Tag Archives: Germany

Embracing Imperfection

When I first arrived in Germany, I immediately noticed the overwhelming number of flower shops. Around the corner, on a quiet sideway, or even in a train station, I always could find stores full of colorful and vibrant blossoms. And locals loved to decorate their homes with various flowers — especially on their balconies, which greatly beautified the street view. Those little terrace gardens seemed integrated into the traditional style of homes not only in Germany but also in other European countries, such as France and Switzerland. Tourists love to take pictures of themselves standing in front of those traditional houses with little flower boxes by the windows.

Once I had lived there longer and observed my host mother spend a great amount of time working in her mini garden on the balcony, I realized that flowers are not just decorations but an integral part of the life of local residents. After all, gardening takes a lot of time and energy: those fragile plants cannot survive without constant attention. But there is another difficulty that I considered to be more troubling: No matter how much effort you put into prolonging the life of flowers, they still die pretty quickly. The sorrow of this inevitable loss, this sense of powerlessness when watching their transient lives end, had prevented me from using any flower to decorate my own home back in Shanghai. I used only greenery to fill the open spaces of my apartment, which, although still perishable, can at least last longer than evanescent flowers.

But then, while I was in Germany, I constantly came across florists on the street, and I found it hard to move my eyes away from the pure beauty and liveliness of these blooming flowers. I finally conceded and decided to buy a few to put in my dorm room. I chose some pink roses and white daisies at first, and I felt my room immediately brighten. Every time I opened the door, the sight of my flowers brought me joy. This was the beginning of a transition in my attitude toward not only flower decoration but also something beyond that.

Later on, I added some yellow carnations, and when tulips were in season, I brought in their various colors once in a while, and even decorated the Smith Center at the university with colorful tulips. Still, I did feel sad when the flowers began to fade and finally wither away, and I pondered the meaning of blooming—“If only they knew their tragic ending from the very beginning!” I said to myself. How can they embrace their destiny and still express joy so wholly and genuinely?

I couldn’t help but reflect about myself. I realized I had the tendency to not even start something if I thought I could not do it perfectly well. This may be an extreme version of my motto as a “pessimistic optimist,” but I did adopt this perfectionist-leaning belief, which often held me back from unpredictable novel attempts. When applied to language learning, my perfectionist mindset disturbs me, as I have to admit the fact that I may never reach the same fluency as the native speakers. No matter how hard I have tried, I will always speak with a certain deficiency. I will never reach “perfection.”

Studying in Germany and using a third language was yet another endeavor to force myself to step further out of my comfort zone and “destabilize” my life. I have always believed in the meaning of destabilizing one’s regular life, and this time, it proved worthwhile as I learned to embrace the eternal imperfection of life. That is, I was forced to express myself even in a broken way. Before being in Germany, I had always faltered when it came to speaking German, since I had less time to prepare and I feared making mistakes. “I’m not ready.” I always told myself, and failed to realize that I could never be ready unless I took the first step and started speaking more freely. In Germany I began to communicate with all kinds of people and to learn how to bear the embarrassment of making mistakes and the fear of exposing my weaknesses. I thought about the courage of my fragile yet stubborn flowers and entered the uncharted wilderness of a language that is foreign to me. Once, I was afraid that when I spoke up, people would think me rather dull if I could not convey my ideas clearly or made stupid grammatical mistakes. But if I waited until I got every gender and adjective ending in German perfectly correct before starting to speak, I would never be able to voice even one single sentence. Desire to communicate won out: I learned to cast aside my worries about others’ opinions of me and clumsily began to build my German one phrase after another.

I used to ask myself, why should I start something if I could never reach perfection? By the end of my stay in Germany, I finally realized that the premise of this introspective question was wrong — and my wilted flowers knew better than I did. The purpose was never to be perfect but to start, to bloom, to step into the turbulence of life, and to give the best that one can with the gift of life.


Tianhua Zhu ’18  is currently a Senior, majoring in both Government and Linguistics. Looking at the intersection between the two majors, she is interested in the politics of language and seeks to understand the language of politics. She participated in the Smith Program in Hamburg in Spring 2017 and took advantage of the great opportunity to travel around several countries in Europe. Originally coming from Shanghai, China, she would like to accumulate more international experiences and bring together distinct perspectives echoing through the East and the West.

