Propaganda posters all around us. Two metal bombs the size of my chest. Swastikas. The entire city destroyed.
It’s 2018 and I’m standing with my German-as-a-Foreign-Language class in the tiny museum in the town hall of Würzburg, Germany—our first stop on a tour to the city’s castle. It is July, a hot and sunny day. Some of the students have gone to buy water, others to get a slice of pizza at Kupsch, but most are looking at the model in the center of the small room which remembers Würzburg in 1945, right before the air raid on March 16th that erased the city in about twenty minutes. The bronze sculpture of the place where we are all standing right now shows buildings bombed to their foundations; the bridge we are about to walk over is hardly recognizable.
My students, from twelve countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Serbia and Croatia, are pointing at the model, looking for the train station, the language school, the market place, the building now occupied by a MacDonald’s. One of the women from Syria says softly, as though only to herself, “Aleppo.”
An older man not part of our group comes into the museum and, seeing the large, diverse group of young people, asks me if he may say something to them. I’m wary of him at first, thinking he might be scolding us for blocking his view of just about everything in the museum, but he gives me no choice, motioning with his arms for the students looking at the propaganda art on the walls—the Jews with huge hooked noses flirting with German wives while their husbands are away—to come closer to the model of the city. He points to a house near the river. “I was eight,” he says. “That was my grandmother’s house. We lived over here.” He points to another building farther along the river. “I grew up here.” The students, many who have complained of not being able to make contact to “real German people” seem impressed and are listening attentively, asking him about the war: “Where did you go?” asks Gulscha. “Did you get your house back?”
“It is your job to make sure this never happens again,” he says finally. The class is somber and quiet and as we are leaving I notice Said sitting outside already by himself, waiting near the fountain. He is from Sarajevo. I ask him if he is okay and he reminds me he left his country during war, too. “How do you say…?” He grabs his skin and pulls it up to show me. “Goosebumps?”
I came to Germany in 2000 to study music and have lived here ever since, first continuing my intended two-year stay as a result of a music gig, and now for the husband and the life I have made here the last eighteen years. In 2018 I still play and teach trombone, but my main day job is teaching German to foreigners, most of them Syrians or Afghans who have been in the country for less than four years and are trying to attain the “B1” language certificate required by employers. Towards the end of each course I usually take students to the castle, the Fortress Marienburg, stopping on the way to look at this model in the town hall. During the first visit, I worried that looking at our city bombed beyond recognition might trigger their own traumas, but then I noticed many of them taking hope out of the experience: If it is possible for the people of Würzburg to rebuild their city in seventy-five years—to the bustling hub of culture it now is—maybe their own destroyed cities can also be remade. I tried to imagine an Aleppo of 2080, filled with gardens and bicycles and families sitting out on blankets along the river under the sunshine and blue skies like these.
We cross the river, stopping on the famous “Old Main Bridge” to take selfies and group selfies with Maher’s selfie stick, next to the statues of the saints, the castle in the background. I notice Abdullah from Aleppo and Said from Serbia are walking with their arms around each other’s shoulders. The group waits, somewhat annoyed, for Omar and Foud, who’ve decided to run to the store quickly, before we begin ascending the hundreds of steps to the castle. On the other side of the bridge, Essam and Hend race to see who is faster. Essam is a Syrian man in his sixties who I think was offended when word got around I’d asked his friend if he thought Essam would be able to walk all this way. Now he is proving how fit he is, taking the giant stone steps two at a time and laughing as Hend, a woman from Egypt, tries to pass him. Maher complains jokingly that there is no elevator and the others tease him about his smoking. Khadija is unpacking food she’s brought and sharing it with the group. It is the first time we’ve all actually spoken German to each other in a real setting, used to the roll plays about food, family, and travel that our textbook requires.
In 2015, Germany allowed roughly 890,000 refugees into the country. The language schools were suddenly full, and the waiting lists were, too. I first started teaching at a firehouse down the street from a shelter, the following year at Kolping Academy. At the shelter I met Ali, a former art teacher from Manbij, Syria. He was the class clown, the loud one who didn’t let anything he didn’t understand go by, and he would often stay after class to tell me I was going too fast, that the students were having trouble keeping up. But he also showed me pictures of the child he had in Syria, a baby named Lin, already two, whom he’d never met. “Here she is dancing,” he would say. “Here she sounds like a cat.” In the videos of her with his wife, everything seemed to be covered by the dust of bombs.
