I highly recommend the free tour of the Nazi labor camp excavations on Tempelhofer Feld

FU Berlin

As a frequent Tempelhofer Feld jogger, I’ve been watching the archaeological dig there with curiosity all summer. Students are out digging almost every day, and the excavation sites wedged between the beach volleyball court and the baseball diamond have been growing since June. Last Friday I finally made it to the weekly free public tour. The tour group meets up at 3pm at the bright pink information booth between the baseball field and the mosque. The guide introduced herself as one of the grad students working on the dig. She led us up stairs to a lookout platform to start the tour with an overview of the history of Tempelhofer Feld; before she began, she surveyed the group. There were about 15 of us, including two elementary school-aged kids with their grandparents. “We’ve never had children before,” the guide said, seeming a bit stumped by this turn of events. “I’ll try to do the tour in a child-appropriate way, but you do understand it’s a very dark history?” The grandparents nodded amiably.

temp feld 1

Tempelhofer Feld, she told us, was a military parade ground zu Kaiserzeiten, and began operation as Germany’s first airport in 1923. In the 20s, the airport was a hub of social life: people came there to hang out at bars and restaurants and watch air shows. The Nazis held their first Berlin mass rally there on May 1, 1933 before a crowd of 1.9 million; within a year a Gestapo prison and one of Germany’s first concentration camps had opened on the airport premises.  (At this point in the story the tour guide made what may be the only successful German-language Nazi joke I have ever witnessed: she ticked off a long list of the many groups the Nazis considered undesirable and said “so as you may imagine, they ran out of space in the Gestapo prison pretty fast,” at which – to my surprise – the crowd laughed.)

Forced labor camps at the airport soon followed. Lufthansa began using Jewish forced laborers at Tempelhof in the 1930s. Weserflug, another German company still in existence (it’s now part of EADS), followed with 25 barracks housing thousands of forced laborers building its war planes. After the war began, Poles and French P.O.W.s were added to the barracks, followed by Ukrainians and eventually more than 20 nationalities. Such camps, and slave labor in general, are a recent focus of Holocaust research, and the laborers’ barracks are the subject of the current archaeological digs.

At this point the guide led us into the dig sites. She showed us barrack foundations and plumbing pipes and barbed wire. The excavations, which are funded by the city of Berlin, face various pressures and restrictions: no digging is allowed where there are sports fields or rare wildflowers; the excavations can only remain open until mid-October; the FU professors leading the project feel time pressure from the plans to develop Tempelhofer Feld late in this decade (and, I presume, from the fact that only a few survivors of the camps remain alive).  The tour guide was an excellent storyteller. She spoke vividly of the thinness of the barrack walls in cold winters, and the forced laborers’ vulnerability to the Allied bombs that began falling on Berlin in 1943. “Engaging” is, in my experience, generally a quality far more valued in English-language guided tours than their German counterparts. I have been on many a German-language historical tour that dumped information on participants with a near-comical drab precision (und nachdem die Dachziegel der Kirche 1595 teilweise ersetzt wurden, erfolgten 1601 bzw. 1607 bis 1608 weitere Dachziegel-Erneuerungsmaßnahmen). But this tour was totally engaging. Because of its clear, accessible style and the guide’s use of her surroundings as visual aids, I would even recommend the tour to people who feel shaky about their German skills.

temp feld 2

Trauma does strange things to memory. Survivors of the forced labor camps, the guide said, have vivid memories of pleasant one-off events: the time there was a dance in the barracks, the time they got better food than usual.  But they remember nothing of everyday life in the camp. The digs are intended to unearth objects of everyday life in the hopes that showing these objects to survivors will jog their memories. So far they’ve found dishes and cutlery and buttons and even a lock.

“Did the lock have a key?” the older of the children, a boy of about 10, piped up.

“No,” the guide said. Leider nicht.

“Who has the key?” the boy asked.

“I wish I knew,” the guide said. I wondered how I as a non-fiction writer should deal with bits of dialogue that actually occurred in real life but would sound cheesily over-the-top symbolic if they occurred in fiction.

