. Why not? Because TTIP will introduce new American syrups to the German market and all our children will become fat pigs. The phrase in German is dickie dickie Schwein — it has a cruel ring to it that makes it a favorite taunt on the playground.

I head to Impala Coffee to meet the poet and translator, Alexander Booth, whose translation of Lutz Seiler’s im felderlatein (in field latin) will soon introduce Anglophone readers to this German poet whose prominence here is starting to go international. The café is crowded, but we find a corner. Our conversation ranges widely over big cups of schwarzes kaffee — from his publisher, Seagull Books, which is bringing so many good new German translations to market, to the ideological binds of Muslim and Jewish relations in Berlin. This street here, where Isherwood lived, I ask him, pointing to the corner where the traffic’s blocked off — what are those huge trees? Those are plane trees, says Alex, imported by the Romans. And actually, he says, Isherwood lived on the other side, across Maassenstrasse, at number 17. Alex hands me something; it’s a present! The Seeker, the second volume of collected poems by Nelly Sachs, translated into English by Michael Hamburger and others. Sachs, a Jewish German, fled the Nazis to Sweden. Opening the contents, I read the title, Flucht und Verwandlung (Flight and Metamorphosis), a volume from 1959.

How light
earth will be
only a cloud of evening love
when released as music
the stone goes into exile

I look to the left side to find the German word for exile. Landsflucht, maybe literally “country-flown.” She lived right over there, says Alex, pointing to a building a stone’s throw away, across Maassenstrasse.

Heading back to Nollendorfplatz, he points out the terrace of the local brothel on a conventional Kleiststrasse apartment building. You always know when it’s open, he says, when they hang the flag of the European Union out the window. Seeing the circle of twelve yellow stars on a blue field of cloth: the symbol of the European Union used as a signal that the sex trade is open on a Sunday afternoon collides with the mental image of the yellow six-pointed star that the Nazis forced Jews to sew on their clothes as a mark of condemnation, a disturbing visual rhyme across time. The neighborhood concatenation of the tragic and the heinously absurd is suddenly too much, the juxtapositions too over-determined, and I bark out a bitter clipped laugh. At the U-bahn station, I stop to read the plaque on the exterior wall commemorating the gays and lesbians murdered by Nazis. Sometimes Berlin can feel like an enormous Holocaust memorial that then turns into a rave at night.

I meet Karsten at Alexanderplatz underneath the World Time Clock. Alex (as Berliners refer to it, my second Alex of the day) is a major hub in the city, a concrete world of tram lines, new shopping malls, street performers, and mobs of tourists wandering the spaces between a discordant array of architectural styles, punctuated by the Fernsehturm (TV Tower), visible from just about every spot in the city. In the twenties, the area was pure skank, a bustling and deeply sour world of urban dirt that Alfred Döblin called “the quivering heart” of Berlin. We walk to one of the perimeters, where the Moabit Hilft demo will take place. Underneath the elevated hot pink water pipes that move ground water around Mitte, a red stage truck has parked and green vested volunteers are setting up. It’s a good time to talk to people.

Jan Tenhaven, a Berlin-based filmmaker, has been taking care of refugee families for several months, as many as seven people at a time living in his flat. Some have been invited to move in to neighborhood apartments when the owners were away for extended periods. At the moment, Jan has a mother, father, and four children staying with him (ages 4-15). Just yesterday, after 35 days, they have been able to register with the government. Everyone understands, he says, that the enormous influx of people has put organizations in a bad way. I mention to him the possibility that some are getting registration numbers more quickly than others through bribery. I don’t believe there’s bribery, he says (others have expressed the same skepticism). What’s it like to live with a whole new family in your apartment for weeks on end, I say. It’s very nice, he says, we cook and eat together. But we’re all new to this situation, and I am learning about it along with them. I turn to another volunteer standing with us.

Connie Albrecht has also been hosting people from Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan. At the beginning, she says, I said only women and children, because I live alone. But now I am helping young men, too. They are not much older than my own son. When I was there, at Lageso, as a volunteer, and I saw one, in the cold, who only speaks Arabic and didn’t know what to do, I said come with me. Another, from Iraq, stayed with me for five days. We’re trying to find a hostel for him. But the hostels don’t want to accept anyone paying with the government vouchers, she says, because the government is taking too long to redeem them — they don’t get paid for over six months. I made 39 calls before I found a place that would accept them. And then there are the illegal hostels, which put eight people in a room meant for four, or worse. Because they can, she says, people have no choice.

