Peter Herrmann: Travelling through History as Part of Travelling Across Borders
Impressions from Warsaw
Comparative Studies - an e-mail
Visiting the Wall of the Ghetto
Begin of the Journey
The "Leidfaden" - The Idea of the Project
Students contributions: The study visit - reports by the students
Looking Back - Berlin Alexander - Square
The project work:
Compiled and researched by: Maria
Culleton/Noreen Gleeson/Cliona McCormack/Sharon McCormack/Ciaran McGuinness/Beth
McKenna/Joanne Ryan/Nicole Scannell/Denis Spillane
Lone Parents: Lived experience and participation beyond the rhetoric
The evening of 24th of May 2005 – I am walking along the Krakowskie Przedmieście and the Nowy Śiwat, back from the restaurant at the beautiful square of the old city of Warsaw.
The day before had been somewhat exhausting, giving the speech at the conference which had been organised by the Democratic Women’s Union of Poland. What made it arduous was not the presentation itself. As well the presence of high-ranking politicians, including Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka, the deputy prime minister, didn’t really bother me – all are boiling with water, an experience I made during the years being in touch with «this kind of people». Well, the topic – policies with regard to homeless women and children in Ireland – had been OK and the only thing that made all this a little bit exhausting was the total lack of information. Even on my arrival I have not been provided with proper information. I just had to face the hundred plus people, had to look at the agenda which still looked very much like a draft agenda – and the only relief I have had were the interpreters. The deputy didn’t keep the time which had been scheduled for her speech at all. The debate took longer than had been planned – and I nearly saw my speech turning into a toast at a leisurely «after dinner session» at midnight. Anyway, at the end everything went well. I still gave my full speech and from wherever they took the time – the conference took only slightly longer than planned. This gave me at least the opportunity to go with the federal representative for equal opportunities of the PDS for a coffee – finally there are some common links between her and myself. And it is always worthwhile to manifest such «hidden contacts», such «kinship in mind».
This day, the 24th had been a kind of respite for me, an opportunity to look around in the city that played such an important role in history. Indeed for me a memorable stay. Travelling quite a lot, such a remark may well mean something. Warsaw is simply a city which I liked – rising after it had been nearly completely razed to the ground by the fascists after the uprising in 1944 (http://www.warsawuprising.com/). – Well, this says at least as well something about socialism and its «lack of productivity» – an unproductive effort if we only consider living standard in GDP and goods to be bought.
Remarkable are at first glance an amazing arsenal of green and the restoration of the old part of the city – a really lovely job. Remarkable is as well the hideousness of the large apartment buildings, however leaving large free spaces in between – at least up to now. Once it had been similar in Berlin around the Alex – but there much of this spaciousness is lost, filled up with department stores, office towers and others. One has to fear the same happening in Warsaw. Probably one of the costs of joining the «European Union’s wealth» – and its race of the rat.
Remarkable as well how fast one forgets the larger framework. Walking through the streets of Warsaw, the achievements of the reconstruction work after the war is quickly forgotten – objections to the rotten buildings which can be found here as in so many other cities get the overhand. Though such poverty stricken quarters can be found as well for instance in Hamburg and Munich – they belong to the group of the richest cities within the EU – here they have another «meaning». One – and I am not really an exception – thinks instantaneously something like «well, socialism …». As said, I am not really an exception. But at least I am still not fall entirely into this trap. I was getting aware of this as well the evening before – when I talked with Monika. I can still remember that there had been «other times» as well «for us in the West» [– well, these are the words of the «red grandfather» ;-)]. Whenever we go slowly through a process of change we do not really mention it – we only get aware of the changes when we lean back and make a walk through our own, personal history. But when coming to places of which we do not know the history, everything seems to stand still – there is no beginning, and presence simply seems to be a magic standstill. Comparison, however, requires more factual reflection, and as well more emotion and empathy. Empathy as well as regards the own, personal history. And in this sense the open areas I mentioned are much more than simply matters of physical space. I remember knowing similar spaces from Paris and Athens – so different places; but what all these cities have in common is that all three plaid historically important roles and that these spaces are very much open spaces – open in the sense of being «owned» by the citizens, places where people live. – An interesting array for social research: the connection between history and the people’s gathering.
