“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.
Friday, 23 October
Karsten Eckardt, the language instructor at Humboldt Universtät, and also a filmmaker, has been meeting me in the mornings for a Deutsche Stunde, or lesson; we’ve become friends over the course of only a few weeks. (When you make a friend in Germany, I’ve been told, it’s usually for life — a fine notion, and something to realize). Karsten has encouraged me to keep speaking German without fear, and to continue to push myself into the refugee situation in Berlin, to try to make some kind of small difference.
He is the best kind of idealist: disabused. Tall, lean and strong, he has a mountaineer’s physique, and his eyes are always bright with the energy of engagement. Like many great teachers, he finds out about his students, and he cares how they see and think about the world. After our first meeting, I told him my motto for the month was the German verb, versuchen (to try, to attempt; to essay, one could say); he recognized it as the key word, maybe the word our friendship is now based on.
We meet for a last time in another great old Kneipe, Schwarze Pumpe, in Prenzlauer Berg. We ride bikes in a fine rain to get there, and the atmosphere inside has a sweet humidity thickened by big steaming bowls of Korbis Suppe. So, Josh, he says, is there anything you’ve learned about the situation that’s surprised you. Everything about it surprises me, I say, because when you’re talking to actual people, there’s an energy of communication that’s part of the situation. The migration of refugees from the Middle East seeking political asylum and traveling, I say, each of them, thousands of miles, is a situation born from a great political explosion building over many years and culminating now. A potentially terrible energy. Just think of the energy the refugees themselves have exerted to get here! But energy is not ideologically fixed. Maybe it can be harnessed to do something good? An energy generated by cataclysmic change, directed to become an energy for positive change? God, that’s too hopeful by half, I’m obviously dangerously naive . . . I haven’t learned anything, I guess. I’m making connections, I say, but I don’t know what they mean, like in a poem . . .
I am not so hopeful, says Karsten, I can’t be, about the crisis. The problems are permanent because we are the problem. I don’t think things are necessarily getting worse, but things have always been problematic. Maybe now, however, the problems are coming closer, so they look bigger. And we ask ourselves, are we able to change and move our minds and grow, or are we stuck. Tomorrow, he continues, I will meet a student, 28 years old; he is on a mission, to become a professor — he is a Marxist thinker, really competent. He made a presentation to the class arguing for open borders worldwide, and of course he couldn’t convince anyone in the class because we are thinking in borders, they are in our mind. How do we reach ourselves — that is the question I will put to him tomorrow.
Big ideological sentences can be convincing, Karsten says, but only rhetorically; they are not convincing on an emotional level. On a political level, however, I see no hope. I too was a kind of refugee, he says. I grew up in the DDR, and I fled the DDR and entered the West by way of Hungary. Karsten takes a drink and I break in with something I remember Rabbi Rothschild saying about the triple axis of ironies in a divided Germany: Germans who shot Germans fleeing Germany in order to enter Germany. Yes, Karsten continued, I’m coming from a system that broke down expecting the breakdown of another system. We all live in systems. How to build up the human community, the human family — that is the question. But what are we experiencing individually in whatever system we find ourselves in — we have to start with ourselves, and that opens the world. Of course there are good willing people in Germany who want to try to open the society; at the same time, we are regressing with extremist violence. But there is always hope, we have to hope, there’s nothing without it. We look for a few seconds into our empty soup bowls. You’ve come full circle, I say.
the netherlands border on germany and belgium
belgium borders on the netherlands, germany, luxembourg
luxembourg borders on belgium, germany and france
france borders on belgium, luxembourg, germany, switzerland,
italy, monaco, andorra and spain
monaco borders on france
andorra borders on france and spain
spain borders on france, andorra and portugal
portugal borders on spain
italy borders on the vatican, san marino, yugoslavia, austria,
switzerland and france
the vatican borders on italy
san marino borders on italy
switzerland borders on italy, france, germany, austria and
liechstenstein borders on switzerland and austria
austria borders on switzerland, liechtenstein, italy,
yugoslavia, hungary, czechoslovakia and germany
germany borders on germany, austria, switzerland,
france,belgium, the netherlands and denmark
denmark borders on germany
norway borders on sweden finnland and
the soviet union
sweden borders on norway and finnland
finnland borders on sweden, norway and
the soviet union
the soviet union borders on finnland, norway, corea,
china, mongolia, afghanistan, iran, turkey, rumania,
hungary, czechoslovakia and poland
poland borders on the soviet union, czechoslovakia
germany borders on germany, poland and
czechoslovakia borders on austria, germany, germany,
poland, the soviet union and hungary
hungary borders on yugoslavia, austria, czechoslovakia,
the soviet union and rumania
rumania borders on yugoslavia, hungary, the soviet union
bulgaria borders on rumania, yugoslavia, greece and turkey
yugoslavia borders on bulgaria, rumania, hungary,
austria, italy, albania and greece
albania borders on yugoslavia and greece
greece borders on albania, yugoslavia, bulgaria
turkey borders on greece, bulgaria, the soviet union,
iran, irak and syria
(translated from the German by Rosmarie Waldrop)
” . . . the border is an in depth concept, not a line.”
—Jonathan Littel, Syrian Notebooks