Multi-kulti in a German Beach Resort


We brought my mother-in-law to the Baltic Sea resort town of Ahlbeck which is near the Polish border for her 90th birthday. My mother-in-law visited the resort in one of its former heydays of the 1930s. At the time she was ten years old, and very active as a swimmer—as 90 year olds will, they wanted to visit the memories of their childhood.

Ahlbeck is on the island of Usedom, which is mostly in Germany, though a tip of the eastern part is in Poland.   Along the coast is a strip of small towns featuring villas built by the wealthy nobility and bourgeois during the nineteenth and early twentieth century—they wanted weekend houses away from the hustle and bustle of Berlin where they could hang out on sandy but cold beaches.

After World War II, the town fell into disrepair under the Communist regime of former East Germany—bourgeois villas were to be a think of the past. In 1990, though, Germany was reunified. The wealthy of the western Germany and particularly the newly reunified Berlin had a new place to invest their money, and spend their weekends while creating a new Europe. The old villas were repaired, and even some of the dreary eastern bloc-style drab apartment buildings given new facades. Seemingly all that is left of the former East German influence are the FKK beaches described in tourist brochures—no clothing allowed.

Anyway, we had dinner at Italian restaurant last night, and talked to the waiter. He was from Brazil, but noted in accented German that it was ok to be Brazilian at a Italian restaurant, he could get by with Italian, too. The toilet seats in the bathroom had pictures of the Leaning tower of Pisa, and the Statue of Liberty in New York.

The next day I went for a walk into the next Polish town, where we found a coffee shop specializing in Belgian chocolate. We had a cup of coffee, and paid with our Euros, even though Poland still uses the Zloty as a currency. We talked to the waitress in German, though it was clear from her accent she was Polish, as it is clear from my accent that I am American. We then called my daughter in Thailand on the Polish internet.

Never did though get to see evidence of the FKK beaches. Even in June, everyone I saw was bundled up against the cool breezes coming in off the sea.

Another odd thing. I did not hear English on the street all weekend. There were plenty of languages, German of course, Polish, Romance languages (Spanish and/or Italian?), but no English. There were also Thai, Chinese, and Mexican restaurants, so I assume people from those countries were there, too. This is unusual in a German tourist town—every other place seems to be over-run with English speaking tourists (and others) from around the world. But seemingly not here.

But still, even in this remote corner of eastern Germany. Germany is indeed “Mulit-Kulti.”

New Mandarins, Old Meritocracy, It’s All the Same Thing, Really. Commentary from 2013-2048

The Daily Beast in 2013 published a piece about “the New Mandarins” by Megan McArdle.  The New Mandarins are those people who test well, get good jobs, write the tests tor the next generation, and then give birth to the next generation that will do well, and so on.  The problem of course is that as in Ancient China, the Mandarins become more and more remote from the people who they rule, and the connection between the ruled and rulers becomes more tenuous.  Revolt is one potential threat.

McArdle cites the Big Brother society of Orwell’s 1984, but another more sociological/anthropological treatise on the same subject is Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2030.  Young was a British sociologist, who sometimes turned to fiction, or in this case, semi-fiction in his sociological analyses. In The Rise and Fall of the Meritocracy, he describes the rise of the British Mandarinate starting about 1870.  The first part of the book is as a result historical overview of how the British Civil Service emerged between 1870, and about 1958 when the book was published.  It did it by creating a civil service testing regime, in which the technocratically skilled achieved great power within the bureaucratic system.  The system in turn guaranteed comfort and security for this new “meritocratic” elite (Young is the one who coined the term “merittocracy”as a dysphemism).  The British education system reflected a strong segregation based on class in the 1950s when Young wrote, peaking at the “Oxfrd-Cambrdige” nexus where of course, everyone tested well, and therefore earned a right to that nice level of comfort and security.

The problem of course is that everyone who does not test well was not guaranteed similar levels of comfort and security.