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Changing Small Habits in Another Culture

When my language course at Goethe Institute in Germany first started, I felt bewildered by the fact that I could no longer easily bring my coffee to class because the cafe downstairs only provided coffee in porcelain cups that had to be  returned to the self-help desk — unless I crossed the street and went to the nearest Starbucks. And after school when I went to supermarkets, I realized plastic bags were not an option in most shops — not even for purchase. I had to bring one of my own, or spend on a relatively expensive cloth bag at the store. And I was surprised to see everyone actually  bring a cloth bag with them everywhere. Such an inconvenience! Why do they do that, I wondered ?

In my host family, I was asked to separate plastics from the other garbage, and to make sure that I switched off all the lights when leaving each room and shut off water when shampooing my hair or brushing my teeth. The wash machine and even the dishwasher were used only once a week when both were completely filled up. There was no dryer and the laundry could only be put up on racks to air-dry. The refrigerator was painfully small partly to save energy. At the university, most buildings had no air-conditioning and our teacher was required to open the windows to let the fresh — and freezing — air in every 60 minutes.

The feeling of inconvenience arose due to many small things, but for people living in Hamburg, where I was now spending a year, it is part of their daily life, and these are their habits — eco-friendly habits. The green movements starting in the early 1980s most likely contributed to the adoption of these habits. And the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 triggered an awareness that then further encouraged a  movement calling for an environmentally friendly style of life. Twenty years later,  an entire generation in Germany and many other places in the Europe have grown up with an awareness of how interconnected and fragile our environment is.

Good policies that provide incentives for energy conservation and innovation as well as more practical reasons like high electricity price can all help explain why Germany leads the world in energy efficiency. But it was still striking and also illuminating to witness and experience how big a role resource-conscious habits play in this country. There are many things that we can see: for example, how friendly this city is to cyclists with the orderly arranged bike lanes all over the town. And there are also many energy-saving attempts that are hidden from our eyes, such as low- or zero-energy buildings, energy-saving home appliances, and organic food supplies. What is most important is that everyone seems to seriously care about the energy usage, and energy conservation is an indispensable part in everyone’s daily life instead of an empty talk of some “elite environmentalists,” or worse, a “hoax” made up by competing nations.

The aggregation of common personal habits reflects values of a nation’s culture. “Grab a drink and run,” for example, is so common in the U.S. that many people walk around a city or a street with plastic cups and straws in their hands, although it is totally unnecessary to keep hydrated all along the way. A reusable water bottle can reduce so much waste. In Starbucks in Germany, ordering a drink “for here” means, by default, receiving your coffee in a china cup. Even baby steps toward the goal of ecological sustainability are worth praising, such as the Grab-and-Go 2.0 project at Smith. To be sure, there is still plenty of space for further progress and remedies, and the public education of environmental awareness must be coupled with right incentives and pragmatic considerations, in order to realize the desirable and far-reaching effect among people across different areas.

It is always easy to label oneself as environmentally friendly while it is not so simple to change the small habits rooted in one’s life. We adapt to the environment while the environment cultivates our habits. Habits and the continuous practice of them make lives easier and this is how the so-called comfort zone starts to build up. The exchange semester in Living in Germany forced drastic changes in my own comfort zone.  The habits that I was not even conscious of manifested themselves when discomfort caused by the loss of them began to disturb me. I suddenly understood that the grocery stores in the US that kindly double-stacked my plastic bags and the restaurants or cafeterias that offered disposable utensils were in fact indulging my  natural tendency to over-consume, to waste and to be blind to the near future of ultimate depletion.  It took a year living in Germany for me to observe the habits of people in another culture, to feel annoyed at the inconvenience of having to change my “comfortable” ways, and then to adopt new habits wholeheartedly.


Tianhua Zhu ’18  is currently a Senior, majoring in both Government and Linguistics. Looking at the intersection between the two majors, she is interested in the politics of language and seeks to understand the language of politics. She participated in the Smith Program in Hamburg in Spring 2017 and took advantage of the great opportunity to travel around several countries in Europe. Originally coming from Shanghai, China, she would like to accumulate more international experiences and bring together distinct perspectives echoing through the East and the West.

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Waiting for my Number

About a week ago, I stood in a crowd of over a hundred people outside the Kreisverwaltungsreferat, or KVR, the German registry of foreigners and nationals. It was almost 7:30am and the doors were about to open for the day. I looked around me—I saw curly hair and straight, tall figures and small, big puffy jackets and the sleeveless arms of those impervious to the early fall chill. At the top of the stairs before me, I heard the doors open and felt the inexorable lean of the mass into the building. My feet began to inch forward, several small steps before each rise of the stair, as shoulders crowded in about my ears. The doorway acted like a dam, and we the torrent of water breaking through it.

