Running into History – And Identity: Emilee in Berlin

The hostel in Berlin where my GCC group stayed was quite a site to behold. For one, it was a hostel boat, or as we lovingly called it, a “botel.”

But what was most interesting about the Eastern Comfort Hostel was its location. Situated on the Spree River, next to the Oberbaum Bridge, it sits about 40 feet from the remnants of the Berlin Wall. This section called the East Side Gallery has some of the most iconic images from the time when Germany was divided.

View of the Berlin Wall from my hostel window

View of the Berlin Wall from my hostel window

Berlin has a difficult history of repression, Nazi rule, division, concentration camps… all of which are talked about in museums and plaques located around the city. But what I had to keep in mind during the trip was that this place would be experienced differently for everyone from my group. When you travel, you should have debriefs with your counterparts to talk about how their identity and experiences change what they see.

As someone with European Jewish ancestry, my experience touring the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was different than my peers. All people can be affected by it, obviously, but it has different significance for different groups.  Sections about persecution of Jews, homosexuals, the Roma people, and criminals would strike the group differently.

It was also really interesting to hear my counterparts talk about nationality. Some were born outside of the United States and do not hold US citizenship. They said that in the US they are rarely identified as American and may not self-identity as American but instead feel connected to their place of birth. When they were in Berlin, however, everywhere they went, the label of American followed. We were all lumped into one group. They said they have never felt more American than when they were in Berlin. This experience would have gone unnoticed for me, because I am a US citizen. I did understand, however, the added emphasis on this identity as we left the US. It is taken for granted, not thought about when I am in my own country, but here the label followed me.

Additionally, I was happy that most of our meals were paid for through our program fees, but on our days off we again ran into identity. Some people wanted to spend a lot of money on museums or tours, while others were unable to afford anything but free sites. We were able to find a lot of attractions that didn’t cost much, but you have to be careful not to exclude people by opting for a fancy meal or a 30 euro boat ride.

Race, economic status, nationality, religion, gender — these affect what you see and how people see you in your travels. What is your group feeling, and how does that compare to your feelings?

When you travel, ask yourself these questions.  As I sat in a place with history – good, bad, and ugly – I thought about how every country must weave a story about its past. It must create a narrative that apologizes, justifies, or denies. When traveling, notice which parts of history are on display and which the nation still struggles to talk about. And ask your group how they understand this history as it relates to their own identity.

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