Welcome Back to Deutsch… kei?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Dear readers,

Some of you are thinking “Why is Lauren Stokes back in my Gazette?”, and some of you are thinking “Who is this person?” and some of you are thinking “Oh thank god, I’ve been wondering what was up with the whole twentieth anniversary of the Berlin wall, and Lauren is just the person to tell me!”

And I’m here to answer those questions for you. Yes, I graduated last year, yes, I really graduated, I know because there’s a picture of me giggling uncontrollably in the alumni magazine, and yes, I’m pretty lame because I’m still writing for the Gazette, but hey, no, I’m not entirely lame, because I got a Fulbright to go live in Berlin for a year.

Since we last spoke, I went back to Berlin and Heidelberg to do research on my senior thesis, about psychiatric art in Weimar Germany (bonus points for anyone who notices the irony in that link), and had a lot of trials and tribulations convincing German archivists to trust me. I spent the last weeks of my summer at a former concentration camp doing restoration work, organizing their archive, sleeping on a straw pallet and singing songs around the campfire. (It’s the single best thing I ever did for my German, too.)

The volunteers at the memorial site were dedicated to drawing connections between local history and present events, and especially interested in ways of using history and memory to promote tolerance, and they gave me the idea for my Fulbright proposal, which is about the growing Turkish minority in Germany and what their presence means for the ways that German history is taught, remembered, and interpreted.

Turks are the largest minority in Germany, with nearly a million German citizens of Turkish origin and another two million Turkish citizens living in Germany. Why are there all these Turks in Germany? Because Germany invited them as guest workers in the 1960s and 1970s, without too much thought to their integration, but of course a lot of them never did return home, but began new lives and new families in Germany. What does this mean for Germany, forty years later? A whole hell of a lot, is the answer.

What does it mean for Turkey? I got to spend some time in Turkey this summer learning Turkish on a Critical Language Scholarship, and what it means for Turkey, among other things, is that somebody who looks like me will often be greeted auf Deutsch when walking into restaurants or shops. I was always deeply flattered by this, and would think “This isn’t going to happen in three months when I’m actually in Germany!”

(True story: the day before I left for Turkey, I was crossing the street to get to Chipotle to get my last burrito, and some guy walks up to me and asks if I’m from Germany, and would I like to get a drink later, and when I answer “Uh, no, and I’m flying away tomorrow anyway,” he explains that I look German, and I almost decide to get a drink with him anyway on the basis of that alone. Since I am pretty sure most American women would not respond with the same enthusiasm, I wonder for the rest of the day whether it’s true, or whether he just got lucky for the first time ever.)

Other things about Turkey were decidedly un-German. Germans, as a rule, aren’t very patriotic. (“There’s a thousand good reasons, to be proud of this country, so why are they all escaping us right now?”) Sometimes when they find out that you’re a German major they ask you straight-up if you regret it, now that you know all the terrible things about their country. I don’t think this ever happened to any of my friends in France or Spain. When Germans do show patriotism, such as during the 2006 World Cup, which was hosted in Germany, major media outlets comment on it, and other Germans fret about whether it’s a good thing.

In Turkey, on the other hand, teenagers stencil “Happy is the one who can say I am a Turk!” on subways and farms. Every restaurant, shop, and hairdresser proudly displays a picture of the founder of the country, and for twenty bucks you can buy a pendant with his portrait framed in cubic zirconia at a kiosk in the mall. I saw people who had his signature tattooed on their forearms.

Although people were initially curious about why I was studying Turkish, they were always eager to hear about how great I thought their country was. (I told a hairdresser that the only phrase I really needed in Turkey was “çok gĂźzel!” which means “very nice/beautiful!” He laughed and said I had a point.)

On that basis alone, combining the notoriously self-flagellating Germans and the notoriously proud Turks seems like a recipe for disaster. Factor in a bunch of pissed off Kurds (who make up over 20% of Turks in Germany) and that small subset of Germans who go way beyond proud, I mean _way beyond_, and you’re looking at one hell of a complex situation.

So my Fulbright project is about drawing more explicit connections between the memory of the Holocaust, German concepts of citizenship and obligation, and the experience of Turks in modern-day Germany. Can we use the memory of the Holocaust to build tolerance, like the volunteers at my memorial site? Or does the effort to link the past to a sense of German obligation only backfire and feed the far-right movement? For another take on the same question, how do young immigrants to Germany engage with the memory of the Holocaust?

I don’t even know how to start to answer these questions, but I do know that living in Germany and navigating both German and Turkish (I’ll be taking second year classes, and you can expect a lot of frustrated columns about the language without prepositions in the future) is going to be a challenge.

Hence Checkpoint Lauren—straddling the borders of America, Germany, and Turkey, leaving the Swat Sector for points unknown, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, sending letters home because how else is a girl supposed to hold onto her English?

Proud to be your German correspondent (at least until somebody else wants to pay her),
Lauren Stokes

The Phoenix

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