Last Sunday my husband and I visited Ali, who now lives in a beautiful, spacious apartment in nearby Güntersleben with his wife and Lin and another daughter who was born just last week. We wanted to bring them some clothes, diapers, and a blanket for this baby, called Lea. Ali met us at the door with a huge smile. “Herzlich Willkommen!” he said. I gave him my hand. My congratulations were both for his baby and for everything he had accomplished since I’d last seen him. His German was quite good. He had a place to live with apple and quince trees out back, tomatoes he’d planted in front. His wife had been able to join him in this country. He showed us around the kitchen, the bedroom, the balcony, and then directed us towards a couch. “Bitte schön,” he said, grinning. Lin was sleeping but he roused her to come say hello, and soon a three-year-old girl was driving a toy train over my feet, showing me her baby doll and running from her room to my husband and me and back again until she had presented us with her entire repertoire of toys. “She’s having a hard time with the new baby,” Ali explained to me after I complimented him on her cuteness. “She’s been, how do you say…spoiled? She didn’t know who I was when I met her at the airport, of course. She was angry at me in the beginning, asking her mother, ‘Who is this guy in our bed?’” His wife joins us on the couch and then they describe to us how she came to Germany through Turkey, trying twenty-one times to get over the border with Lin while being shot at. “She had it harder than I did,” says Ali, who came through Macedonia and Austria with his friend Abdul Karim. They offer us a plate of kiwis, bananas, apples, and little plums from their garden, then pour us sweet black tea. When I ask Ali why he decided to make the journey to Germany in 2015 when it meant leaving behind his family, many of whom—including his mother—were subsequently killed and he never saw again, not even for a funeral, he says, “If you were a man of a certain age in my city, your choice was to join ISIS or to leave.”
There’s only one week left until the Bavarian state elections, and our city of Würzburg is plastered with posters and billboards advertising the various parties, the Christian Social Union, the Social Democratic Party, the Green party, the Communist party, and, more present than ever before, the AfD, or “Alternative for Germany,” a far-right populist party begun in 2013, which has been gaining support since the arrival of the refugees. Because I am a jogger and like to get around our city by bicycle I have been noticing these posters with increased attention. The AfD posters are especially hard to ignore: They are offensive, for one, and they also have been placed in impossibly high positions where no one can reach them to pull them down or defame them.
Yesterday I was jogging down by the river and back along Frankfurt Street by the small cinema and the car wash and I noticed a revolving billboard with a computerized screen showing at least two AfD campaign ads. One said “Another Muslim City? If you don’t want this, vote AfD!” The other said, “Islam-Free Schools,” and pictured a rather Aryan looking group of school children skipping down a school hallway together, a darker student standing behind them, alone. “How is this legal?!” I asked my German husband when I got home, sweat running down my face. “Isn’t public slander illegal?!” “I know,” he says, “It’s horrible. But that’s democracy. Every party is allowed to campaign, no matter how ridiculous.” I think of the Beer-Drinkers Party, founded in 1990 in Rostock, the first of the “fun parties” that were meant to mock real politics and the seriousness of the conservative CDU party. Or the “Party” party. But this isn’t meant to be funny. The AfD is not joking.
I find a list of the AfD campaign policies and an even larger selection of campaign posters on the party’s website. They remind me of the propaganda posters from 1945 my students and I have just been looking at in the museum. One shows two women in bikinis on a sandy beach, from behind, boasting, “Burkas? We like Bikinis!” Another cries out, “Islam? That’s not part of our cuisine.” Pictured is a small pig standing in a meadow. (As one Stern author points out, the problem with this one, even for the AfD itself, is that the piglet, intended to point to the traditional Bavarian love of pork, is so cute that not even omnivores, really want to imagine it on a plate.) Another poster says “Protect Christianity! Islam doesn’t belong in Bavaria.” I show it to my husband and he shakes his head, reminding me of the poster we saw recently, driving in our neighborhood, in which young girl stands in front of the cathedral in Cologne. It says, “When she is 18, her parents will be happy they voted AfD,” the picture playing on the rapes that took place in Cologne in 2016 on New Year’s Eve, allegedly by refugees.
