By Norbert Ruebsaat | January 10, 2008


had a conversation with my Berlin host Ilonka yesterday about identity.
She is not a German or Berliner: if she is anything, she said, she is a
member of the Kiez, the Charlottenburg neighbourhood where she lives and in a restaurant/pub of which—Kastanie—we
were having dinner. She looked around the outdoor patio where we sat
and said, A lot of these people are regulars and there is one man, for
instance, who comes here every day; he uses the Kastanie as an office with his laptop and sits here for hours. Everyone knows him.

grew up in a West Berlin suburb in the nineteen seventies and eighties
when the city was still divided and West Berlin was surrounded by the
Wall. She traveled out of Berlin often with her family, to the Nordsee,
North Sea, which she loved, and to the countryside, and it was no big
deal except for the fact one was frisked at border crossings and forced
to exchange West for East Marks at par. She took Berlin to be her home,
took it as factual and not tragic that Russian and American symbols
were all over the city, and only lamented sometimes that she lived in a
suburb—a suburb not, of course in the North American sense, but in the
European sense where the dwellings are Siedlungen, four and five story row-houses fronting directly on the street. The family traveled to West Germany, the Bundesrepublik, as well, via the railway corridor.

had walked earlier that day through Treptow Park and viewed the massive
Soviet monument to the defeat of fascism and the liberation of Berlin,
and Ilonka fondly recalled a trip she had taken, in her last year of
high school, to the Soviet Union. She went with a girlfriend, and it
was an organized tour sponsored by the tiny West Berlin branch of the
East German SED, the Communist governing party, and her parents were
appalled. The other soon-to-be graduates were going on organized
holiday tours to beach resorts or to glamorous Western cities like
Paris or London, and she and her friend chose to go to Moscow. She said
it was an amazing trip and she learned things she would not have
otherwise learned and would not have learned at any other time. It was
the time of Glasnost, when Russia was starting to open up, and despite
the fact that the tour involved the standard visits to factories,
schools, daycares and the usual speeches by monotoned officials, people
were open, and they talked and answered questions they would not have
answered a year earlier.

Treptow monument is huge, a good six stories high, black bronze.
Rendered in the monumentalist socialist realist style, it depicts a
nameless youthful Russian soldier holding a young child in his left arm
and a gigantic sword in his right hand; the sword points to a shattered
swastika beneath the soldier’s huge boot. The plinth is as high as a
house. The statue is larger than anything you’d want to have in your
town and larger than what few cities besides Berlin could contain
without embarrassment or a severe sense of oppression. Here, it works.
Ilonka explained that Berliners in general see little problem with such
monuments: former Soviet President Gorbachev insisted, as part of the
agreement by which he acceded to opening the Wall, that they be kept
and maintained by the German Government, and they are part of the
city’s identity and heritage, just like the Brandenburg Gate or
Checkpoint Charlie or the Reichstag. Skateboarders, she said—of which
there were unaccountably few on the day of our visit—delight in using
the monument’s great stone surfaces, some of which are gently sloped,
and others of which have stairs and stone banisters perfectly spaced
and tiered for skateboard action, for their routines. For lower-income
Berliners, Ilonka said, Treptow Park, with its grassy expanses, its
lake and its Wälder, patches of forest, is a favoured locale
for summer outings. As we walked I noted that the graffiti, ubiquitous
in Berlin, are here somewhat subdued: they share stone surface space
with the sequence of soviet realist bas-reliefs of workers and soldiers
overcoming Nazi might that line the promenade leading up to the statue.


After we visited Treptow Park, Ilonka took me to the Jüdischer Friedhof
in the Weissensee district. It is one of Europe’s largest Jewish
cemeteries and was, unaccountably, not destroyed by the Nazis—as was
the old Jewish cemetery on Grosse Hamburger Strasse which I had earlier
sought out. The first thing I noticed after walking through the
mock-Moorish style gate and administration complex was the size of the
gravesites and mausoleums. They looked like mansions and gardens. Many
contained walk-in-style facades of black marble or polished granite,
complete with pillars and friezes, and the plots around them were
classically arranged in the French garden style. Some mausoleum fronts
were built right into the cemetery’s brick wall, which enhanced their
grandeur and sense of permanence. Many sites were undergoing
reconstruction: before one, a woman had set up a tripod and was
intensely photographing the reconstruction details: the relationship
between the stone, earth and plants, and the tools used to link them
into a coherent whole.