Once inside, the knowledgeable broke away from the inexperienced, racing to their respective wings for housing registration, background checks, and work permits. I was there for the last of the three, in search of a right to live and work in this country that is not my own. As I waited in line for a number, then waited for my  number T16 to be called, my memory called out to me. In March of 2016, I had been in a similar situation in Rome, needing to declare my presence to the Italian government and receive my permesso di soggiorno. As a researcher affiliated with an institution, the declaration felt like a formality rather than a necessity. I did not understand the value of the permission I sought. That morning over a year ago, I traveled to the Italian immigration office with a laptop full of articles to read and a cavalier attitude. But my sense of security lasted only until I arrived at the lonely building on the outskirts of Rome.

As I sat in the German waiting room last week, my mind recalled the chaos outside the high, chain-link fence of its Italian counterpart. I remembered the sickening sensation of being escorted past the exhausted and the desperate. Crowds of migrants and refugees clustered along the fence line, pleading with their voices, their gestures, their eyes. The urge to give up my scheduled appointment, not having fully realized its import until that moment, was nearly uncontrollable. But a part of me held back. I couldn’t give up my place: it would not be given to one of the undocumented migrants crowding before me. And perhaps in that moment I glimpsed the depth of my privilege and I coveted it, suddenly fearful of my own tenuous status.

As an American and an academic, I am privileged to view a permesso or a blaue carte as a formality. My education allows me, as many of us, to be a citizen of the world. Germany is a very different place from Italy: German nationals are as plagued with visits to the KVR as immigrants and temporary residents. The experience is more communal, subsuming the assumption of ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ But that hint of desperation still lingered, hanging in the silent waiting room of the KVR. The search for belonging—and the proof of that belonging—consumes us all as we wait for our number. T13… T14… T15…


Erin Giffin (’08) is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the field of art history at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Germany. After completing her degree at Smith College in Art History and Italian Studies, she went on to a master’s and PhD from the University of Washington in Seattle, WA.



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Disappointed Friendship

The Germans I know observed the 2016 election with particular worry compared to the other three American elections I experienced from here. Things were different in 2000 when I studied abroad; in 2008, when I immigrated here and again in 2012. It is the escalation of worry over time that became my barometer for how people reacted and what fears they had, by extension, for Germany.

My lasting impression from 2000 was ridicule as the Florida recount wound through politics and the courts. There was headshaking all around and great wonder how the United States could have such a patently weird system, from voting machines to the Electoral College. Later, Barack Obama’s election seemed to bring about a loud, collective sigh of relief. A comedian on late-night TV gleefully shouted “peace, happy, pancake!” in direct translation of a German expression (Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen!). Everybody was so pleased, they could even laugh about it and themselves. The world had been righted again. The mood was dampened in 2012 but Obama’s repeated victory reassured people that figures like Sarah Palin had been just a fluke.

This time, the sense that the United States has ridiculous politics and absurd, if not downright stupid and illogical, priorities has been strong and deep. Disappointment with what Obama was unable or unwilling to do, and collective derision about widespread, if not majority, American positions turned into something else. (They [re-]elect politicians who hate providing people with health insurance? All that climate change denial in the face of scientific expertise and abundant evidence? Mass shootings and police violence? Such dissatisfaction with an economic situation that is wealthy compared to most of the rest of the world?) Friends, acquaintances, and colleagues asked, “Tell me, what’s up with this Trump character? Does he actually stand a chance? What is this? Who are these voters?” I have never before been asked to explain the USA so frequently in a country where many people pride themselves on their knowledge of their major ally. Germany continues to face its collective historical guilt on a scale that is unique worldwide and the blatant racism and xenophobia of not only the Trump campaign, but many Republican candidates, were inexplicable here. It highlighted all the negative things from recent American history that people would rather see outweighed by the USA’s generally positive character. The fact that Bernie Sanders’s positions would seem radical drove home the point that the US is more deeply conservative than many Germans usually feel like admitting.

