My madcap adventures in Germany during my year as a Fulbright Scholar.

27 February 2007

Fulbright teaming up with... MTV?

At first I thought my sister directed me to The 9 (for February 27) to look at the random cat generator, but then I spotted number six.

You can officially register me as a skeptic.

First of all, this seems like a shameless publicity stunt. Fulbright is a legitimate organization with an international reputation, and they're going to let Fiona Apple and that guy from the Shins help pick the winners? The only word I can think to describe it is "pathetic."

Secondly, if I understood this correctly, the application deadline is March 23 for a fellowship in the 2007-2008 academic year, and I'd like to know why they're fucking around with the normal deadlines for the Fulbright. I started my proposal in January of 2005, turned it in to my campus committee in September of that year, sent the final version off in October, learned at the end of January 2006 that my application had advanced into the second round of competition, and by March 23 had received my final acceptance. Why is this fellowship different, and, more importantly, why the hell don't they have any real information on their website? At this point they can only hope to receive applications thrown together at the last minute. Is this supposed to be a real competition for a prestigious fellowship, or is it merely Fulbright's poor cousin?

I also have a serious problem with how they're soliciting projects: They want students to "propos[e] unique projects on 'the power of music' as a global force for mutual understanding." No, I didn't put the irony quotes around "the power of music;" they were already there. I do, however, fully concur that such a lame, hackneyed sentiment should be taken with a grain of salt. My real problem is that in describing the desired projects in this way, they've made it clear this is a closed competition where only projects that toe the party line are acceptable. Granted, some countries are only open to Fulbrights in specific fields, like business, law, or ecology, but most are wide open. More importantly, it is up to you, the scholar, to define your proposal and what you hope to accomplish. It is not determined in advance.

Lastly, why MTV? That seems to indicate a focus on popular music, and isn't that troubling? I thought the kind of vapid, narcissistic, contrived pop music that America exports to the rest of the world was one reason other countries don't like us. Perhaps that piece of conventional wisdom isn't really accurate, but nonetheless, I find most of MTV awful. Remember when they used to have intelligent, thoughtful programming? Gone are the days when "Daria" was on and the "Real World" wasn't only about sex and partying. Quite frankly, I don't think MTV has any redeeming value. It's shallow, materialistic, and reactionary.

A perfect example is Jay-Z's "99 Problems." First, in the wake of the botched Superbowl halftime show, MTV bowdlerizes the, admittedly nasty and violent, video, but then gives it no less than four awards at the VMAs. In case you're not familiar with the song, this tells you all you need to know:

"if you're having girl problems, i feel bad for you, son / i've got 99 problems, but a bitch ain't one."

Fulbright just teemed up with the people who endorse that lovely, misogynistic sentiment in order to foster international cultural understanding.

Hmm, but I suppose both Islamic fundamentalism and most rap music do objectify women. Perhaps we could channel that force to bring about mutual understanding, but somehow, I don't think that's the kind of mutual understanding Fulbright had in mind.


23 February 2007

Take a moment to appreciate the crazy.

This is Willy Michl.

He's a blues musician and a self-proclaimed "Isar" Indian. (The Isar is a river in Bavaria and the Tirol.)

Now, he would be an interesting an innocuous figure, of the rather crunchy, "Umweltfreundlich" variety; he's famous for the sentence: "One must be able to drink the water of our rivers at any and every point." He might be a bit eccentric, but I could excuse his eccentricity because I think pro-environmental beliefs are good and should be encouraged.

As I said, he would be an interesting but harmless figure, if he weren't completely bonkers. You see, he thinks he's an Indian.

He walks around Bavaria, dressed in skins and wearing moccasins, with three eagle feathers stuck in his hair, carrying a medicine bag and a knife for scalping.

From his website:
"As an adult Willy Michl finally realized his childhood yearning to help the Indians and be interested in their customs. In this way he became more and more of an Indian on the long search for the truth. For him the translation of the word "Indian" means first and foremost "original inhabitant," and the Indian life, which he cultivates in his private life, serves as a symbol for the fight against racism and oppression."

In his own words:
"With my appearance and behavior I show my solidarity with the original inhabitants of the western hemisphere and all hemispheres and show people, that I want to be equated with them... As an Indian I explain anew, there is nothing in my life that I regret and that I am an equally grateful for my 'victories and defeats.' I am not a self-declared Indian, as is often reported or parrotted, but rather the 'Rainbow Rider' captured me in my childhood, already at my birth, and strengthened me, so that I can do what I was born to do: deliver my blues songs!"

Completely and utterly mad.

Whether you call them Indians, Native Americans, American Indians, or just plain Natives, Willy Michl is not one of them.