second thing that struck me was the names on the tombs. I had always,
naively, while growing up in small town Canada, thought names like
Cohen, Schlesinger, Rappaport, Kissinger, Oppenheimer, Goldstein, Himmelfarb,
Rosenthal, Loewenstein, etc., which I heard and read, were North
American names. After hearing about the Holocaust and learning what a
Jew was from my best friend, a Jew, when I was sixteen and had moved to
Vancouver, I began to understand why such names sounded German. I had thought,
when I imagined them to be North American, that they were German names
that had somehow magically transformed themselves into English speaking
persons, identifying people who had boldly insinuated their names into
the powerful English and American language without succumbing to the
ridicule or harsh purposeful mispronunciations I, audibly and therefore
perpetually a German, lived with. They were successful immigrants. Now
here they were on the stones of a Berlin graveyard.

death dates, of course, all predated 1933. A few listed 1934, and then
a few more had added, “Murdered in 1943 [or 44, or 45] in Auschwitz [or
Birkenau or Theresienstadt] Concentration Camp” to an existing
inscription on a family site or stone. Some were simply memorial
stones: “Murdered in _____in _____.” Large parts of the cemetery had
been rebuilt and refurbished—saniert, as the Germans somewhat
unfortunately call this activity—after falling into disuse and having
no survivors to attend the graves, and Ilonka told me the local
borough, in co-cooperation with the small, around 60,000 strong current
Berlin Jewish community, were responsible for this. Many parts of the
multi-acre site had not been saniert, and one could see tumbled
stones, fallen pillars and marble slabs all jumbled together on the
ground and being taken over by ivy: the sharp stone angles gave over to
the curved shapings of nature. Ilonka told me that once when she and
her husband had come here—something they did every one or two
years—they had met a man who could hardly speak, was partially
crippled, and who, it soon became apparent, was a camp survivor who was
looking for evidence of his family and name. Thomas and Ilonka
scrabbled with him through the dense ivy, and the increasing
concentration of willow, birch and poplar bush, and when they
eventually, after digging with their hands right down to the underlying
earth, found a fallen stone with the man’s family name on it, all of
them wept.

As we walked I was reminded of photos I had seen of abandoned
temple complexes in the Cambodia jungle where stone memory and verdant
plant life similarly commingle. I also recalled—more obliquely—haunting
photos I had seen of an abandoned auto graveyard on Valdes Island in
B.C., an island that has few roads and no ferry connections. There,
moss, lichen, sword fern and maple seedlings grow into and through the
angular spaces between the steel and tin and chrome remains of cars,
and hemlock and spruce trunks shoot up out of their frames. All the
cars dated from the nineteen twenties and thirties and nobody,
according to the news story about them, knew how they had gotten there.

In the Jüdischer Friedhof
the ivy, stone and bush understory is overhung by the canopy provided
by the neat rows of beech, oak and lime trees which I presume predate
the war, and it creates a dusky half-light. It gives the place the feel
of a partially-abandoned but not fully forgotten park reverting back to
forest—or a forest, at an elephantine tempo, transforming itself into a
park. The quiet provided by the brick walls and the fact that the
graveyard is in a residential neighbourhood away from main
thoroughfares, adds to the sense of both abandonment and extreme
presence: memory, that “Other,” feels close.

In the new section of the Friedhof,
near the entrance, recent graves can be seen, and the little stones
that Jewish tradition asks one to place as a sign of respect on a
gravestone are more plentiful than on the old sites, where one notices
them because there are few. The place is bright with flowers and the
smell of freshly dug earth, and there are fewer large trees: one has
spilled here out into the sunlight, from forested pathways, and recalls
a separate time and place. The latest grave I saw was a week old.