The second part of the book is putatively fiction, though, since it describes what would happen between 1950 and 2030 which presumably for Young was the future. Young’s prediction is of course that the ruling elite, secure in the legitimacy provided by their technical superiority as reflected by the “objective” test scores. Unusually, though we have a way to check to see just how prescient Young’s predictions. The American Journal of Sociology, a self-described elite “flagship journal” in 2009 published a review of Young’s book. The review, by Barbara Celarent of Atlantis University, was unusually postmarked in 2048, so has the perspective of hindsight. The hindsight it has is of the revolts that Young predicted for 2030.

In this fashion, it provides and excellent reference point to Megan McCardle’s commentary from The Daily Beast.




By Guest Writer: N. Jeanne Burns
A friend said recently that one definitive marker of social class is whether you know how to eat an artichoke. This probably isn’t true for migrant farmworkers who toil in or around Castroville, California, the self-proclaimed “Artichoke Capital of the World.” Or even for people who grew up on the Mediterranean, where the plant is native. But M.F.K. Fisher, who herself grew up surrounded by fields of artichokes, recognized the class-climbing rank of the thistle in her essay “The Social Status of the Vegetable.” And the distinction feels right to me, even seventy years later, despite other, more elite foods like pâtédefoisgras making a clear status statement. Maybe it’s because you can get artichoke hearts on home-delivered pizza or in jars at even some of the smallest grocery stores. But the flower itself is hard to find and looks threatening when you spy it on your produce shelves.I don’t recall the first time I tasted an artichoke, sometime in my twenties. It was probably in a dip, the vegetable’s real flavor and texture drowned out by mayonnaise, cheese, and canned artichoke brine. However, I remember the first time I saw an artichoke in the grocery store, looking more like a wall of soldiers guarding the asparagus than the tender, delicious vegetable I would come to love. I pretended to examine grapefruit while I watched several people pick through the bin and place two or four blooms in their carts. Iwas embarrassed because people around me seemed to know something I didn’t: how to turn that oversized greenpinecone into a meal.I couldn’t ask my mother, because she wouldn’t know. She’d grown up in Appalachian rural poverty and ate only what her family could grow. Artichokes didn’t appear on their table.Knowing scarcity herself, she made sure our working-class family always had sustenance, but never cooked more than we could eat at one sitting. The food stayed within the boundaries of her experience. Fried chicken. Canned green beans and raw bacon boiled together for half an hour. Fried pork chops. Collards and bacon fat, cooked until the greens were wilted, dark and shiny with grease. Fried salmon cakes made with fish from a tin. Canned peas boiled to mush. Mom kept a large tin of bacon grease by the stove to fry eggs, make gravy, and glaze biscuits. Her spice cabinet held only salt, pepper, and cream of tartar. She hated garlic.I’ve come to love more subtle tastes and textures than my mother taught me to appreciate.In my early thirties, I went with friends to a restaurant I’d heard was very good. The waiter brought tiny plates to our celebratory table. On each, a minute crouton cradling a smear of fresh mozzarella was covered with a fresh basil leaf and drizzled with a sweet brown liquid.”An amuse-bouche from the chef,” he said, “topped with balsamic vinegar.”We’d been waiting over an hour for the last of the party to arrive and were very hungry. By the time my friends and I downed the diminutive appetizers, wiped our mouths and returned the napkins to our respective laps, we wanted more and let the waiter know.

He laughed. “That was one-hundred-year-old balsamic–$250 per ounce.”

Its velvety sweet flavor hinted at a heavy red wine, but with a subtly sharp vinegar taste in the background. I’d never tasted something so good or so expensive. I wanted more.

After that dinner, for very special times my partner Liz and I wanted to mark, we splurged at restaurants where haricots verts are slender green beans, charcuterie is a selection of shaved deli meats, coulis is a thin sauce. I never liked steak until I felt my first bite of filet mignon melting on my tongue. And you would never have seen me eat a parsnip until I had tasted pureed root vegetables at a local French restaurant.