All this is not least about the standards we use in comparative social research – a mail which I recently wrote to a colleague comes to my mind and I might quote it here:
For me personally this wider framework – and in particular its historical dimension – is getting tremendously clear when I stood in Warsaw between 55, Sienna Street and 62, Złota Street. I enter the backyard – an inconspicuous backyard between apartment buildings and first I cannot really make out the relict of the ghetto wall (see for general information: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/warsawtoc.html; http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005069), the wall which had been three meter high, enclosing the quarter in which the Jews lived – or probably it would be fairer to say: struggled to survive.
I could not avoid shivering; I could not avoid remembering the film «The Pianist» by RomanPolanski. I could not – and did not want – to think of the many unknown, no: well known, but unnamed people who lived – and died – there. The open and hidden resistance here in the ghetto, during the Warsaw uprising and in so many other places. So many lives had been lost there – literally and as well indirectly. People staying alive but being broken for the rest of it. It is probably as well this for me eternal knowledge which makes the visit to Warsaw so special – the history of resistance which is seemingly forgotten when walking through one of the parks, the suppression of the Jews and the others that seems to be hidden behind the green of the leaves of the trees in spring and the outcry of indignation and hope after 1945 which seems to be drowned in the melodies of the singing birds. It makes it so special when one sees the walk, the green of the leaves and the singing of the birds just as continuation of the hopes and as demand to go on with working on true mutual understanding.
picture of the still existing small part of the Wall of the Ghetto
Walking back this evening along the beautiful, vivid Nowy Śwat I remembered not least the recent visit to Nordhausen, the study visit with the students from the Higher Diploma Course in Social Policy. – Didn’t they complain about something similar as I did in the beginning – the difficulties of being asked to work in an entirely different way as being used to? One could say they had been «prepared», they knew what was to come; however, they felt as well thrown into the cold water, being forced to swim – and in a way they had been right with their feeling.
Saturday, the 23rd of April – it is still quite early when I enter the office. Despite being my usual time of taking up work the special reason today is that I have to meet the students at 8.30 a.m., joining them for the trip to Farranfore from where we fly into the airport Hahn. From there the trip will continue to Nordhausen in Thuringia. Before meeting the small group I have to do some work in the office as I just returned the day before from France. One could say the life of a member of the «travelling community» – not feeling boundaries, living in various places and feeling everywhere at home. Still, there is the one place which is called office where I went that morning to do some work before leaving.
It is all a little bit hectic. Later, sitting in the bus, looking at the Irish countryside, gives me a kind of relieve.
(from: www.atpm.com/10.11/ ireland/index.shtml)
I think everything is well prepared – and if I forgot something I cannot change it anyway. It is a fine day and the Irish landscape shows its beauty. A day one thinks about settling and just staying where it is nice, relaxing on «my mountain» near Cork, looking across the Jasnaja Poljana and reflecting on the pressure and leisure stemming from the globalised life we are all caught in.
Well, for the students of the course it is perhaps not hectic but they feel at least under pressure. It is just a short time to go and they have to sit their exams. As much as it is true that the aim of any course is not the final marks but the general process of learning, as much is true that the exams are the focus and finally the point which decides to a large extent about the future position in life. The learning in Nordhausen's College
is different, only loosely connected with the student’s immediate concerns.
In a way the project developed by accident. Every year the College in Nordhausen organises an International Project Week (http://www.fh-nordhausen.de/internationales/f_ipw.html). Lecturers from different countries meet there for one week, teaching the local students in Germany their subjects – be it engineering, public relations, culture, management or social and economic issues. I had been already invited for a couple of times as guest lecture. In 2004, I took up a brochure – a presentation of the "Leidfaden".
The project was a Leid-Faden – a «suffering line» and as such it marked meaningful points in the history of the town.
One has to know that very close to Nordhausen the Concentration Camp Dora Mittelbau is located – the place where during the German fascist regime Wernher von Braun build the V2, the weapon with which the German terrorists wanted to win the war, gaining the power to suppress the world.
Actually, von Braun did of course not build this rocket himself. Workers did it, workers who had been deported and forced to build the weapon – their personal alternative was to loose their life. Or should one say to loose their life immediately? Many of them died after a short time due to the harsh working and living conditions. Although Dora Mittelbau had not been an extermination camp, the SS disparaged life of those who worked in the vaults of the mine. Even walking nowadays through the tunnel for half an hour makes us feeling uncomfortable.