“New Germans? We make our own!” another poster warns, showing a pregnant German woman lying in a park on a blanket, her giant belly showing. Others are even weirder, like the picture of a hip German with a beard and a winter hat saying, “My Moroccan dealer gets his life paid for by the state.” Some billboards seem to be in direct conflict with one another, like the one of a gay couple together on a couch, telling us, “We don’t have Muslim friends because they believe our lifestyle is a sin,” next to the one that simply says, “Man, Woman, Children,” as though that were the only accepted family. Even more offensive posters—though here it becomes unclear if they are really being hung by the party leaders or only more local extremists—read “Sophie Scholl would have voted for the AfD” or even “Sitting Bull would have voted for the AfD.”
The poster that seems to speak only to men, “More protection for our women and daughters,” reminds me of the propaganda about protecting the Aryan women in the Third Reich against the Jewish men supposedly trying to lure Aryan women away from their husbands. This comparison is easy to make, even if you don’t speak German. Google “Propaganda against Jews in 1930s Germany” and “AfD Campaign Posters, Bavaria, 2018” and you can see the similarities. The pictures speak a thousand words.
It had always seemed to me that the right wing was unlikely to make it back into the mainstream in Germany, since this country has had such a rigorous system of teaching history and guilt for the Holocaust to all its citizens. Education about the genocide of Jews begins in schools at a young age and most school classes visit a former concentration camp. But it seems now that the lessons of the Holocaust are in danger of having lasted just one quick generation.
I usually ask my students at A2 level to describe what they like about Germany and what they don’t like—in the unit about weighing the pros and cons of anything, washing machines, cars, toasters. This chapter in our language textbook is about being able to compare products for price and quality, and about being able to complain or return something to a store, but I like to open it up. Many students say they love the natural spaces here, the parks, the woods, how clean the streets are. They love Angela Merkel’s politics, which have brought them to safety; they love the police, and “no bombs.” When I ask them what they don’t like, they agree, “You don’t take good care of your elderly. You don’t respect old people. In Syria, in Afghanistan, we don’t put our grandparents in nursing homes.” I’m thinking of this as I ride home on my bike, spotting another poster for the AfD, which reads, “Money for retirement instead of illegal immigrants!” It shows a poor, elderly German couple looking despondently out their window.
Last time I was in America I spoke to a number of family members about what exactly my job entails, and why my students have to learn German. As usual, I ended up bragging about them, about Ararat from Armenia, whom I met several months after my class ended when he took my ticket, driving a local bus in uniform; or about Abdul Karim, who now has a job as an electrician. Or Bilal, a Syrian pastry chef who has started training to be a baker. “But,” one of my aunts said, and later my uncle, and another friend, “we hear Germany is having a lot of problems with its refugees.”
I wonder who is telling Americans about all the “problems” with the refugees. It isn’t too hard to guess. Here’s Trump’s tweet on the subject: “The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition. Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!” And then: “We don’t want what is happening with immigration in Europe to happen with us!”
Of course, it is easy to point at Germany from afar and tweet half-truths. The whole truth is that the total number of crimes committed in 2015 in this country is less than in 2004, and in 2017 it was lower than in all previous years of this decade. The truth is that, still, most rape and most homicide happens in the home between people who know each other or are even related to each other. Spiegel Magazine did extensive research on these rumors about immigrants causing crime and showed that, as a statistic, immigrants in Germany have only a slightly higher percent chance of committing crime than the average German citizen, which is surprisingly low when one also considers they are also statistically younger, mostly male, often alone, traumatized from experiences of war, and not yet fully integrated into society. Why has Trump not tweeted about my students? About Ali or Ararat? Or about Würzburg’s Syrian poet, Kusai Alibrahim?
When we finally make it to the castle, our tour guide Petra cruises past us on her electric bike and several students are in awe that she’s made it up the huge hill so quickly. She unpacks her materials and begins introducing herself to the group, then telling about the history of the buildings, about the Peasant’s War in the 1520s, how the farmers and peasants rose up against the unjust practices of the aristocracy and were slaughtered in large numbers for it. She tells how prisoners were lowered into the tall stone tower in front of us, but one criminal bishop was so fat they couldn’t get him through the hole.