I don’t tell mom about my food escapades because I’m certain she’d be offended at the amount of money we spend on a dinner for two and be worried about how I dressed. “You wore hose and a slip, I hope,” she’d say, the o in hope drawn out as if there were a u after it. She never wanted her social class to show and taught me to mimic people I judged to be a higher class than I, as she had.

When my mother told me she first used a napkin when she was fifteen, in 1960, I had a lot of questions. What did she use to wipe her mouth before 1960? (An arm or sleeve.) Did all her friends and school mates wipe their mouths with their sleeves? (Yes.) And, finally, how did she learn to use a napkin?

An upper-middle-class family had come into the hills seeking a live-in babysitter and found my mother. She moved away from her family for the first time to take this summer job. When mom was asked to set the table, she was told to set out napkins (she doesn’t remember whether they were cloth or paper). She watched the family members wipe their mouths. She mimicked their actions, inferring correctly that people in a class above hers use napkins.

My neighborhood housed firefighters, truck drivers, and janitors so I first encountered middle class people in college. Since then, I’ve observed and mimicked cultural mores many times. I have failed at the part of inference sometimes.

My first time in college, I saw lots of well-dressed pretty women wearing safety pins that had been decorated with variously colored short ribbons that seemed to match their clothes. I made a color-coordinated pin for each of my outfits and wore them until a woman who was offended that I would steal her sorority’s colors dressed me down. I never again trusted what I saw to be appropriate.

Still, I watched and learned.

I grew up with paper napkins. We kept them by our plates and picked them up to wipe our mouths. If we were eating something particularly messy, I would spread out the paper and tuck the tip into my shirt. The restaurants we went to growing up all provided paper napkins. Sometimes they gave us rectangular and thicker napkins than the Viva brand we used at home, but they were always paper.

The first time I used a cloth napkin was at prom, which was held at the Hotel duPont, the nicest hotel in town. But I kept it on the table.

I was in my late twenties before I noticed people around me putting their napkins on their laps. This didn’t make sense to me. The mess I make when I eat is on my face or on my shirt. I never get stains on my pants because the drips drop at the shelf on my chest. Why wouldn’t I want the napkin closer?

I asked a friend when I first noticed the napkin in the lap, and she laughed at me, saying only white trash tuck their napkins in their shirts. A napkin on my lap still doesn’t make sense to me, because after my friend laughed at me, I became afraid of asking about social class conventions.

Finally, at twenty-nine, I had my chance. My friend Nils presented artichokes to go with the baked chicken he’d just taken out of the oven.

“How about artichokes for our vegetable? Fresh from my garden.”

I nodded and smiled, hoping to see artichoke prep firsthand, but knowing I would have to pretend that I already knew how to cook and eat it.

“You start the chokes while I get the chicken out of the oven?”

“No, I’ll take the bird out. It’ll only be a minute.” I didn’t even want to touch the artichokes because they looked painful to handle.

He palmed the blooms and told me a story about getting kicked out of the kitchen of his Navy battleship because the cook thought he got in the way.

So the leaves don’t hurt, I thought.

“He also didn’t want me to get my officer’s uniform dirty.”

“I don’t want you to stain your clothes either. That’s why I’m dealing with the dirty bird!”

As I tented the chicken with foil, I watched him cut off most of the stem and place the thistles into a steamer. The pot’s top teetered on the tallest one, so he balanced it on one edge.

“Have you ever had artichokes cooked any other way?” I asked.

“Hearts in brine, but those are steamed too. Have you?”

“Oh, I thought since you’d traveled the world in the Navy, you’d have seen some unusual things.” I moved to the kitchen table and started folding napkins that he’d taken out of the dryer a few minutes before into rectangles, wanting to keep myself occupied so he wouldn’t ask me to check on the vegetable. Or ask me to turn the fabric squares into a bird.

“I’ve seen lots of strange things. Nothing with an artichoke. I think there’s only one way to cook and eat an artichoke. To eat any thistle.”

After carving the chicken he placed one bloom on each of our plates, and a bowl of what looked like mayonnaise between us. The green globe smelled most like steamed spinach. He ate his chicken before picking at his vegetable.