of the Jews now living in Berlin returned in the 1950s and 60s. Many
more immigrated from the Soviet Union after Glasnost, and quite a few
live in the area around Hakescher Markt bordered by Grosse Hamburger
Strasse, Oranienburger Strasse and Sophien Strasse which was the prewar
Jewish quarter. It was originally known as Scheunenviertel,
“barn quarter,” site, in the imperial era, of revolutionary upheaval,
and in the nineteen twenties of bohemian artistic fervour. Jews were
Germany’s first multiculturalists: they had streamed into Berlin during
the religiously tolerant Prussian and the Wilhelmine eras from many
European countries, and fostered here the potent mix of cosmopolitan
and communal identity, educated culture and economic know-how, liberal
politics and intellectual sophistication that produced the great art
and science Germany became known for, and that was such a threat to the

came to the neighbourhood to look for the Old Jewish Cemetery on Grosse
Hamburger Strasse that Ilonka had told me about: this one was destroyed
in 1943 by the Gestapo: the bones were dug up and dumped, those
headstones left unsmashed were used to shore up a trench. The site, on
the afternoon when I visited, was under reconstruction as a monument
and featured a bronze group statue of a group of adults and children
moving in what was clearly the direction of a camp gate. Or away from
it?—they seemed to be moving toward me as I stood and looked through
the wire mesh fence that separated the site from the sidewalk. There is
a homage to Moses Mendelssohn, the famous Jewish-German Enlightenment
scholar and educator who founded Berlin’s first Jewish school, back in
under the older trees, and saplings have been planted in the foreground
to eventually shade the planned memorial plaques. A few other tourists
bearing maps and guides stopped behind me as I lingered, and we glanced
at each other briefly, then looked down into our guides, and then
looked through the wire at the statue and the sand piles and the trees.


The Hakescher Markt area, immediately after the Wende, the fall of the Wall in 1989, became one of hippest neighbourhoods in Berlin. Eine coole, trendie, hippe Szene. Sehr in. Eine gechillte Atmosphäre. Part
of the reason Ilonka had sent me there was to experience the now
slightly subdued aftermath of this heady time in a formerly run-down
East Berlin neighbourhood. It today contains more small galleries, two,
sometimes three on every block, than any other in Berlin, and cafes and
bars where youths congregate and chat in many languages and in
interesting groupings spill cosmopolitan enthusiasm into the narrow
cobbled, almost traffic-bare streets. There are lots of bikes.

a bar on Tucholsky Strasse a threesome speaking what I take,
uncertainly, over the din, to be Polish liberally mixed with
Englishisms, Germanisms and international cell-phonese, sits at a table
across from me. The two boys are beauties, right out of Visconti doing
Thomas Mann (Death in Venice is playing in a local rep theatre)
and they hold hands and play with each other’s fingers as the girl who
sits between them, a beauty in her own right, takes first one and then
the other fondly into her gaze, which is neither carnal nor matronly;
and one, or at least I, have no idea what—besides youth and beauty, and
perhaps post modernity—their gestures and sounds are intended to
signify or communicate. At another table, a male voice rises steeply up
into the speech din and gives full, mesmerizing meaning to the words basso profundo. I’m spellbound by deep, restrained resonance. The voice comes from a body expertly, casually, almost randomly—salopp
is how the Germans describe this—dressed in open-necked white shirt,
black sport jacket and faded jeans. Shined dress shoes. The man’s jet
black hair—he’s, let’s say, early forties—slopes down sideways across his forehead in a peek-a-boo cut that requires him to repeatedly stroke it back with his hand—but just
far enough to be able to repeat the gesture moments later—from over his
eyes and his irresistible voice, one now notes, does not mask or
overpower but holds within itself the
ambience of the entire acoustic environment. He is Russian, I decide:
how could he not be? The woman across the table from him, who, judging
from the movement of her lips, speaks during the pauses afforded by her
tablemate, seems Russian also: she moves with the gender protocols. The
two hold hands across the table top and frequently lean back in their
chairs and laugh heartily, he from the chest, and she, one imagines,
from a place above her head.

