(Hi)stories of a District

Germany has always been an immigration country. But it is only in the last two decades that the country considers its multicultural character as an integral part of its society. During our conference in November we opened the floor for a discussion around impulses for action in order to empower a productive and accepting coexistence within the German society.

This week we met Sophie Perl, an independent public historian working at the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum. We discussed with her the educational approaches of the museum, which in a way functions as a microcosm or a biography of this part of Berlin, reflecting the immigration history of the area and the diverse narratives of the people who live there.

Sophie Perl
Sophie Perl during her workshop at the conference “Living Diversity in Germany and Israel” © ConAct/Ruthe Zuntz

A few words about the museum…

The FHXB Museum is a district museum of the Berlin area of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. The museum focuses on the history of this particular space since the Second World War, from 1945 onwards. A lot of artists, students, and young people occupying the buildings, as well as the so-called Gastarbeiter (foreign “guest workers”), contract workers, and other newcomers to Berlin – these are the people who helped make the district what it is today.

Urban development and immigration: the museum not only talks about these topics but tries to integrate them into all of its work as fundamental aspects that always shape society. From the beginning the museum was very oriented towards social history, but not specifically towards the people and the histories of people who were living there currently. It was around the year 2000 that the museum started implementing a more inclusive approach. This happened initially with a temporary exhibition called “Wir waren die ersten” (We Were the First). The creators of the exhibition made an effort to get to know different immigrant communities and make connections to specific individuals who had moved to Kreuzberg as guest workers since the 1960s. This was the starting point in building the strong community networks that sustain the museum now. Today we find the permanent exhibit “Geschichte wird gemacht” (History in the Making), created collaboratively by about 60 people living in the district, along with the ever-expanding “Ortsgespräche” (Local Chats), which grows by people who come there and say: “This is my experience and I would like to see it represented here.”

There was no separation of immigration history from the history of the district…

An apartment building is the crossing point of a lot of different random people, a lot of different narratives that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other except for that they all meet in one physical place. What is so special about an urban district is that it’s such a dense space and people’s biographies cross constantly. I think the apartment house is the most fascinating structure ever. Everybody has the same address. I always think of my address as a special thing, something that is mine. But we actually share that same address; all of us identify personally with the building that we live in. The same applies to other physical places in the urban landscape.

People’s stories reveal parallel narratives in the city…

We see this, for example, in how people view the East Side Gallery, the 1,3 km section of the Berlin Wall that has now become a memorial. One of the people interviewed for the exhibit “Ortsgespräche” (Local Chats) says that if it weren’t for the Wall, her parents would not have been recruited as contract workers from Vietnam to come to East Berlin, and she would have never been born in East Berlin. The Wall is actually an important part of her identity. A lot of other people experience the Wall as a tourist destination, and others see it as a place of horror and fear. Talking about all of these different experiences makes us go through the city with different eyes.

The knowledge one gains from the exhibit is the ability to see the city in a different way…

One person who participated in our new project, “Ferngespräche” (Long-Distance Conversations), with refugees in Berlin, decided to talk about the Wall as well, about the fact that when he came to Berlin this was one of the first places he went because he knew it was an important thing to see. He saw all of these tourists at the Wall, and it was puzzling to him that they were making such a big deal out of it. Τhere is a wall in his hometown, Homs (in Syria), which divides people from two different neighborhoods – and nobody talks about that wall at all. It was important for this person to share his experience of these walls with other people in Germany and Berlin.

 “Ask me where I’m a local”: People identify themselves the most with the area where they live. Sometimes the local identity can be stronger than the national identity

In the “Ortsgespräche” exhibit, we have the story of a guy who came from Mozambique to East Berlin as a contract worker in the 1980s, and lived in Friedrichshain. He spent years trying to get German citizenship. But in his interview he says, “Ideally, I don’t even need a German passport. I want a Friedrichshain passport.” This is probably the case for many people. They identify with the place where they live. The inhabitants of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg who really got involved in shaping the urban space by squatting or creating other communal structures in the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s – all of these people play a large role in the museum. For them, the local identity is very strong. Currently we have a program that trains kids around Kottbusser Tor to be museum guides, and their identification with the Kottbusser Tor is tremendous. It seems like people have a unique relationship with the geography of the city.

Learning beyond the static history of the textbooks…

I think it is really important to hear about people’s personal experiences beyond the Major Historical Events. We tend to relate more to average, everyday experiences. These are the things that stay with us. Most of the visitors to our museum are tourists. But I really hope that people leave the museum and look at Kottbusser Tor or Oranienplatz or Karl Marx Allee with a different perspective, that they think of the short stories they heard at the museum. Urban development is a framework shaped by everybody living in a specific space. I hope people leave the museum and start looking at the buildings and connect them with the stories and biographies we share.

Find out more about the museum here: http://www.fhxb-museum.de/

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