Then he plucked off each leaf, one by one, dipped it into the sauce he called “broccolati,” which I now know to be aioli–mayo with lemon and garlic–and scraped the tender flesh off each leaf with his teeth.

I followed his lead until I got to a hairy blob. I didn’t know what to do, so I took my napkin off my lap and placed it onto the table, which I’d learned the year before, was the signal that you are done with your meal.

“You’re not going to eat the heart? That’s the best part!”

I wanted to eat the heart, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself by not knowing what to do with the hairs.

“No, I’m full. You go ahead if you want.”

Nils scraped the hairy ball out of his artichoke heart with a spoon, being careful to get every fiber but none of the vegetable’s center, cut the heart in four, and ate them without any aioli. While he scraped at mine I asked him how he learned to eat an artichoke.

“I don’t remember. My mother cooked them for us, and I suppose I learned from her.”

These days the Internet and YouTube how-to videos can teach me just about anything. I can, for instance, mimic my partner’s very privileged family when we go to very fine restaurants to celebrate a birthday or anniversary without worrying that I’ll be judged as white trash. I’ll use the tiny spoon to sprinkle salt on my dinner like everyone else at the table, and will learn later about why petite bowls and spoons are better than a salt shaker, with the poet Pablo Neruda’s tenderhearted warrior always on my mind.

I’ve used online video searches to learn how to make a lamb balsamic reduction, how to sprinkle fleur de sel as a finishing salt on a delicate endive salad, and how to slice open a mango, all things my mother would find too strange for her liking.

Though I’m sure she’ll like that I now keep a small jar of bacon fat in my freezer, because in the twenty-some years I’ve been out of her house, I’ve not found a better fat in which to fry an egg. The next time I see her, I’ll make a dip with mayonnaise, crème fraîche (telling her it is sour cream), and white truffle oil (telling her it is made from mushrooms), and I’ll teach mom how to eat an artichoke.

Class Lives

Published in Class Lives: Stories from Across our Economic Divide, 2014, Cornell University Press


The Last Auschwitz Trial, Moral Guilt, and Criminal Guilt

On June 2, 2015, I attended the trial of Oskar Groening, a German SS officer who was assigned to Auschwitz in 1942-1944. He is being tried for being an accomplice to murder of 300,000 people at Auschwitz, the number of people sent to the gas chambers during the time he was there. Another 100,000 were sent to work during the same period, where many more died from hunger and the cold. Most were Hungarian Jews. His trial is in Luenburg, Germany, where I am a Guest Professor this summer. The trial is here because he lives in this judicial district.


At Auschwitz, Groening worked as a bookkeeper. His assignment was to catalog the luggage, money, and affects from the luggage of Jews brought to Auschwitz and send it to Berlin. By his own account, he was also occasionally assigned to guard duty, including at the entry point to Auschwitz, where an early decision was made about who would go to the gas chambers, and who would live a bit longer by one of the SS officers assigned that task.


After the war, Groening was sent to a British Prisoner of War Camp in Britain until about 1947. After that, he returned to Germany, and lived with his family near where I am staying in Lueneburg, and had a middle class lifestyle until retirement in the 1980s.


Groening told his wife never to ask about what he did during the war. And apparently this was the case until about 1984. Groening was a stamp collector, and very active in local philately club. One of his acquaintances in the club told him about a new radical view emerging in parts of Germany (and elsewhere) that the Holocaust was a fable-that it never happened, and that what happened at Auschwitz was not technically feasible. He recommended a book by a “Holocaust denier.” Groening took the book, apparently read it, and then returned it with a note: “I saw everything. The gas chambers, the cremations, the selection process. One and a half million Jews were murdered in Auschwitz. I was there.”


With this note, Groening, as an Auschwitz guard, became a minor celebrity. Over the next thirty years his testimony about death, selection procedures, gas chambers, and crematoria were written about in German and international publications. The message of the former “bookkeeper of Auschwitz” was the same: “I was there, I saw it, I still lose sleep over it, I knew what happened when I was there, I am morally guilty, and it must never happen again.” He accepted moral guilt for his participation in the Holocaust. He continues this testimony up to this day, and regrets his participation.