Inside the museum she asks the students why the men in all the paintings have long, curly white hair. Arezoo knows the word “wig” in German and she is impressed. She pulls out a real wig and gives it to the tall Syrian, Mohammad. He poses with it in front of the painting of Balthasar Neumann and everyone is laughing and taking pictures. We visit another model of post-WWII Würzburg and some of the Syrians are clicking their tongues at all the damage. “Who did this to Würzburg?” one of them asks with a tenor of solidarity. I imagine from the tone of the question that whatever country Petra mentions will be in his mind as the enemy of Würzburg, and I wish we all had in common the delicate language it would take right now to explain the end of WWII. Petra is careful, saying it was the British, but that, despite the destruction, they were in the right, putting an end to the Hitler regime. She says it is complicated.
We head back out into the sunshine after having a look at some old-fashioned coins and the garments of former bishops. Together in a circle on the lawn the students practice introducing themselves for their final test, “My name is Abdullah. I am from Aleppo. I am married, and I have one daughter. I live in Würzburg. My hobbies are football and chess. I speak Arabic, English and a little German.” “My name is Lin Wei. I am from China. I am married and have two children. I live in Veitshöchheim. I like to walk. I speak Chinese and English and a little German.” And so on, twelve times. We trade cut strawberries for peaches or cookies and Maher does a handstand, then walks across the lawn on his hands while the others clap. The Syrian men want to show us a dance and look for appropriate music on their iPhones, but finally only Maher wants to dance and then says, “I can’t dance alone.” A discussion about why western women wait so long to have children ensues. “Only work, work, work,” says Ahmadjan, “No time for children. Then dead.” “Baby good,” counters Rita from Armenia, “but baby factory, no!” I try to stay out of it, to watch them struggling for the right words to reach out across the cultures to each other.
On the way home, we stop again on the bridge, looking over the river. Hend and Arezoo are walking near me still, even after some of the others have gone to catch their buses or back to the school to collect a backpack. “This was a fun day,” Arezoo says. “I forgot about our test.” Hend leans in close “Why are people here scared of my headscarf?” she asks shyly, which is not typical of her personality. “I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe they’ve never known a Muslim woman and they are scared of the unknown. Maybe they are ignorant or hateful.” “How can I be nice to people who are scared of me?” she asks.
Some students I’ve asked want to go back to Syria at the earliest possible chance. They want to help rebuild their country when it is safe to do so. But one woman from Afghanistan, Miriam, tells me she wants to stay in Germany because she feels like a free woman here. She can attend school and her daughters can take swimming lessons. And Ali was allowed to watch his daughter come into the world in Germany in the hospital. He tells me how his wife was squeezing his neck the whole time to get through her contractions. “In Manbij it is forbidden for a man to be present at the births of his children.”
Horst Seehofer, the leader of the conservative party in Bavaria, just a little bit less offensive than the leaders of the AfD, recently announced publicly with a smile, obviously amused, that on his sixty-ninth birthday, sixty-nine Afghans would be sent back to their country.
The last AfD poster I saw showed a cat staring at a goldfish in a glass bowl. It said, “Protect Borders.” A more accurate depiction of the immigrant situation in Germany, I thought, might have shown a goldfish being shot by other goldfish and a cat bringing it in its mouth to a pond; or a cat getting blasted by shrapnel, its kittens still hanging from its little teats, swimming towards goldfish that were trying to teach it fish-speak. Or maybe, to be more direct about what is at stake this Sunday: the scapegoat from Leviticus being sent into the desert with the sins of the people.
I’m curious to see what happens at the elections, in which I unfortunately cannot vote. What percent of my neighbors will have been changed by the billboards? What percent will have been changed by people like Ali? How much fear can a country harbor and justify? How much humanity, Menschlichkeit, can be preserved when resources are limited? How many of the Holocaust’s lessons have we kept or lost since this city was a pile of broken homes and my husband’s father was three years old, just like Lin is now, playing in the broken stones.