I knew about the fascination many Germans have for American Indians, but things like this still surprise me. Surprise and disgust me. It's amazing to me that someone who wants to fight against racism can't see how absolutely racist his own actions are. Willy Michl makes a living by stereotyping and glossing over cultural differences, history and tradition to lump all Native Americans under one umbrella. He appropriates symbols from cultures which are not his own, strips them of their context and puts them to use for his own purpose, namely, selling CDs.

You don't get much more imperialist than that.

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12 February 2007

More about sex workers

Like any good tourist when in Hamburg I went to the Reeperbahn, but it was a bit underwhelming. It's supposedly known as Germany's "Sin Mile" but it contained nothing you can't see right outside of Bahnhof Zoo in Berlin (Beate Uhse). Actually, since this is one of the few places in Germany were prostitution is strictly regulated, it's much more tame than the Oranienburger Straße after 4:00 p.m.

This is it:

Nothing to write home about. Here's the street with the largest concentration of gay cinemas in the world:

Once again, it's rather tame. I found the place to be more funny than scandalous:

Only on one street (the Herbertstraße) can you find Amsterdam-style women in windows:

It's kept blocked off and is only open to men over the age of 18.

The tour guide on the bus seemed proud of how well prostitution is managed by the authorities. Apparently the women are organized, so they work for themselves and not a john. But I still think it's demeaning and wrong. This is especially evident on Herbertstraße, where the signs make it very clear: women have no business on the street unless they are there to sexually serve a man. This website explains that "no entry for women" is not a law but an official police recommendation. "If a woman braves entry to Herbertstraße in spite of this, she must count on being bombarded with rotten eggs, cold water, or at least the curses of the whores." I think that about sums up what's wrong with this place. The whole area is served by a massive contingent of police officers, but apparently they are only there for the protection of prostitutes and their male customers.

When a country has legal prostitution I think it needs to signal a philosophical shift, which involves acknowledging that prostitution is a valid job, that prostitutes (or "sex workers") deserve rights and respect, and that sexuality is something natural and good. That's not the case here. Herbertstraße is not a place for people to explore their sexuality; it is not a place for lesbians, bisexual women or heterosexual partners. It is mired strictly in the old paradigm, which generally involves men taking advantage of vulnerable women and society's tacit approval.

Personally, I think Sweden has the right idea.



Did I tell you I went to Hamburg?

I guess I got busy with school and approaching deadlines (ack!) and neglected to blog about it. Well, I braved the really crappy weather (post-hurricane) to spend two cold, windy and wet days in Germany's beautiful Hanseatic city-by-the-bay. (Photos here.)

Because of the inclement weather, I saw most of the city through the windows of one of those hop-on, hop-off tour buses: the diplomatic quarter (only New York has more consulates than Hamburg), the fish market, and the mind-boggling HafenCity.

I also went to a service at the St. Michaelis church

Yes, you read that correctly. I wanted to see its beautiful interiors

and since I arrived right before the start of the noon service, I decided to stay. It actually wasn't much so much a religious observation as a chance to show off the church's three organs. The service's format: greeting, song from organ #1, scripture reading, song from organ #2, prayer, song from organ #3; it only lasted fifteen minutes. Still, it's the first time I've been to a church service in almost five years.

Some pictures from my trip:

The Rathaus

Speicherstadt warehouses

The harbor (The sun shone for the first and only time as I was on my way to the train station to head home; go figure.)

St. Petri

Germany's oldest stock exchange

The Elbe Tunnel

Old Jewish Cemetery

Safari outfitters

Umbrella detritus

I took advantage of a break in the weather to visit the Nikolai Kirche.

You should take with a grain of salt your guide book's claim that this church was destroyed by the allies. Yes, it was damaged during the massive civilian bombings carried out by British and American forces during WWII, but it was not destroyed. It could have been restored after the war, but instead the nave was demolished and the spire left standing as a war memorial. Now, it's an observation deck. It offers beautiful views of the city from 75 meters up:

As wonderful as the view is, getting there is really frickin' scary. You travel the 75 meters in a glass elevator that goes really fast, but that's not the scariest part. What's really frightening is that you travel through nothing to get there: the church is gone and the spire is a ruin, so there aren't any real walls, ceilings or floors in sight. It also boasted what must be the world's scariest emergency exit:

I'm not sure if the photo does it justice (the wind was blowing so hard I couldn't hold the camera steady; seriously), but it's terrifying: a rickety staircase that just plunges straight down into the abyss.

But I didn't go to Hamburg to ride around in a bus, look at buildings, and scare my mother by climbing unsafe structures.

This was the main event, and it was amazing. I won't even try to describe it, I'll let the images speak for themselves:

I couldn't resist bringing the paintings home with me, in the form of a bag,

a photo line (called, of all things the Steely Dan),

and some postcards.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go stare longingly into the distance for a while.

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11 February 2007

coolest store ever

Do you need to know where you can find a ship’s wheel, a coffin or a taxidermied ferret in Berlin?