Now, back to the «Leidfaden». The project I mentioned was as well about providing a «Leitfaden» – it is spelled slightly differently but pronounced the same as the «Leidfaden». The meaning now is a «guiding line». And the project aimed on providing a guide which showed that there are places where help, support can be obtained.
Hearing about the recent Hartz-reforms in the German social legislation, I thought it could be a good idea to work on a similar project – looking at single parents who are affected by the changes in the legal system and providing them with some guidance through the jungle of legislation and provisions that are in place to help them. Probably a too ambitious idea for a course over such a short time span and aiming at such a work in a comparative perspective. Still, I thought it is worthwhile to start. And so did Sabine whom I knew from the first stay in Nordhausen. When I met herby chance during one of my other journeys I talked to her about the idea and spontaneously she wanted to join – and so we could make the step from words to action.
I presented the idea at the beginning of the year to the students – and they agreed to join. The same was the case with the students in Nordhausen who had been in Sabine’s course. The students worked to some extent by using the Internet as means of communication – and of course many phone calls had been made, mostly between the lecturers, talking amongst themselves about the work of «their» students, including the information on the teaching in Germany and Ireland respectively. But the real highlights had been seen in the study visits.
In January the German students came to Ireland
and late April we went from Ireland to Nordhausen. In a way this had been part of the International Project Week; however, the setting had been a different one. The special group work had been demanding – teaching and group work in the morning, trying to accept the want for independent work and nevertheless being there for sufficient guidance. The afternoons mostly packed with visits of different social agencies.
Sharon McCormack: Higher Diploma in
Social Policy Class 2004/2005 and International Project Week in Nordhausen – An
Overview of our Work with the German Students
Cliona McCormack: An Education on the GDR
Noreen Gleeson: The Montessori- Kindergarden in Nordhausen
Maria Culleton: Nordhausen Hospital
Joanne Ryan: Visit to the "One-World-Shop"
Translation was one task I accepted to do, asking some additional questions which seemed to be interesting to me, taking the knowledge I already have had was another task. And of course some simple administrative tasks which had to be worked on in the background kept me kind of busy.
But actually it had been much more – a process of permanent learning and «self-awareness training». Being «member of the travelling community» – as I termed it in the beginning – lets me easily forget how many boundaries actually exist. For those who are frequently moving around, these boundaries seem to be non-existent; for those who travel on their leisure these boundaries are something more or less meaningless – reflecting the excitement of «exotic experiences». It is for those who only travel occasionally for the purpose of work that these boundaries really come to the fore. Under such conditions so many tiny things are getting relevant which do not exist for the «commuters» – or which may just be hidden for them.
Though I studied briefly as well in the then GDR – I had been grown up and mainly lived in the West of Germany which I left some ten years ago. And coming «back» there for work now, I feel frequently a little bit alienated. Naturally the colleagues I am working with are usually much younger as time went on for me; many of the colleagues especially in the «New Laender» represent the younger generation. This means as well that they have different experiences – and consequently I come back into a «foreign country», indeed. As well, the experiences with the then GDR are different. Coming there, I mention how much the experience of the reality actually depends on the «perception of the other», as well the hopes and expectations we connect with «the other». And so some conflicts during our debates which had been part of the study visit remain pertinent – controlled; perhaps they are so well controlled by factual arguments that these actual clashes remain unnoticeable for many of those who are present.
What is most decisive in this context is that the students have to work with similar questions. There is, however, one significant difference. I experienced «the other» again and again – and again and again I have to re-learn. The students, be it the Irish students or those from Germany – come into a situation which is not so much shaped by experiences. It is twisted around expectations which cannot be clearly defined – prejudices, things that are known from school, from reading, from hearing people talking about their experiences with the «Prussian spirit». And of course to some extent as well by a quick generalisation of ad-hoc experiences. At the end it is only a marginal difference between their learning and my learning.
