Begegnungen/Encounters

Since my last post I was finally able to procure a copy of Anne-Christin Saß’s whopping doorstop of a dissertation: “Berliner Luftmenschen: Osteuropäisch-jüdische Migranten in der Weimarer Republik.” I have been waiting since September for it to be available from the library. (I probably should have just buckled down and bought a copy seeing as it’s highly relevant to my research and that I work with her). She focuses on Eastern European Jewish migrants in Germany during the Weimar Republic.

Since I am myself interested in the problem of representing migration histories without rooting them in national narratives, I was pleased and inspired when I began reading her introductory chapters in which she describes her approach.

The history of Europe (of the world!) has been shaped by migration. Migration, therefore, is more than an additional narrative to national histories. [1] Migration is the norm. Just as that is the case, so are multiple migrant identities the rule rather than the exception. [2] Cities and people can be represented within multiple frameworks – of identity, historical trajectory, etc. Saß uses Berlin as Transit City as her example: “Next to questions of self-representation, the perception of strangers, and ‘stigma management,’ can the border-transcending networks between the home countries, Berlin as current living environment, as well as the further emigration countries be be taken into account.” [3] (Excuse my awkward German translating).

One of the questions I keep repeating to myself during my own work on Eastern European Jewish migrants in Berlin is: what makes this story so compelling? What makes it unique? For me it is because it represents a break from a nationally contained historical trajectory. It shows that this European capital played a roll in the development of global Jewish culture. It was and is, despite contemporary claims to the contrary, a migrant city.

Saß looks at Berlin as a “connection and intervention center between Eastern Europe and the USA.” Berlin as a “place of foreigners, as transit and passage space, as well as a place of diverse encounters (not only) between East and West.” [4]

I really like the idea of “encounters” Begegnungen – and need to reflect on it more. When I first learned the word begegnen it was in the context of coming across someone, like a friend, in the street. A random encounter. And every example was located in the street. I therefore cannot disassociate the German word from the image of happening upon, being confronted with, surprised by something or someone in the street. It’s a funny but rather poignant way of conceptualizing migration history – it is something that played out in the street, in cities, as encounters between bodies. Such encounters then produce links (next to fear and prejudices). The “encounter” is phenomenological – it occurs between subjective, conscious bodies that react to each other. The encounter and then the reaction alter the previous space, opening it (even while trying to guard it).

Multiple migrant identities entail multiple sorts of encounters. Saß describes the encounter between Eastern European Jewish intellectuals who came to Berlin before WWI and Eastern European Jewish refugees, mainly workers, escaping pogroms, poverty and statelessness. They didn’t understand each other – their encounter is written as the “clash of different Jewish times.” [5] She describes the encounter between “German Jews” and general “Eastern European Jews.” Then there is the encounter between Non-Jewish Germans and the same Jews from the East. These are only a few examples of possible encounters, coarsely outlined. These encounters are happening in Germany, in the streets of Berlin, but they are not isolated to one place or time – they are points of intervention between eras, philosophies, dress codes, etc. I don’t really know where I am going with this, but I guess it is to say that these street-level Begegnungen are individual transfer points that cannot be encapsulated by a national perspective. The movement of bodies, the migration of bodies means that even local history is not always so… local.

[1] Saß, Anne-Christin. Berliner Luftmenschen: Osteuropäisch-jüdische Migranten in der Weimarer Republik. Göttingen, 2012. 22.

[2] Ibid., 23.

[3] Ibid., 30.

[4] Ibid., 35.

[5] Ibid., 188.

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