few doors down along Tucholsky Strasse, groups of young people sit on
the curb and the steps of a building and drink champagne from plastic
cups. It is the Pool Art Gallery, and when I walk through the open door
and am handed a drink I see paintings by a young woman named Michelle
Jezierskyi. She, according to the vernissage program, was born and
raised in Berlin by American parents and, as a result of this dual
citizenship, produces art that “polarizes space and time.” It invites
the viewer into “impossible atmospheres and spatial landscapes”
featuring houses that “float through space and hover inside caves;
architecture is used as a metaphor for the outside within.” The talk I
hear is mostly English in various accentings, modulating over, at
times, into German, and I feel for a time that the movement between
these two languages, which has been so prägend, ie. such a
determining and complex force in my life, is suddenly airy and easy.
“Simultaneous Spaces” is the name of the exhibit by a Berlin-American
girl younger than my daughter.


it was a shock, then, to walk further along the beautifully named
Tucholsky Strasse and encounter a set of red and white metal barricades
that spread from the narrow sidewalk into the cobbled street in front
of a building that revealed itself on second glance to contain a
restaurant: Israelisches Restaurant, read the sign above the door. An
armed, beige-uniformed Berlin policeman patrolled the area behind the
barricades, and young people moved in and out of the doorway, laughing
and talking in Hebrew. I had to stop because the easy, touristy,
movements my body had adopted, full of joie de vivre and calm
pleasuring, stopped working. The kids seemed unaffected by the
barricades and the German cop: they opened their packs for inspection
without interrupting their conversations and seemed unaware of the
situation’s—well, for me, utter schizophrenia. Once, in Israel, I had
experienced such a moment: a group of Israeli soldiers, boys and girls,
as I thought of them, in a shopping mall in Jerusalem, leaned over an
arcade video game. Their Uzis hung across the backs of their beige
uniforms as they played and laughed and smoked and chatted, there among
the commodities. I stood and stared. I learned later,
from my host there—the friend who had told me when we were both sixteen
that there had been such a thing as a Holocaust—that this was daily
life in Israel, a country protected by its youth, and I should not be
afraid of weapons. When his eighteen-year- old daughter later came home
from duty in her beige uniform, carrying her own Uzi as if it were a
schoolbag, my education was enhanced yet again. I didn’t go into the
Israeli restaurant on Tucholsky Strasse.

Later on Oranienburger Strasse I saw the scene on Tucholsky Strasse repeated in larger proportion in front of the Centrum Judaicum Neue Synagoge, a cultural centre, memory centre, art gallery and renovation of the bomb-destroyed Neue Synagoge,
Berlin’s main prewar synagogue that was inaugurated in 1866—in the
presence of Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” and father
of a nation at that time one of the most tolerant in Europe toward
Jews. The red and white barricades thrust out like non-sequiturs into
the closely ranked restaurant tables that all along this tourist strip
take up most of the sidewalk space and on this night were chock full of
exuberant foreigners; the empty space between the barricades and the
building, partially covered, for some reason, with a strip of red
carpet, was patrolled, again, by in this instance three armed Berlin
policemen, and was a narrow corridor of quiet between the raucous
restaurant ambiences. I wanted to ask one of the policemen why they
were there—I thought a dignitary was perhaps visiting, or there had
been “an incident”—but when I tried to make eye contact, the cops, or
I—I can’t recall who avoided whom first—averted gazes just before

told me later that all Jewish and Israeli establishments in Berlin are
guarded by Berlin police, mostly out of fear of anti Israeli terrorist
attacks but also, to a lesser extent, of skinhead vandalism. The
skinheads, she said, are of course much less organized than the
jihadists, and don’t have the level of technology to do more than
deface property and beat up individuals. She said the barricades, like
so many things I notice in Berlin, were not given as much notice by
Berliners as they were by visitors. The only other places I saw
barricades in Berlin—in this case large, street-long ones, patrolled by
soldiers with automatic weapons—was around the American and the British
embassies near Unter den Linden in the city’s centre. There, all
traffic on the streets bordering the buildings is redirected .


our discussion at Kastanie about identity Ilonka maintained that in a
post- modern time and a time of globalization the identity question, die Indentitätsfrage, was in her opinion no longer as akut, ie. germane or relevant, as it had been in the great identity politics period of the eighties. She spoke about Der Gelehrtenstreit, (which
I’ll translate as “the Battle of the Learned Ones”) the public debate
or dispute between Jürgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann, among others, in
the late 1970s, in which this question had, in her opinion, been zutodedisputiert und folglich, hoffentlich, entgültig zur Ruhe gelegt (which
I’ll translate as “disputed unto death and therefore, one hopes,
finally put to rest”). It was after this statement that she brought in
the point about the Kiez, the neighbourhood which she considered, if identity were to be discussed at all, was the proper base for such a discussion.