But moral guilt and criminal guilt are two different things. Courts are in charge of criminal guilt, and over the decades, they have established criteria for who should be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity. A number of the organizers and more sadistic guards at Auschwitz were convicted at the end of the war, and hanged or imprisoned by the victorious Allies. Others were given sentences, most of which were shortened in the 1950s, and then released. Most of 6,000 or so SS who served in Auschwitz between 1942 and 1945 have of course since died of old age.


But the question for the courts linger. At what level of responsibility should the perpetrators be held accountable? Who is a perpetrator, who is an accomplice, and who is just a bureaucratic functionary? Is there a difference? Recently, German prosecutors assert that being a cog in the machine, whether a guard or a bookkeeper at Auschwitz, was enough since how could the Holocaust have been committed, unless the “little people” following orders and participated? People like Oskar Groening, and others, even if they did not make the “big decisions” have criminal guilt, too. The fact is that if the little people had not been there, the 1.2 million people could not have been delivered to the crematoria of Auschwitz by just 6,000 SS.


So, consistent with this principle, German courts in 2012 issued what are probably the final arrest warrants for World War II war crimes. The indictments are for men who were guards and bureaucrats—and by now all are in their 90s. Groening continues to acknowledge moral guilty, but claims not to be criminally guilty—but is willing to let the court decide.


Groening’s trial for being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people began here in Lueneburg this last April, and will be concluded in July. A few survivors of Auschwitz gave testimony in April and May—they are in their late 70s and 80s, and all acknowledge that they personally did not remember Groening being there. Children of survivors have also related the stories of their parents. The day I was in court on June 2, the witness was Angela Orosz-Richt. Her parents were sent to Auschwitz in May 1944 and she was born secretly in Auschwitz’ barracks just before Christmas in 1944.

At the ramp in May 1944, her father was sent one direction, never to be seen again—presumably went straight to gas chambers, and was turned to ashes at Auschwitz’ crematoria soon after. Her mother was eventually selected by Dr. Josef Mengele for medical experiments on sterilization. Mengele sterilized her in a series of experiments which involved injecting hot burning substances into her cervix, apparently without noticing that she was pregnant. And seven months later, in the dead of winter, Oroscz-Richt was born in the Auschwitz, weighing only one kilogram. Two months later, Russian soldiers liberated Auschwitz. The young mother and her baby made her way back to Budapest where she remembered being asked for her place of birth, and writing “Auschwitz.”


They later moved to Canada where Angela Orosz-Richt had a daughter. Oroscz-Richt had heard about Auschwitz from her mother on occasion: about the burning shots in her cervix from Dr. Mengele, the hunger, and the cold. But she said the stories really came out when her own daughter in 1986 questioned her grandmother about family history for a school report. And that apparently was the details we heard of her mother’s story tumbled out in court on June 5, 2015.


Angela Orosz-Richt visited Auschwitz, her birthplace, for the first time last January on the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the camp—walking her way around her birthplace, wondering if she was walking on the ashes of her own father.


My sense is that Groening will be convicted—but then what will happen? The penalty for accomplice to murder of 300,000 people is up to 15 years in prison for a 93 year old man.

A few court dates have been cancelled due to his health, but most have been conducted. Notably, the other defendants in the indictment have been excused from prosecution due to ill health, and other incapacity—it is generally believed that Groening’s will be the last of the World War II war crimes trial.


Germany today is of course a very different place than it was in 1944, and 1945 when it committed the Holocaust, and was bombed into submission by the victorious Allies. Still even in 2015, The War is always present. There are the understated memorials to those who died, which include the brass “bricks” in German streets identifying where the Jews lived before they were deported and murdered at places like Auschwitz.