Brexit was unthinkable from here, but the election of Trump was an escalation of nearly unfathomable proportions. I know Germans who cried about Brexit, but Trump’s victory seemed even too much for tears. I felt others’ shocked and horrified silence, their utter speechlessness. Colleagues sent me condolence emails, carefully asking if I was okay. Many people here orient themselves and their perceptions towards the USA. The soul-searching of the American media immediately led to soul-searching in the German media. The danger of fake news influencing Germany’s upcoming elections is being examined. The electoral prospects of Germany’s populists (the AfD) were re-examined. The close attention that was paid to the primaries and the general election is now paid to the transition, but now it’s without the underlying sense that we might as well find it entertaining. People I talk to echo my own sense of dread. Everybody misses laughing at the USA’s previous election gaffes.

The press agency DPA called a prominent curator, someone who was my own mentor as I started my career, to ask for his position. He said a version of something I’ve heard often from members of the older West German generation. It goes roughly, “Never forget that the Americans were our liberators. They showed us democracy. The freedom of our dreams is embodied in this idea of America.” When Kasper said it now, though, it sounded like a valedictory instead of a reminder of why people love our country. Kasper’s reminder had another ring to it, too, of disappointed friendship and the recognition that someone has become something you always believed they weren’t at heart.


Emily Evans graduated in 2002 from Smith College with an Art History major and German minor. She is an art historian and editor who moved to Berlin, Germany, in 2008.

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From Hero to Zero: A Brief European View of the United States

Once viewed as a hero and protector of democracy, the reputation of the United States is experiencing a shift in Europe as EU-member states consider how they can emancipate themselves. Trump’s rise to power is not yet compared to Hitler in Germany, but the parallels are obvious. The country of unlimited possibilities is quickly morphing into a country of limitless preposterous posturing.

The room resounded with laughter, accompanied by the clinking of forks and knives. The Network for English-Speaking Women in Freiburg was about to commence its final dinner meeting of the year. Although not a member, I was intrigued by the speaker’s topic on medical care for the refugees in our area. Seated next to a delightful woman who grew up in California, I asked her what she thought about the recent U.S. election results.

The entire table froze. I thought perhaps I had entered a war zone with a single question, but anxiety and sleep deprivation from watching the results tip in Trump’s favor throughout the night, along with my increasingly frayed nerves, clouded my perception. Their silence showed solidarity. One woman at the table smiled.

“I am from New Jersey, but have lived in Europe for over ten years. I am the only one in my family who doesn’t support Trump. I feel miserable.”

Other women from Ireland, Germany and elsewhere chimed in.

“We’re in for a very bumpy ride.”

The consensus was a mixture of emotions: fear, despondence, frustration, disbelief, anger and anxiety.

As a long-time expat living in Germany, I have witnessed America’s reputation in Europe during the 1980s go from hero to zero by the late 1990s. Many post-World War II Germans stood in awe at the greatness of the United States. It was a country viewed as protector, upholder of principles, lighthouse to the world. As the US waged war against Iraq in 1991, I experienced my first confrontation by a disenchanted German who thought the U.S. was a terrible warmonger and an easy target for hatred. The country’s reputation received a bump when the Twin Towers tumbled a decade later. Europe stood united against the pain of the 9/11 aftermath. But every time I would visit my family in the U.S., I could feel a growing unrest there, a swell of anger seething just beneath the surface of things. People in the United States seemed edgier, less trusting, less kind.

Then Obama took office and even my children, who were then only 7 and 9 years old, cried with me. That election night was a very different one for us back then. We clung to the threads of possibility that had woven the tapestry of our country. We thought the United States had finally embraced positive change and resilience after years of entrenched victimhood. We applauded as they attempted to implement affordable healthcare, a benefit most Europeans have grown to believe is a fundamental human right.

Eight years later the world looks at the United States very differently. The narrative has shifted from possibility to preposterous posturing. In fact, instead of relying on generous US support, EU-member states are considering ways in which they can emancipate themselves to take on more responsibility.

Trump tapped into the seething anger of the disenfranchised, manipulated the masses, made false promises, lied. It is a mystery to many of us not living in the United States how anyone could believe that the very person responsible for corrupt business practices could ever save those victimized by it. Any progressive, forward-thinking person can see the ridiculousness of his claims as plain as day. Even political conservatives cannot deny that he is a madman. Germans have yet to compare him to Hitler while many in the United States already have. The parallels between the two are clear.

