City of Refugees

Unwanted in Chemnitz. Kreuzberg, August 2018,

One night on a kibbutz in the early 1970s, a German volunteer named Wolfgang turned up at my door asking for assistance.  He’d climbed over a high gate returning from Tel Aviv, fell, and had a nasty cut across his palm.  I took him to the clinic while a friend fetched the kibbutz nurse, a concentration camp survivor with a tattoo on her arm.

When Ziva arrived, she bandaged the wound. She saw his Star of David necklace and asked, “Are you a Jew?”  I translated from Hebrew to English.  Wolfgang – he also used the Hebrew name Ze’ev – replied in the affirmative, that he was from Berlin.  As she worked on him, Ziva replied in Hebrew “So, you haven’t had enough punishment?”  

I did not translate her bitter comment.  The fellow had enough to deal with at that moment.  Ziva could have said it in German if she wanted.  That was her first language. She refused to speak it, though. I understood her feelings.

Berlin has many meanings.  For that nurse, it was the slaughter of her family and dispossession.  There was no going back, even in language.  

This was a city where nationalism and racism metastasised into a force that changed the world profoundly in ways that have shaped billions of lives.  Can Berlin find redemption? How many in Germany’s capital even believe it needs redemption?  The liberal conscience at the heart of the Merkel government remains deeply sensitive to that history.

While initially, it might seem ironic that Berlin, especially under Angela Merkel, has come to mean new beginnings for so many refugees from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, the refuge that the city provides today contests and rejects this older history.  

Redistributing the hummus. Sonnenallee, August 2018.

Ali Fitzgerald gives us a close personal engagement with these new refugees in her graphic autobiography Drawn to Berlin.  Often we find her working to negotiate between the old and new Berlin. The book asks and attempts to answer an intrinsic question: why is she drawn to Berlin?  

Fitzgerald, whose artwork has become well-recognized through her Bermuda Square and Hungover Bear and Friends comics, is an expatriate American who has lived in Berlin for years.  In 2015 she began a comics workshop for refugees and the following year added another workshop for LGBTI refugees.    

One of her teenage students, Amira, whose face appears on the book cover, is representative of the difficult work of negotiating “this new-old-world”, someone who becomes “a cultural conduit, shifting, adapting, & transcribing the future”.  Students use the workshop to express their longings, frustrations, and traumas.  Artwork aids in identifying and resolving the difficulties that migrants face, especially migrant youth overcoming forced transitions in language and education.  

As a teacher, Fitzgerald comes to understand the atrocious scenes her students experienced in Syria and en route to Europe.  This resonates with Berlin’s history of an older wave of Jewish refugees, once ‘the peril of the East’, Ostjuden who a century previous had fled slaughter in Eastern Europe.  She revisits Joseph Roth’s fascination with the post-World War I influx of provincial Jews to Berlin and other German cities where they remained unwelcome.  In many ways, Drawn to Berlin provides a conscious contemporary echo of Roth’s formative account The Wandering Jews (1927), which it quotes and illustrates in a later section of the book. Syrian refugees become the new Jews.

In the shelter that sponsors the workshop, Fitzgerald meets a cross-section of young refugees in the midst of processing for asylum. They live in a liminal time and space, waiting for papers, new accommodations, educational opportunities, work, and a more normal life. Her characters often carry a sense of profound loneliness amplified by the loss of their homes and friends.  

Her students are not the only ones seeking socialization in Berlin: Fitzgerald is too. She had arrived in the city vaguely attracted by Isherwood stories and visions of 1920s Weimar café life.  The brutalist architecture and cold social exteriors alienated. Instead, she finds warmth and human attraction from friendly students among the wave of Syrian refugees that began arriving in 2015.  

An hour away from Poland. Rollberg, January 2018.

German and European society quickly becomes less welcoming. Street attacks against immigrants, arson against shelters, and border walls arise. One particularly interesting section of the book links these anti-migrant developments with renewed public use of fraktur, the old-style typeface associated with gothic origins and twentieth-century fascist politics.  The far-right AfD party, Fitzgerald points out, adopted Bauhaus-era Futura typeface in order to distance themselves slightly from this history.     

“Berlin was again a centre of global conflict between East and West,” Fitzgerald writes, “between a hardening tribalism and a delicate multi-ethnic democracy.”  That conflict pressures her students to intensify their efforts to integrate into German society.  Nonetheless, they remain haunted by scenes of death in Syria. For her part, Fitzgerald returns obsessively to monster images.  

Alienation closes in on Fitzgerald as surely as central Europe’s winter darkness. Even a club sex party turns nightmarish.  The psychological registers that she draws – glum faces, barren streets, empty parks – testify to Fitzgerald’s deep command of craft. The black-line drawing and etch effects which warm depictions of human faces turn chilly when applied to Berlin’s urban scenes.  

What Fitzgerald documents is how drawing comics creates her social world in a city where she had been a stranger. Berlin transforms into a world that is in the making, one filled with difficult negotiations but promise. In Drawn to Berlin, Fitzgerald rejects nationalist violence while making art to help heal its wounds. Fitzgerald states that she is not an art therapist, but her book details the effects of comics-making as collective psychological therapy.  Artist and students join in elaborating a new class consciousness built atop the alien status of refugees.      

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.