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Crossing Borders

Posted By Administration, Friday, October 7, 2016

“What three words come to mind when you think of modern Germany?”  I was asked this summer.  Typical answers include Hitler; World War II; maybe the Berlin Wall.  These … are not exactly wrong answers, but limited ones.  As the cultural institute of Germany, The Goethe-Institut seeks to broaden people’s understanding of German politics and society beyond these notions, through programs that “encourage intercultural dialogue and enable cultural involvement”.   

To this end, the Goethe Institute runs the Transatlantic Outreach Program (TOP), which supports teachers’ efforts to globalize their own curricula.  It sends almost one hundred educators to Germany each summer on a series of two-week study tours.  I was chosen to be a 2016 TOP Fellow, and departed for Germany soon after graduation in June.  Each cohort follows a rigorous schedule, which is loosely organized around a particular theme; ours was the power of borders.  Along the way we visited schools, met with government and non-profit leaders, and toured prominent sites.

The former border between East and West Germany casts a long shadow; we sensed it everywhere.  Mid-way through our trip we stopped in Geisa, a village far off the tourist path, but whose proximity to the East-West border places it firmly in the throes of the Cold War.  A mere mile and a half west of its cobblestoned square lies Point Alpha: one of the likeliest spots for a Soviet invasion of Western Germany, should it have happened.  Here, across a border of barbed wire rigged with an automatic firing system (on the East German side), U.S. Army and Soviet troops sat and watched each other, forbidden to speak because the consequences of a misunderstanding were far too high. 

While the global ramifications of this border were huge, the immediate impact on the local communities was devastating.  The vagaries of the ways in which they drew the border meant that one local family’s house was even split in two – they were required to choose which side of the house – and thus, which country – to live in, and wall off their own access to the other side.  Friends and families everywhere were split from each other for decades, and those who chose to cross illegally faced imprisonment and, possibly, death.  Walking along Point Alpha’s reconstructed “anti-fascist protective border,” as it was called in East Germany, I felt the power of such an arbitrary division in ways I never had internalized through years of study.

Twenty-four hours later, we disembarked in Friedland.  Another little known town, it too has sat in the epicenter of modern European history, as it contains the longest continuously-running refugee camp in Germany: the Friedland Transit Camp.  Following World War II, it was set up to manage the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people throughout Germany.  During the Cold War, it was often the first stopping point for ethnic-Germans fleeing other communist countries; today, it houses Syrian, Afghani, and North African refugees awaiting their permanent settlements elsewhere in Germany. 

The day before, we had walked in the footsteps of those who risked their lives trying to escape East Germany to West.  In Friedland, we had the chance to tour the first stopping point for families who took similar risks to find a new life, away from violence and repression in their home countries.  A fellow teacher had come prepared with German language-learning coloring books; I had coincidentally gone to Germany with a box of ACS colored pencils, not knowing to whom I might give them.  We handed these out to kids who continued to emerge from the housing units until we ran out, and we desperately wished we had thought to bring more. 

This too was a theme: the desire to do more; to see more; to learn more.  Like all investigations and good research projects, we each came away with more questions than answers.  How do you rebuild a country, devastated by war and fascism?  How do you dissolve a border between two countries that have developed on such separate political and economic paths for decades?  How can a country maintain its cultural traditions while welcoming those with such different traditions and points of view?  There are no easy answers. 

Instead, my mind is drawn to the Friedland Migration Museum, and one particularly poignant exhibit on the post-World War II German Red Cross’s efforts to reunite missing children with their families, before the era of digital databases.  In one of the few successful efforts to work across the pernicious East-West border, with persistence and hard work, thousands were ultimately brought back together. 

And so I leave you with my final “first three words” from the end of the trip: problem-solving; forward-thinking; humane.  Germany has a deep and troubling history, and still has many faults, but in recent decades it has chosen to look at its own challenges squarely and thoughtfully, to identify solutions, and then to take action.

by Alice Brown, Social Studies Teacher & Department Chair


Karen Krzystof Bansley and I, with a few of the children at the Friedland Camp.

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