There are also occasional memorials to civilians and soldiers who died. The obelisks of the Memorial the Murdered Jews in Berlin is the most well-known perhaps, and the most disconcerting. Disorientation was indeed its purpose. And there are frequent documentaries and stories in the German press each time a significant anniversary comes, or major figure dies.


In some ways, trials like Groening’s are in their own way also a memorial to World War II victims. I was impressed that the majority of the people attending the trial (which was translated into English, Hungarian, and Hebrew), were young people, many in the twenties. They struck me as modern Germans, too, some had piercings and other fashion statements of the 21st century. And yet they were there, to hear about the crimes of a really old man, and the testimony of a 70 year old woman who described the horrors of what can easily be thought of as a different time. But their presence, and the coverage by the press, asserted that the acknowledgment of the horrors of World War II is still important.


As for Oskar Groening himself, I do not yet know quite what to think. Germans I have talked to find his behavior at Auschwitz worthy of censure and conviction—they find the distinction between “moral guilt” and “criminal guilt” to be specious, and the scope of the crime committed to be so extraordinary that it is worthy of censure seventy years later. How can passively watching of the Auschwitz gas chambers and crematoria which Groening admitted, be excused? And yet, I also find Groening to be a tragic figure—he was after all the one who reacted so vociferously and vigorously after the Holocaust denier approached him at the stamp collectors meeting in 1985, and for thirty years has consistently insisted that it happened, it was criminal, and must never happen again.


One of my Facebook friends thought a play could be written about the case. I think that she may be right. Plays are well-suited to tragedy, and this is yet another appropriate way to tell the story of Holocaust and the ordinary people—people like me, if truth be told—who observe, but do not obstruct?


Such trials are of course never enough to equal the scope of the crime committed, but neither are memorials. But in a small way, such trials are a gift of Germany to the world, by a country that committed one of the greatest crimes ever. By pursuing Oskar Groening 70 years after the war, the young people with the piercings who were at the trial, or watching the television coverage, will relay to their own grandchildren in 50 years, what it was like to gaze into the faces of people who saw Auschwitz.


Related Writing

To read more about my thoughts regarding justice, genocide, and war please see Chapter 5 of When Killing is a Crime linked here, a recent blog about bodies from the Kagera River linked here, and what a baker once told me about the fire bombing of Dresden lined here.

Mathematicians Like Social Sciences, Too!

Robert Harrington of the American Mathematical Society is trying t understand how young mathematician use their scholarly products.  As an an “experiment” he tried out qualitative interview methods to investigate his question.  Here is what he found out:

As a scientist, I have ideas about what scientific method is, and what evidence is. I now understand the value of the qualitative approach – hard for a scientist to say. Qualitative research opens a window to descriptive data and analysis. As our markets change, understanding who constitutes our market, and how users behave is more important than ever.

You can read the whole article here.


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Stigma, and Learned Helplessness

Does the stigmatized individual assume his differentness is known about already or is evident on the spot, or does he assume it is neither known about by those present nor immediately perceivable by them? In the first case one deals with the plight of the discredited, in the second with that of the discreditable. This is an important difference.” Erving Goffman, 1963

I don’t have anything new to add to the thoughts I had when I wrote about PTSD in “Trauma Culture: Who’s a Normal Now?” But, I continue to read about PTSD because as someone with it, I believe the more people like me know, the less we suffer. Having PTSD is something I can talk about and give presentations on now, but when I was a student, I kept it a secret because I was concerned about the perception of others. I can speak to the experience of having a stigma that is discredited (I’m a fat, mixed race woman) but I feel that it is the discreditable whose experiences we understand less so.

Being discreditable is having to manage a secret, one that the bearer knows will change others perceptions the moment it hits air. We also know that if we tell our secret publicly, we risk everything. Having PTSD and doing the work of “passing” and concealing trauma impact physical and mental health but also learning and motivation. I came across one of the best pieces I’ve ever read about learned helplessness last week and it’s an important read for teachers and people in healthcare or social work.

And, here’s something for you from an open source, peer-reviewed journal about “Discredited” versus “Discreditable” identities and how those affect health disparities (mental and physical).