As the election prognosis solidified into truth in the early morning hours on November 9th Central European Time, I watched as the exhausted German television show host ended the program with a visible look of disgust. The audience sat in stunned silence, pools of saliva forming from all the jaws dropped in the room.

In all my conversations with my European friends, I have not met a single person who felt Trump had anyone’s best interest at heart other than his own.

Perhaps the tenor in Europe can be summarized in a simple interaction I recently had. A young German man I met at an open-air market said, “I always thought I would visit the U.S. one day. But now…” he paused for a moment, and I swear I could almost hear his hopes shatter into a thousand pieces. “Now I don’t think I want to go there anymore.”


As the author of multiple self-help books, including The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World, Christine Louise Hohlbaum provides ways for people to learn how to go slow in order to be more productive, how to create boundaries by saying no more often and how to make the construct called time work for, not against, you. A recovering speedaholic herself, Christine understands the constraints within which many people lead their lives. Her work focuses on busting how of the fast lane’s corset to a saner, more self-directed pace of life.

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Spanish Flowers in German Soil

I tend to be a little nervous when I’m meeting a native Spanish speaker. I get flustered and stutter over my Spanish—even with the words I’ve said so many times that they’re second nature to me. Depending on the evening or my amount of carefree disregard, complete thoughts and sentences unfurl with the ease of my English fluency. It’s a feeling I want more of in my life, and theoretically I know how to achieve it. I need to speak more Spanish, listen, and engage with the language despite its difficulties. It’s about improvement as opposed to a flawless performance; I just need to start small and close to the earth. I want my language to flourish with the vibrancy of the rural Honduran countryside that my mother came from, and the musical energy of my father’s small town not too far from hers. I would tend to my Spanish like delicate seedlings in my greenhouse, awaiting the seasonal shifts of blooming fluency.

martinez_2016-04-05-essay-imageI asked for a tutor in my Spanish literature course in Hamburg because I wanted to improve. It was frighteningly difficult and embarrassing to ask for help with Spanish; I didn’t want to reveal the gaps of language that were allowed to go unbridged in my upbringing. But I had spent too many years feeling embarrassed, and my German had a structure that my Spanish sorely lacked. I wanted them to be even.

I was to meet my tutor at the library; I didn’t know what she looked like. She was from Venezuela, a native speaker of Spanish, educated in the language and capable of cultivating articulate thoughts with a delicacy I could only imagine. I wondered how I would greet her. Would I approach her in English, for ease? In German, for practicality? Or in Spanish—for what, I couldn’t really say.

I don’t really remember how I picked her out among the other people at the library’s cafe; there was simply a moment of recognition for a mutual purpose. I stumbled into an energetic greeting in Spanish, and she stopped me. She asked me where I was from.

I told her that I was from the United States, but my family was Honduran. There was such kindness in her at my response; she heard the accent when I spoke. It was evident.

I eased very happily into my conversation with her then. Occasionally I felt silly and clumsy; I recalled that I didn’t know how to say whatever I wanted, and that I couldn’t arrange my sentences into neat rows like beautifully planted gardens. It’s a skill my mother has; her ease with Spanish came naturally to her because it was the native language she cared for and cultivated all her life. Spanish was my native language, too; it merely shared space with an invasive species I couldn’t tame.

My tutor helped me cut down the weeds and organize my thoughts. It was lovely to remember that Spanish was as rightfully mine as it was hers. It was the beginning of a place of confidence for me. I planted my Spanish flowers in German soil and watered them with German water. I never expected it would be just the thing I needed.

Nancy Martinez speaks at least three languages (the fourth is debatable): English, Spanish, German (and Italian). She studies literature in a desire to draw out the human experience in the structure of narratives, and couples that with her language studies to access the structures of thought in different literary traditions. She looks forward to translating her memories into different languages and perhaps working with the publication of scholarly texts after graduation.

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Where Are We? Remembering Colonialism

Where am I? One way to answer this question is that I’m sitting in a room in Ihnestraße 22, Berlin, Germany. Another way, I’m sitting in a classroom in the building that houses the Political Science department at the Freie Universität Berlin. But I feel this information is not enough to inform you of the real meaning behind my first question. The inspiration for the first query may shed some light: I’ve just been told by my professor that from 1927 to 1944, a collection of human remains encompassing some 5,000 items were housed in the attic of this very building. So when I ask, “Where am I?” it is not simply a matter of physical location, but one of history and more importantly, the interconnectedness of one building’s life with colonialism and with it the first genocide of the 20th century, perpetrated thousands of miles away in what today is known as Namibia, and another, perpetrated in Germany and across Europe thirty years later.