Why, Fundusverkauf, of course. Located just across the street from the Komische Oper (comic opera), it sells their old set pieces and costumes.

It is unfortunately way out of my price range, but I stop by every so often just to gawk.

Anybody need a longboat?


03 February 2007


It was a beautiful day on Saturday: the fields were green, the sun was shining, and it felt almost like spring. It was the perfect day to hop a train and head for the countryside, and I did. However, since this was my final destination, it wasn't exactly fun. Spending a day touring the grounds of a concentration camp, including the crematorium, and having the gruesome acts of concentration camp guards described to you doesn't exactly make for a rollicking good time, but Ravensbrück was very interesting and I am glad I went.

Ravensbrück was a female prison located a few hours from Berlin; it was a bit of a catch-all, housing Sinti and Roma, Jewish, and so-called anti-social women (asozial), as well as political prisoners and foreigners (wives of Polish intelligentsia, members of the French and Austrian resistance movements). All told, about 130,000 women from more than forty countries passed through Ravensbrück. It is unknown how many perished there, but estimates range from 40,000 to 90,000.

Lots of the camp has survived, since it was used by the Soviets until the 1990s. Still standing are the main building (Kommandantur), part of the original wall, clothing factory, utilities building, the warder's houses, the private houses for the SS personnel (the commandant, the doctors, etc.) and their families, the jail, and the crematorium. It was the first time I'd seen one intact: the ovens from Sachsenhausen are ruins and even though one of the crematoriums (crematoria?) at Dachau is still standing, I don't think it's open to the public (either that or I don't remember seeing it, which seems unlikely). It was chilling to stand in that building and look at the ovens and know that thousands of bodies were burned there, with their ashes then dumped in the lake.

One of the most striking features of Ravensbrück is in fact the lake. It seems like some kind of twisted joke that the location of a concentration camp could be so beautiful. Located just outside of the town of Fürstenberg (Havel), Ravensbrück is surrounded by lush green woods and located right on a lake; it's downright picturesque, in fact. Standing at the camp's south edge you can see across the lake into the pretty little town, complete with cute cottages and brick church steeple. Our guide pointed out that Ravensbrück was located so close to the town its residents had to have smelled the crematorium, which brought home another fact about the Holocaust that is often forgotten: camps weren't all secreted away in remote locations in the east. Some, like Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück, were located not too far to big cities and within sight of small towns. Many residents (and the reverend) could see Ravensbrück from their windows, and there must have been constant activity flowing from the camp to the town and back. Prisoners were marched through town on their way to work at various factories (like Siemens), and local merchants delivered food and supplies to the camp. Even if residents believed, as most claimed, that only true Volksfeinde (enemies of the people) were imprisoned there, don't you wonder if they ever had doubts? If it ever crossed their minds that something wasn't right? Like when they saw columns of women pass by with shaved heads and gaunt faces? Or when they smelled the burning bodies?


There was a pretty good exhibit about the camp wardens (who were all women), with lots of biographical information. It was striking how alike they were: young women (who started working there at the age of 18 or 19, meaning they were children or teenagers when the Nazis came to power), with no education or training. Some were drafted into service, but most signed up voluntarily. They probably considered it a good job. It paid well, was in a beautiful location and nice, lakefront housing was provided. The exhibit managed to avoid the clichés that usually fill exhibits about the perpetrators of the Holocaust, instead giving lots of information about the guards, their training, behavior in the camp, everyday lives and, in some cases, post-war trials and sentences. There were drawings of the camp by former prisoners and also lots of media (videos, news reports, interviews), so you could listen to the children of Ravensbrück guards voice their almost desperate need to believe their mothers didn't commit terrible crimes, or how the warders themselves rationalized their work at the camp, claiming they were drafted and had no choice, or presenting themselves as victims. (One woman described how the inmates would often leave food for her, because they knew how hungry she always was).

It was not without its flaws, though: almost every video screen was right across from a window, causing glare, and there were these strange stone walls running throughout the exhibit that were placed at funny angles. (Seriously, was just hanging the exhibition pieces on the original, structural walls too blasé?) I was also annoyed that the exhibit translated the German word "Aufseherin" as matron. I realize that technically matron can refer to a woman who works in a prison, but I prefer the words supervisor, overseer, and warden to matron. They seem much more descriptive. "Matron" can refer to a dainty little widow who sips tea in pearls and gloves, and it seems inappropriate when applied to the vicious, uniformed young women leading attack dogs on leashes. Oh, and the exhibit stank; it literally smelled, apparently due to the glue they used in putting it together.

The state of Brandenburg apparently deserves a prize for the sheer number of completely inappropriate things they've done with Ravensbrück. Most of the houses where the warders lived have been turned into, get this, a youth hostel. (In fairness, its website implies it is used for school trips for groups studying the Holocaust.) It just seems morbid that on your bike tour of northern Germany you can spend the night sleeping in the same room as someone who spent their days terrorizing inmates--sicking dogs on them, beating them, starving them.