Then, seeming to sense that a question about human remains impended, the guide said, “We’ve found a few bone fragments but there are no skeletons here. The laborers who died here are presumably buried in an unknown mass grave somewhere else.” At “somewhere else” she waved her arm unsettlingly at the part of Tempelhofer Feld where I go running every day and fly kites with my son.

After the tour everyone chatted about the fact that children had taken part in it. I had to rush off to pick up my son from KiTa, and on the way I passed a memorial to Columbia-Haus, the early concentration camp on Tempelhofer Feld that the guide had mentioned. My son’s preschool group walks past this memorial on their Wednesday trips to the gym for Turnen.  One Wednesday last year my son, then four, came home to say the kids had asked the teachers what the statue on the corner was, and the teachers had “explained about the bad police”. One of the many things I didn’t anticipate about raising a child in Berlin is that the (of course good and necessary) ubiquity of plaques and memorials and other objects commemorating the Holocaust means that you are likely to be asked questions at a point when your child is far too young to emotionally handle a thorough answer.  The teachers’ answer – I got the impression that learning to answer preschoolers’ questions about the Nazi era in an age-appropriate way had been part of their training as Erzieherinnen – was along the lines of “long ago, even before your grandparents were born, there was a terrible time when the police in Germany were bad and the bad police arrested good people for no reason and sent them to jails where some of them died.” Initially this explanation kind of bothered me – wasn’t calling the Nazi regime “bad police” a bit odd? – but however long I thought about it, I couldn’t think of a better alternative.

German-language tour of archaeological excavations at Tempelhofer Freiheit, every Friday 3-4pm from now until mid-October. Meeting point at the information booth nearest the Columbiadamm entrance. Free.

Lady Fitness and Mrs.Sporty: The Denglish world of exercise


The proliferation of English words in German, which got some attention from The Economist this week, is nowhere more rampant than in the realm of fitness and wellness (known in German as die Fitness and die Wellness). It took me years to find a yoga studio where the instructors speak in ordinary German rather than a highly distracting stream of  sentences like “im downward Hund geht es darum, zu relaxen und gleichzeitig zu stretchen, immer in the moment zu sein.”

I’ve never belonged to a gym in Berlin – in a place where sunlight is so scarce, I prefer to just go running outside so that I can combine exercise with Vitamin D absorption. But a few weeks ago a stretch of weather too hot to run outside had me contemplating das Fitnessstudio. Also, my neighborhood women’s gym was offering discounts during Ramadan, pictured above (the staff said non-Muslim ladies could also take advantage). An attempt to compare their (totally non-transparent) pricing scheme with competitors led me to the ultradenglish realm of Berlin-area women’s gym names. Here’s a sampling:

Lady Fitness


Womenclub Frauenfitness

Frauenfitness Ladyline

Jonny M. Women


I guess the word “lady” is generally used more in global English than in native speaker English – I heard it a lot in Southeast Asia (where I was also frequently addressed as “sir”, but I digress) – but these gyms sure do lay the “lady” on thick. Is Lady Fitness the Dowager Countess of Fitnessshire? Did LadyCompany make an advantageous marriage to LordCompany? Jonny M. Women sounds like a pretty sketchy dude. Silliest of all is Mrs.Sporty, which besides its odd punctuation seems to arise from the common German-to-English translation error of assuming Mrs. = Frau. Is it just me or does Mrs. Sporty evoke the image more of Mr. Sporty’s frazzled wife than of a woman who is herself sporty? Also, a lot of the names are very Ladywomenfrauensportysport – among other things, Denglish tends to lead to very repetitive slogans and names.

Also: if your ladygym is going to run a Ramadan special, you should probably consider staying open late during Ramadan so that the ladies have have time to exercise after the iftar.