MUNDLE.Lili.I22 Picture (1)
Front entrance of Ihnestraße 22. Copyright Lili Mundle.

Constructed in 1927, the building was home to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics, otherwise known as the KWI-A. Research conducted at this institute is infamous for legitimating racism both scientifically and politically. As a small plaque outside the front entrance informs us – Ihnestraße 22 housed Mengele’s mentor and other researchers who both scientifically legitimated the Holocaust and benefited from its atrocities. Its final line warns that scientists are responsible for the content and consequences of their research.

While this history is remembered, albeit on a small and difficult to read plaque, there is another history that has not been remembered. Let us return to the human remains in the attic, in particular 30 that had been stored there. Where were they from? At the time they had been shipped to Berlin, their colony of origin was known as German South-West Africa (DSWA). Today it is known as Namibia. From 1904 to 1908 a genocide, which to this day has not been recognized by the German government, was perpetrated against the Nama and Herero peoples. Both were nearly obliterated. One practice, documented on a postcard of the time, describes women in concentration camps – Germany’s first use of these – being forced to scrape flesh from the skulls of the murdered. The picture accompanying the text shows German soldiers packing skulls into boxes to be sent to Berlin for research. While these 30 skulls cannot for certain be traced specifically to the genocide, we know their origins were made possible by the context of colonial violence.

But it is not simply the presence of these skulls that connects Ihnestraße 22 and the research at the KWI-A to colonialism. As the plaque warns: scientists are responsible for the content and consequences of their research. However, Dr. Eugen Fischer, first director the KWI-A, most likely saw the consequences of his work being fortuitous rather than gruesome. For the reason he had been called upon to lead the institute was due to his own research in German South-West Africa in 1908. There he had studied the “Rehobother Bastards,” children of Dutch settlers and local Khoikhoi women, to determine the heredity of “race.” While in retrospect his proof was unsubstantiated, his work would inspire, among others, Dr. Wolfgang Abel, another researcher at the KWI-A. Abel’s research on the “Rhineland bastards,” children born of German women and French colonial soldiers from WWI, would lead to the forced sterilizations of 385 youth. The consequences of these men’s research are not limited to what has been written here. These descriptions are simply to give a first impression of the close relationship between colonialism, science and racism.

What does this have to do with activism? Sitting in that classroom in Ihnestraße 22, in what today is a university, and hearing my professor speak of our intimate proximity to colonialism inspired me and four other classmates – friends – to embark on a journey to remember and reveal this interconnectedness. Our method: an exhibit. Titled, “Manufacturing Race: Contemporary Memories of a Building’s Colonial Past,” this exhibit was displayed on numerous occasions in various locations, receiving positive feedback and publicity. Its contents address not only history, but the way in which this history is, or is not, remembered. Not wanting to have this knowledge lost after we graduated, we successfully applied for funding from the university to make our work permanent. Elements include an online version of the exhibit, a large memorial plaque in front of Ihnestraße 22 documenting the continuity between colonialism and KWI-A’s racist research, and finally an international conference on colonialism, science and racism in a broader context to be held in the fall of 2015.

In closing, I would like to offer the opening lines of the exhibit: “This exhibit was born from the knowledge that every site in Germany has a colonial past and the conviction that this knowledge needs to be made public. Not only did we want to know about the colonial past of Ihnestraße 22 – we want everyone to know. We hope that this research will bring others, here at the Freie Universität and beyond, to engage with the colonial reality that exists in all spaces. While we hope the knowledge we have exhibited will reach beyond the university, we specifically chose to host the exhibition at the very site where this knowledge was produced and where we are still studying today. In doing so we want to remind everyone that the so-called distant international and colonial are in fact local. We also want to remind that they are relevant to us all here, today. In doing so, we want to bring the question of ethics and research to the fore.”

As this text reveals, the hopes in creating such an exhibit are not just that history be revealed and remembered. That a website, or a plaque, or a conference be funded. But more fundamentally that we locate ourselves in the world by constantly asking: “Where are we?”


Lili’s intereMUNDLE.Lili SGIst in global issues and inter-cultural experiences is an inherently selfish one: having parents from two different countries and growing up in both countries herself, the aforementioned issues constitute an essential part of successfully navigating day-to-day life. Over the years these day-to-day issues have become a part of her academic interests and work, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in International Relations and work in the international arena. Underlying these academic and work activities remains her primary impulse: to continue exploring and communicating with the world around her.

