Category Archives: Germany

From the archive: Passages Through Dark Times

Been going through some of my old stuff, and found some stuff from the CUCR magazine Street Signs (archive online here). This is from page 18-19 of Volume 1, Issue 5, Spring 2003. The issue also has a lovely interview with Paul Gilroy about The Streets, Fran Tonkiss on “inner city values”, Michael Stone on Laurie Grove in New Cross, Les Back interviewing M Y Alam, Hiroki Ogasawara visiting Walter Benjamin’s grave, and a beautiful celebration of Flemming Røgilds.

The article below describes my first proper academic conference, in Leipzig, and reflects on the relationship between Jews and the left in the darkness of the 20th century, and how that darkness is remembered by historians and leaves its traces in urban space. Since I wrote it, some of the people in it have passed away, including Arnold Paucker in 2016 (age 95).

Memhardstrasse and Rosa Luxemburg Strasse

Passages Through Dark Times
Ben Gidley talks about Jewishness, Memory and Urban Space in East Germany

“You who will emerge from the flood in which we were drowned remember when you speak of our weaknesses the dark time from which you escaped…
Remember us with forbearance.”
–Bertolt Brecht “To Those Born After Us”

“Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and
shed over the time span that was given them on earth…”
–Hannah Arendt “Men in Dark Times” 

The transit bus from the airport into Leipzig arrived at the exact time given on the time-table. The bus glided through the flat monotony of the Saxon countryside, entering a zone of urban sprawl, in which it was impossible to distinguish which low-rise concrete box contained homes and which contained factories, warehouses, offices. The grey postindustrial landscape was punctuated here and there by Vietnamese signs, testimony to the historic links between East Germany and Communist Vietnam.

From the bus station, we crossed over the no-man’s land of a wide ring road (“good for tanks”, as my Yiddish teacher, Gennady Estraikh, pointed out – a fact he knew from the bitter experience of living most of his life in the Soviet Union) into the beauty of the baroque town centre. Since reunification, Leipzig has been a jewel in the East’s crown, receiving heavy regeneration investment. “Leipzig is coming” is the bizarre slogan of the tourist office, which describes it as a cosmopolitan, multicultural town (not something apparent from the faces of the people I passed on the street).

It was Autumn 2001. I was in Leipzig to participate in a conference, held at the Simon Dubnov Institute for Jewish History and Culture, entitled “Jewish Questions, Communist Answers”, about the historical relationship between Jews and Communist parties. I was anxious about giving my first proper conference paper – especially as I was scheduled into the opening slot, at 9 a.m., sharing a platform with some of the most distinguished scholars at the conference. As it turned out, post-September 11 fear of flying had kept away many of the American delegates, including the one I was most scared about sharing a session with. The absence of Americans, however, also meant that the dominant language shifted from English to German, leaving me feeling a little marginal – something non-English speakers regularly experience in the often American-centric academic world. As with many European academics, most of the conference participants were able to slide with ease between languages. But the multi-lingualism of the conference delegates was part of something different. Continue reading

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Nostalgia and diversity: Understanding integration at the local level

This was published in the COMPAS Blog in May 2013.

Bermondsey, Ben Gidley 2013

They never call it Bermondsey any more
A couple of weeks ago, in Bermondsey, South London with my colleagues Ole Jensen, Simon Rowe and Ida Persson, we met a man called Albert, at the entrance to his council flat. Born on Christmas Day 1926, Albert had lived his whole life in Bermondsey (apart from his national service at the end of the war, spent in Scandinavia). He had lived over half a century in his current flat, since it had been built as part of the massive post-war social democratic housing expansion whose legacy completely dominates the landscape of South London. He worked as a drayman at the Courage brewery, brought up three daughters and a son – and slowly watched his neighbourhood change almost beyond recognition.

The Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey was merged into the London Borough of Southwark in 1965. Its town hall had been bombed in the war, and Bermondsey no longer exists as an administrative unit. “They never call it Bermondsey any more”, Albert insisted. At its height, the docks employed huge numbers of men; the Peek Frean biscuit factory employed thousands of women. The docks closed one by one from the 1960s, the brewery closed in 1981, and the biscuit factory houses work units for creative businesses. The council estates are no longer sites of utopian hope but now carry the stigma of residualised poverty. A tidal wave of gentrification ripples down from the riverside, and the UK’s decade of mass migration has transformed the demographics. Continue reading