Kristina Bachmann, one of the principle coordinators of the Moabit Hilft effort, introduces me to Thorsten Buhl, 39, who served as a paramedic on the front line of Lageso for four weeks at the end of summer, when the situation there had already worsened past the point of the government’s preparations. We had one tent for medical treatment, he says, and thousands of people everyday. From a medical point of view it was really horrible. What kind of treatments were you making, I say. Oh, people had crude stitches from torture wounds, open sores on their legs and feet from walking here thousands of kilometers, a pregnant woman past due who had walked here, can you imagine, a man stabbed on the lawn and robbed of his asylum stipend, and dirty traumatized children, exhausted and scared; when you looked into their eyes, there was nothing there.

What are you doing now, I say. I started an NGO in Friedrichshain, he says, like Moabit Hilft; we act as a kind of donation chamber for smaller groups who distribute clothes and give lessons. What is your strongest feeling, I say, about the overall situation. I am optimistic, he says, because the people are providing so much help. Before I started working with Moabit Hilft, I really had a bad feeling about the future of German society. I found it selfish and materialistic.  But after these experiences, I’m hopeful. Society is not dead. My life has changed, and also my mind, my own thoughts about the future — what is really important, what is not important. For myself, there is a new perspective. The help I provide is not just good for the refugees, it is also good for me .(Here was evidence of the empathy and imagination Lian hoped to encourage, I thought.)

I don’t do it just to help others, he said, but to help myself. I asked him about young people joining the right: is it a new feeling they’re discovering or something that has always been there, latent, buried, and has now woken up in them. Well, he says, racism is everywhere. And Pegida [the new xenophobic anti-immigration movement] are Nazis. That is what they are. I see everyday people who have nothing, and they need help. To help them requires strength and humanity. Those following Pegida have neither the one nor the other. The hatred has always been there, but now it is awake and people are out in the open. I get angry messages all the time on Facebook, Thorsten says: Ja, you are a good Mensch, you should be sent to the gas chamber.

I look around. The arena has filled with a few thousand people as we’ve been talking; the demo is about to begin. Thorsten writes down his e-mail address. I make sure I can read it. ­­______@yahoo.ca. Canada? He nods. I thought a while ago, he says, that I would leave Germany and emigrate to Canada, because the society here had died. But now I am going to stay. I want to be a part of this new society, to help create it.

The demo starts up. I hardly need any German to understand the complaints flying from the megaphone: there are too many people coming in; the process is too slow; the supplies too few; the volunteers are exhausted; there is no government help . . .  I look around at the signs.

Ich bin so wütend! / I am so angry!
Politik sitzt es wieder einmal aus . . . / Politics sitting it out again . . .
Es reicht! / It is enough!
Handeln jetzt! / Act now!
Kälte Tod vermeiden / Prevent death from the cold

The last one is so specific (as well as being, in German, concise) it reaches the furthest into one’s conscience. A woman in front of me pulls a bottle of red wine from her backpack, a corkscrew, and two wine glasses. She hands the glasses to a friend standing next to her, pulls the cork, and pours. They clink. Prost, they say, and drink. I look around. Everyone is taking photos. Mohawked punks with well-behaved kids in tow, old hippies in army jackets and pony tails, young professionals, women in sporty outdoor wear who look lean and strong as mountain climbers, grad students in cultivated stubble — it’s a cross-section of the German left, and a mirror-image of the right. A short woman in army boots — she looks like Mother Courage’s understudy — walks by, hawking KAZ, Kommunistische Arbeiterzeitung (Communist Worker’s Newspaper). I buy a copy. “Nein! Gleiches Recht für alle!” (“No! Equal Rights for all!”) reads the headline; this may be about the distinction some draw between economic refugees from the Balkans and those seeking political asylum, and about the perilous social status of immigrants in German society. The photomontage on the front cover shows two giant pigeons pecking at a long line of HO-scale refugees walking towards a gathering spot behind razor wire. I look around. Someone’s smoking a joint nearby; I inhale deeply, smells good.

A Syrian man has taken the stage and is addressing the crowd in English, his speech translated every few paragraphs into German by one of the volunteers who takes the mike. He describes the situation: the difficulty getting papers; getting vouchers for hostel rooms, the overcrowding; negotiating society without knowing German; the feeling of being overwhelmed by practicalities like figuring out the metro system; the treacherous maneuvering for those in wheelchairs, like his mother, or with other physical disabilities; the sadistic security guards, the sense they give of having permission to mistreat refugees. But he will, he must, end on a positive note. We’re not complaining, he says. And it doesn’t matter where we’re coming from, or our situations, whether it’s poverty or war, they are both deadly, we’re all here looking for a new life . . . Thank you, Berlin, we feel like we’re home!  What, I say aloud to no one. Cue Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up.” Let’s call it a demo.  People start milling around with the music. Karsten and I head out to a Kneipe.  Too few people, I say to him, only a couple thousand, no more than the number of refugees standing around every day at Lageso . . .

Leave a Reply