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Walls Here and There

It was an especially grey, winter day in Berlin, but the chill in my bones came from more than just the humidity. There I was, standing face to face with the remaining concrete barrier of the Berlin Wall. I was blown away by the realization that what I had just been studying in my class on the history of the European Union was tangible—I touched it, and thereby I touched history.

My professor in Paris had recently described living in Berlin in 1989, while on exchange from France, and excitedly running to the Wall when it fell. She shared how she had made off with a large chunk of it, taking home her own piece of history. She has proudly displayed the graffiti-covered stone in her apartment ever since. The remaining kilometer of the Wall is now known as the East Side Gallery. The concrete that was once covered with barbed wire is now covered with murals by international artists and scrawled messages marking “I Was Here” by many who have visited.

Berlin is a city heavy with history. The divide between East and West has left a visible mark. Whether it is the architectural differences or the cultures that have sprung up on one side or the other, Berlin is still seeking to reunite its two halves. Throughout the city there are also marks of something that is missing: its Jewish community. As my friend and I toured the city, we discovered the New Synagogue, with its impressive golden dome tucked in the center of a neighborhood in Berlin. As we stood there, I was struck by the feeling that the 8,000 Jews of pre-war Berlin were standing there with us. We continued exploring the city and soon found ourselves at Checkpoint Charlie, the Allies’ old crossing between East and West Berlin, reading stories about brave Germans who tried to sneak from one side to the other to see their families. Many were killed.

All day as we continued touring, I bounced back and forth between these intense stories—between the history of the Holocaust and the history of the Wall. When we returned to our hostel at the end of the day, I was absolutely drained. We joined our fellow travelers and saw yet another world of Berlin, the underground life of nocturnal Berlin, but I couldn’t shake a thought that was in the back of my mind: there are still walls like this elsewhere.

Before coming to Paris for my year abroad, I had spent the summer in Israel with my family. I hold dual American-Israeli citizenship, my entire family on my mom’s side lives there, and it is where I feel most at home. Walking around Berlin, I felt physically torn by the knowledge that a concrete wall similar to the one I was looking at, here in Berlin, has also been built there. Seven hundred kilometers of concrete, checkpoints, fences, and trenches, separate the West Bank from Israel. I asked myself, what makes that wall different from what was once the Berlin Wall?

The wall in Israel is a continuation of a universal story about separation and oppression, framed in a rhetoric of security and protection. Dividing people, dividing sides, separation barriers do not solve problems. Rather, they reinforce the differences between “us” and “the other,” they lead to more hatred and violence, and they paint a world that is stark black and white. However, the situation in Israel is anything but black and white. It is painted in shades of grey, and the nuances of narratives create a complicated conflict.

This photo, and this trip to Berlin, highlighted those shades of grey. As we see in the photo, two stories can in fact be held in the same frame. As I walked around Berlin that day, torn between the two stories I was facing about the oppression of the Jews that led to the Holocaust and the oppression of Palestinians that has been created by the wall in Israel, I finally realized that I did not have to decide that one was true and the other was false. Narratives do not have to be mutually exclusive—there can be multiple stories and multiple truths that exist at the same time. Israel can be both the sanctuary for Jews after the Holocaust, and a country that has built a wall of separation cutting across the land and isolating Palestinians. It can be both a safe-haven for some and an occupier of others. The question now is: How do you reconcile two truths? How do you tear down the wall that divides those two worlds? How do you tear down the divisions that have been built in order to build something together? Can both sides find the bravery required to forgive?

I don’t assume to have the answers to these questions, but I remain optimistic that this wall too will fall. I hope to be present for that moment and to take home a piece of the wall as a souvenir of the past, just as my professor did. Until that day, the walls around the world continue to serve as concrete reminders to seek justice and to work for tolerance.

Photo © Sophie Schor. All rights reserved.

Sophie Schor headshotSophie Schor is originally from Denver and spent her third year abroad with Smith’s JYA program in Paris. While in Paris, she attended Spéos International School of Photography where she learned to develop film and print black and white photographs. Armed with her camera, she traveled around Europe by train and captured many images along the way. Upon graduation in May, Sophie will be pursuing a Masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She hopes to specialize in the field of conflict-resolution.

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