When History Hits Close to Home: Research on Refugees During a Humanitarian Crisis

By Peter Gengler / May 18, 2017

Stereotypical ideas of what “dissertation research” consists of revolve around somewhat uninspiring descriptions of sorting through mounds of fading pieces of paper in dusty file folders stored on a shelf somewhere in the bowels of an unassuming building. For fortunate historians like myself, however, our explorations touch upon topics that continue to resonate in societies. Nowhere is this more palpable than in Berlin, where the destruction of a world war and the legacy of two dictatorships lie just below the surface of a vibrant, cosmopolitan European city.

The presence of the past is one of the many reasons that I love Berlin, and I was thrilled to find myself in Germany between 2014 and 2016 to conduct research for my dissertation, which examines the collective memory of the largest forced migration in European history. During the final months of the Second World War and the first years after its conclusion, 10 to 12 million Germans fled from the Soviet Army or were forcibly expelled by Eastern European governments from areas that had historically been part of Germany, until postwar treaties ceded about a third of the defeated Third Reich’s territory to Poland. In many ways, my interest stemmed from my family history: my German grandfather was born in Breslau, today’s Wrocław, and my grandmother, whose family had lived in East Prussia since the sixteenth century, fled before the Red Army in 1945.

I grew up with tales of loss and trauma, of years spent in refugee camps enduring cold and hunger, and understood firsthand how these experiences shaped lives forever. But as a historian, I was keenly aware of the roots of this suffering: a genocidal war of extermination launched by Nazi Germany. Because the memory politics of “revanchist” expellees often ignore this important context, or equate their historical suffering with that of Germany’s victims, the issue of “flight and expulsion” remains contentious today. As an ambitious young historian, I was pleased that my interests remained topical and were guaranteed to garner interest.

Left: In the fall of 2015, the Berlin Senate decided to confiscate some 90 gyms throughout the city for use as emergency refugee shelters. Over the next 48 hours, a makeshift kitchen and rows of mattresses went up in a building next door to the author's apartment. (Photo courtesy of Friedrichshain Hilft e.V.)

Then another development unfolded as I arrived in Germany to begin my research. During the summer of 2014, the largest wave of displaced persons since 1945 began to arrive in Europe, largely fleeing conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Nearly a million refugees, the German government announced, would be welcomed in the Federal Republic. I could not help but notice that the daily images of desperate families and terrified children bore a striking resemblance to some of my sources. They stirred memories, long suppressed, in my grandmother as well, and she started to share more and more details of her life with me, describing how forced displacement and loss of home felt, stories that archival sources could not quite capture. The refugee families strolling along the scenic Danube River in my grandparent’s hometown sparked inner turmoil for my grandmother, often culminating in nightmares of knife-wielding Soviet soldiers chasing her. Such a personal connection to an international crisis created an emotional yet confusing collage that helped me not only better understand current events, but my historical subjects as well. No archive could grant that insight.

Right: In the winter of 2015, calls from Berlin refugee centers went out via social media and fliers posted in neighborhoods asking for donations and assistance. Many local businesses and bars advertised that "refugees are welcome" and donated money, food, and clothing. (Photo by Peter Gengler.)

For all the perspectives that the chaos in Europe and within my own family had provided, nothing granted me a more meaningful insight than developments in my own neighborhood in Berlin. One night in the fall of 2015, my soccer team’s training was interrupted by trucks rolling into the compound. The Berlin Senate had decided to confiscate some 90 gyms throughout the city, including our facility, for use as emergency refugee shelters. Over the next 48 hours, a makeshift kitchen and rows of mattresses were laid on the floor of the basketball court in the gym next door to my apartment. My wife and I, sipping coffee, observed from the windows of our modern apartment as men, women, and children arrived in buses. Few had winter coats and many of the men wore only sandals, even as the temperature neared freezing. The refugee center posted fliers in the neighborhood and issued desperate calls for volunteers and donations.