Language, of course matters – though many German people speak some English and the German students actually did quite well, it is always a little challenge to communicate in a situation where the participants have different «native» languages. However, what really matters is the difference in points to connect with. But as with language it is the same with experience. The paradox which occurs is that we overestimate differences if we ignore, deny them. So, despite the different languages we usually find a fast way out of difficulties arising from this – we talk slowly, we use simple terms and phrases and so on. If one wants to use the trendy term «intercultural learning» one can say that this depends on recognising and accepting the self – and as Georg Simmel pointed out in his little piece on The Stranger, it is this especially the case in confrontation with the unfamiliar.
And so it is especially around the working experiences that the unfamiliar gets the overhand. Cooperation goes through phases where the common interest in the Leidfaden is more in need of an own Leitfaden than being able to pertain developing a Leitfaden for others. – A philosophically winded expression of something very simple: As long as the common experience, the common interest is not strongly present it is difficult to overcome the differences in the way we approach things.
I get an impression of this when we went the one afternoon to visit Dora Mittelbau – for me these visits are always a tribute to many personal friends who went through the hell of concentration camps, who hardly survived and to whom I have had close relationships when I lived in Bielefeld. It is as well a kind of obligation to make others familiar with what happened. And I got the impression that this kind of sharing one of the probably least believable experiences welded us to some extent together, brought us all closer together – at the end. It is a kind of filter, making clear where commonalities can be found and where a clear distinction can be made out between what matters and what is only a superficial issues in cursorily moods.
So it may well be that the end was a kind of beginning. This experience – and as well the many nice things we did together – may be a foundation for future understanding of each other. And it had been as well an experience which is basis of friendship.
For me it is always a little bit funny when I am in the canteen of the European Parliament. It seems to be such a variety of public, a rich mixture of people from all countries and so many ways of life. - And there is one stand that catches again and again my attention: the fridge with the mineral water. I never counted the different brands. But most of the countries have water from their own country there – I never looked if they do, but at least the people there can really choose. They can choose «their own water» to have at least some stability – finally water is the most important foundation of life. - It seems to be only a triviality ...
After the students left Nordhausen I had to leave as well, however, not joining them home but going on to Berlin, where I had to give a lecture at the Alice-Salomon Fachhochschule.
Being in the German capital, I take the opportunity to meet a colleague from the ministry for family affairs – he wanted to talk to me about a concern we have in common: our disapproval of the EUropean service directive, the so-called «Bolkestein directive».
His office is located at the Alexanderplatz – a spot which still has something of the buzz which Alfred Doeblin caught so well in his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. After leaving the building I walk across the Alex. Instead of the ramming noise by the tram which is described by Doeblin, I hear from some distance a well known song – I cannot stop myself humming the melody, beginning to sing the text. The music is played by a crowd mobilising for a new Monday-demonstration – a demonstration against the Hartz IV-legislation.
The song gives me confidence – despite the sometimes very different approaches, the even contradicting points of departure and as well the different goals there is a good long stretch we can go together. And we have to go together instead of leaving it to others. We have to learn to overcome some part of the daily ignorance in which we all are caught in one or the other way to avoid that others make use of it. Learning to walk together will allow us to stop those who want to walk against us.
This evening, instead of joining the Monday demonstrations I pass the Humboldt University, located «Unter den Linden». After briefly hesitating, I enter the main building. It is with a certain pride as it had been here that I gave my first public presentation – several years ago. I walk up the stairs – the song which I am still humming mixes with the words which are chiselled into the stone of the wall:
"Als sie die ersten Kommunisten holten, habe ich
denn ich war kein Kommunist!
Als sie die ersten Juden holten, habe ich geschwiegen,
denn ich war kein Jude!
Als sie die ersten Katholiken holten,
habe ich geschwiegen,
denn ich war kein Katholik!
Als sie mich holten, war niemand mehr da, der seine Stimme hätte erheben können!!
 A personal remark: I do not remember exactly when I met Martin – we had been both active in the German peace movement in the early/mid 1970s. He is one of the personalities who lived his knowledge, experience, hopes and visions. He is one of the excellent examples of those individuals who went through the unbelievable bitterness of the times and learned, not to answer with the same means. Understanding, solidarity, help and something what can be seen as «targeted aggressiveness» had been combined in living together with others.
 Sabine Herrenbrueck, Diploma in Social Pedagogies, Lecturer at the Fachhochschule Nordhausen
 The studies there had not been the main studies; the focus of my student life had been Bielefeld (sociology) and Hamburg (economics).