Musings on Exile, Immigrants, Pre-Unification Berlin, Trauma, Naturalization, and a Native Tongue

I decided to write a bit about coming to Berlin in the early 1980s—and what the city felt like back then to foreigners. The first time I came to Berlin was in ’83, 38 years after WWII ended. I moved here one year later and stayed. 1983 is a midway point in history for me, because now, in 2022, I’ve been living in the city for 38 years, in other words: I am as far in time from the year I first arrived here as that moment was from the end of the war—which was, in many ways, still present and very palpable.

Whenever I try to understand how history is rewritten, I think of these “time bridges” and recall overhearing a conversation between an elderly couple in a diner somewhere uptown on Lexington Ave. many years ago. I don’t recall the precise marker the man used, but I heard him saying: “that’s exactly as far back in time as that time was from the Civil War.” The time bridge, for want of a better word, connected him to what had once seemed to him a kind of pre-history. Come to think of it, that marker was quite likely the year he was born.

For me, growing up in the US, WWII was also a kind of pre-history—but as the decades accrue, and the mind tries to sort them out, that war—in light of the current war—feels closer than ever.

The essay is titled “Musings on Exile, Immigrants, Pre-Unification Berlin, Trauma, Naturalization, and a Native Tongue”—it’s about those first few years, the mental health crisis among refugees, applying for German citizenship, and what happens when multi-generational memory is no longer passed down through a parent’s native language.

Read it on 3 Quarks Daily

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