Left: Cots soon replaced the mattresses, but the growing number of refugees quickly led to the erection of bunk beds. Today, 220-250 refugees continue to sleep on a basketball court, with partitions to provide larger families or groups of refugees greater privacy. (Photo courtesy of Friedrichshain Hilft e.V.)

How could one not feel moved by the drama unfolding next door? In the first week, my wife and I volunteered to help in the clothing room, taking in donations and dispensing much-needed articles to desperate families who occasionally tried to force their way into the room, resourceful children scampering under the table barricading the door to grab items for their families. After a few days of chaos, the refugees accepted the imposition of an orderly distribution system and began to trust the volunteers. Unable to communicate needed sizes, mothers pressed their toddlers into our arms, and women giggled at my embarrassment as they signaled that they needed undergarments. Sometimes there were moments of drama, when men barged their way to the front of the line to demand soccer boots in order to play on the field, pushing aside women and children asking for soap or sweaters. Another time, I was ordered to hide a donated soccer ball because it had the Albanian flag on it and the Syrian men, angered by memories of mistreatment on their journey through that country, worked themselves into a frenzy. Until my soccer team donated a ball to the center a few days later, their children simply had no ball.

Right: In 2015, Berliners turned their homes and businesses into makeshift donation centers. Winter clothing was in particularly high demand given the city's low temperatures in comparison to refugees' home countries. (Photo by Peter Gengler.)

Even this small portion of the crisis was overwhelming. After the first day, my wife and I could not find any words to describe what we had seen. People who had lost everything thanked us profusely for a bottle of hand sanitizer. Children drew pictures in the play room of planes bombing buildings and maimed figures. Desperate men confronted us in hallways and asked, begged, demanded things, anything, it didn’t matter, they needed it. A couple, the husband a prominent surgeon from Aleppo, were reduced to tears at the thought of sleeping in a room with 250 other people, when just a few months before they had driven a Mercedes and lived in a villa. One night, the screaming of a man presumably having a nightmare woke us, his shouts and shrieks echoing in the courtyard of our building.

But there were joyful scenes as well. My wife volunteered to paint with small children. Even managing to coax a smile from a tiny girl with unbelievably large eyes was an achievement. My soccer teammates and I struck up a friendship with a ten-year-old we called “Ronaldo” for the donated Ronaldo jersey I had slipped him on the sly, and his crew, who trained with us. Families venturing through the neighborhood smiled and waved, recognizing us from our work at the facility. Some learned German quickly and hoped to get jobs—anything would do—to feed their families and earn their keep. One evening, an Iraqi refugee who had left his family in Turkey and braved the crossing to Greece in a skiff thanked us in broken German, declaring that Germans were the best people. My wife explained that we were American, and his smile turned to confusion and, briefly, anger. “American?” he repeated with suspicious eyes. He then suddenly embraced my wife, and kissed her on each cheek, and thanked her. We all had tears in our eyes. Perhaps the fondest memory I cherish is the sight of some 100 refugees, children and adults, rushing into a frigid Berlin evening, gleefully laughing in amazement at the sight of their first snowfall. Instinctively they began to catch snowflakes on their tongues, and within a few days they had learned to build snowmen. Despite the strife and hardships, they could laugh again. These were moments of hope.

It is a rarity when a historian comes to new realizations on their work through lived experiences. Most of our research involves people and events long past. When I looked at little girls giggling over stuffed animals and learning to live again, I saw my grandmother. I pictured the anonymous witnesses who had recorded their experiences in the 1950s and had entrusted their memories to an archive, where I stumbled upon them decades later. My experiences with refugees in Germany had many profound effects, but, most importantly, they made me a better historian because I could more easily fathom the pain and hope that hid between the lines of my sources. One must be careful to remain a sober, unbiased scholar. But at the end of the day, we must also remember that archival sources were written by real people. That year in Berlin was perhaps the starkest reminder of the human faces behind historic events.