But just in case you have such a wonderful time staying at the concentration camp-cum-hostel that you can't imagine every leaving, you might be able to actually buy one of the houses used by the upper-level SS personnel at the camp. According to our guide the state of Brandenburg is looking to be rid of the half a dozen or so little villas that remain. So... if you're looking for lovely lakefront property in Brandenburg with a great view not only of forest and lake but also concentration camp, this is the place for you.

Not that the German government really does a much better job of dealing with history than the individual states. After all, it wasn't until the year 2000 that the former prisoners from the youth camp down the road were even recognized as victims. Everyone at that camp had been designated as anti-social and the designation followed them after the war. Nevermind that the Nazis designated people as asozial for transgressions like having too many boyfriends or listening to the wrong music (swing). They, like the women forced to work at camp brothels I blogged about yesterday, were considered at fault for their own incarceration and denied recognition for far too long.

Clearly, Germany is still struggling with the past, but as I walked the grounds of Ravensbrück I realized that I was, too. It seems wrong to sell off part of the camp, be it to a Buddhist organization or a private family, and I balked at the idea of filling up the warder's residences with backpackers. Yet at the same time, when our guide described how shocked she was at first to see students sit down and eat their lunches right after she told them about the crematorium, my first thought was, "But kids have to eat, and their enjoying their Pausebrot in view of the camp doesn't undo its history or the magnitude of what happened here." And her stated refusal to swim or boat in the neighboring lake because it was where prisoners' ashes were disposed struck me as simply too much.

How long before life can return to normal? The concentration camp at Ravensbrück has been preserved; it is filled with historical documents, artifacts and exhibits. Is it really so bad if an empty building is sold to someone who will use it? Or if five unused residences are opened up to schoolgroups and students? History isn't being ignored or forgotten, and I wonder if it's really more respectful to let them sit empty, fill up with rats and bats and slowly rot away.

As I stood in that idyllic location, staring at the pretty little town and watching the sun glint off the lake, I realized that there are no right answers; there is no perfect way to deal with a place like Ravensbrück. As I turned my back to the lake to look at the crematorium, I also realized how incomprehensible it all is. How could it happen? No matter how many camps you visit, how many films you see, books you read or testimony you hear, it is still impossible to grasp.

I guess all that remains is for you to do the best you can, to continue to watch and listen and read, to not forget, to go and bear witness.

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Speaking of sex workers...

I visited the women's concentration camp at Ravensbrück today. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the Holocaust and the Second World War. I've read a lot--scholarly sources, survivor testimonies, literature--been to concentration camps, studied the period, but this place just blew me away.

Did you know the Nazis set up a huge network of brothels throughout Germany and its occupied territories that was "staffed" with female prisoners?

I didn't think so.

(Read about here.)

There were brothels for SS men, for Wehrmacht-soldiers, and for concentration camp inmates (as part of a reward system for the more privileged inmates). It hasn't been talked about in Germany and for years was not recognized as a war crime, since women's "work" in the brothels was somehow seen as voluntary. Only recently has it come to light and become the object of scholarly inquiry.

The exhibit at Ravensbrück outlines the history of the "Special Barracks," as the brothels were called, assembling a large amount of documents and a massive collection of scholarship, as well as some firsthand accounts of the brothels by Holocaust survivors. What is missing from the exhibit are pictures. There are some photos of the outsides of these "special barracks" and a handful of interior shots, but that's all. I assumed this was because there weren't many extant photos, but I guess I was wrong. According to Der Spiegel, "Photos are on the whole not included in the exhibition 'to avoid possible voyeuristic expectations.'" Personally, I don't think that's a good enough reason. "Out of respect for the victims" would be a good reason; fear of what visitors will think is not. But the Germans' need to protect people from information and control their thoughts is a topic for another day.

Apparently there was some debate about the terminology to use in the exhibit. Ultimately they decided on calling the women who worked at the bordellos Sex-Zwangsarbeiter ("forced sex workers," alternatively "forced sex labourers"). On one hand this isn't an unreasonable term. Zwangsarbeiter is a term you hear a lot in connection with WWII Germany: most concentration camp prisoners were forced laborers, and many more forced laborers were imported from occupied territories to work in industry and free up men for the front lines. But I still don't like it, largely because the term Sex-Zwangsarbeiter was chosen out of a desire to be "PC."

You know what? There's nothing politically correct about forcing or coercing a brutalized, starved woman to have sex with other concentration camp inmates, and we shouldn't try to act like there is. I think Der Spiegel chose a more appropriate term: sex slaves. What happened to these women was brutal and ugly, and we shouldn't try to sanitize it.