Yes, we scan: Obama in Berlin again

Yes we scan

Today is the hottest day in Berlin in at least a year, perhaps several. I haven’t experienced truly hot weather in so long I’d forgotten how irritable it makes people. This morning I saw several shouting matches between drivers and bicyclists, which is unusual for Berlin. This wasn’t just about the heat, though: my neighborhood is clogged with vehicles seeking alternate routes because much of the city center is in lockdown for Barack Obama’s visit. Rumors of spectacularly high security were afoot long before Air Force One touched down at Tegel last night: people said that all the manhole covers around the Brandenburg Gate (where Obama is speaking) were being welded shut, that nobody who lived in the vicinity of Obama’s hotel was allowed to open their apartment windows or use their balconies this week. I won’t be attending the speech, nor will anyone I know, because it isn’t open to the public, only to several thousand invited dignitaries.

Overall, the local mood about Obama’s visit feels like one of heat-aggravated annoyance, compounded by anger about the NSA surveillance story. Above is a photo of a protest last night at Checkpoint Charlie. “Yes we scan” is a clever slogan, but I find Stasi 2.0* much more interesting: while the NSA story is news around the world, in Germany it taps into – and seems to a certain extent to be experienced and discussed through the lens of – the living memory of the GDR Stasi surveillance state.

Things were different when I saw then-candidate Obama speak at the Siegesäule on a sweltering day in July 2008. Hundreds of thousands of people came to the speech, and while the US media reported on a crowd of jubilant Germans, most of the people I encountered there were American expats from around Europe. One couple in front of me in line for the metal detector had flown to Berlin from Stockholm just to see Obama speak; a group behind me had come in on the night train from Paris. Many of these people had, like me, left Bush-era America at least in part because they found it politically unbearable: Obama represented the promise of being able to go home again someday.

I was very pregnant at the time — five days past my due date and pretty miserable standing for hours in the heat, however excited I was about Obama. I went into labor shortly after the speech ended (a woman I know was named after Jesse Jackson when she was born under similar circumstances in 1984, and in retrospect I’m glad the Obama speech was of the less-inspiring general election season variety, because otherwise I might in the enthusiasm of the moment have named my son Barack). Going into labor at the Obama speech was one of the definitive experiences of my life abroad. It was the moment at which the promise of an end to my abstract reasons for leaving America – the Bush wars, human rights abuses — converged with the beginning of concrete benefits to staying in Europe: a healthcare system where my son’s week in the hospital as a newborn wasn’t financially ruinous, a year of paid maternity leave, high-quality affordable public daycare, universities my son can someday attend without incurring staggering debt. Five years later, for reasons that are mostly not President Obama’s fault, this difference between US and European family and educational policy remains largely and depressingly unchanged.

*which refers not only to the NSA but also to German government telecommunications data retention

Werden Sie Deutscher


On Sunday I saw Werden Sie Deutscher, a documentary about immigrants learning German in a Berlin Integrationskurs, at the fsk Kino in Kreuzberg. An Integrationskurs is a special course for foreigners living in Germany; it combines language instruction with cultural information meant to help the participants better integrate into German society. The film follows its characters’ lives both inside and outside the classroom as they struggle with German grammar, visit sites related to German national identity, and try to wrest visas from the gray clutches of the Ausländerbehörde.

The characters come from around the world — Bulgaria, Thailand, the Palestinian Territories, Bangladesh, Argentina — and range in age from their twenties to their fifties. The film captures the humor of learning a foreign language (the students are lower intermediate, a level I remember as particularly foible-ridden: you’ve begun to talk but can’t really understand the other students) in a sympathetic way — the viewer is never really laughing at the students’ German. What you are laughing at is German culture as presented in the course. “I always work very long hours,” a glum-sounding man says in a listening comprehension exercise. “Time is money,” the teacher writes on the board. “First work, then fun.” A comic strip about incorrect behavior that is distributed to the students shows a hapless foreigner tossing a banana peel into the paper recycling bin. At one point a student looks genuinely confused at the mention of German humor. “This is the first time I have heard that such a thing exists,” she says. (Ironically, the film’s self-deprecating humor shows that such a thing does exist.) Continue reading