said that for me, a person who had been, seemingly forever, cast
between two cultures, two places and two languages—separated, it
seemed, by things like world wars, Nazis and Holocausts, and of course
oceans—the issue did seem acute and germane, albeit, as a
self-identifying Canadian, I had found at least a partial, temporary
balancing place between the competing pressures. This place, and the
identity it produces is different, though, I continued, than the one I
imagine you to have. How? Ilonka asked. You, I said, and pointed to the
sedate, ornamented, five story Wilhelmine flat blocks surrounding the
Kastanie, are surrounded by culture, by tracings of human initiative,
by signs and designs of pleasure and longing and human striving. Of value. You live in history and physical memory, amid your ancestors, and you’ll never, because of this, forget yourself.

But what about nature? she said. Don’t Canadians identify themselves by their huge expanses of nature?
I took some breaths. I found it hard to compose, in German, an answer
to this question. I said: Canada’s “nature” is not “ours.” “We,”
“Canadians,” are an immigrant culture—a “settler culture,” as the
anthropologists call this (albeit, I couldn’t think of a German word
for settler culture, and settled for Einwandererkultur, “Immigrant culture.”)

said, But don’t those mountains you live close to give you a sense of
identity and belonging? I said yes they did, but it was a different
kind of identity than that given by a building or a church or a
centuries-old graveyard or even a Soviet war memorial. A mountain, I
stammered again, wanting now, quite urgently to move into English, but
also wanting to continue in German—a mountain was not built by your
ancestors, a mountain expresses no human desire, longing, story or
quest. It was created by no one, and it is indifferent, utterly, to
human striving—to invoke Goethe here. Furthermore, I continued, it does
not, as I said earlier, belong to us. The First Nations (I had to use
the word Indianer here, which blew big holes in any kind of
argument I might make) who were here—there in Canada—first, long
before, since time immemorial, as they say, own the stories about
mountains that bestow identity, if it is there to be given, and they, die Indianer, or Ureinwohner—I remembered
the word for “Aboriginal inhabitants”—are not, for good reasons,
telling them to the full extent of their meaning, to us, the European
colonizers. Our stories, meanwhile, in my neck of the woods, are
logging tales, hydro dam tales, gold rush stories, frontier robber
baron heroism, numbing corporate monospeak; they are restricted,
moreover, if that is the right word (begrenzt: “hemmed in”) to a single historical era. Not much wide open space or, more to the point, time, there.

Ilonka looked at me quizzically. But everyone came to where they are from somewhere else, she then said. We had die Völkerwanderung, the
great European tribal migrations of the sixth century, in which
everyone got mixed up and stole territory from each other. But at least
you were tribal, I said. Your ancestors could bring down stories from
this time and use their oral strength, the hardiness of physical
memory, to resist Roman and Christian colonization. There was living
transmittable culture here, and it could be recalled, as well, when
needed again. Your mother knew Märchen, tales, by heart. As did mine, in German: they were stories that came from here.

We stopped at this point, of course. This Gelehrtenstreit was going nowhere fast. I
told her one of the reasons my father and mother had immigrated,
dragged us kids across the ocean and into a new language to join the
settler culture, the Immigrantenkultur, was precisely because
my father had wanted indeed to be close to nature and mountains: he
wanted to hunt (which in Germany only aristocrats and their wannabes
are allowed to do) and he wanted to escape the class strictures of
Germany. He wanted also, I added—although my father would not have
admitted this—to escape from certain of his memories. And when you have
no memories, I said, after the requisite dramatic pause, you have to


Vancouver, Jan. 10, 2008. 4071 words. Excerpts from this text appear in slightly different versions in Geist 67, Winter 2007.


  • Norbert Ruebsaat

    Norbert Ruebsaat teaches Media and Communication Studies at Columbia Collage and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver B.C. He publishes regularly in periodicals and newspapers, has produced documentaries for CBC Radio’s Ideas program, and has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in fiction and creative non-fiction.

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