During the week of 21 to 27 October 2013, the Academy of the Jewish Museum Berlin, in cooperation with Kulturkind e.V., will host readings, workshops, and an open day for the public with the theme “Multifaceted: a book week on diversity in children’s and young adult literature.” Employees of various departments have been vigorously reading, discussing, and preparing a selection of books for the occasion. Some of these books have already been introduced here over the course of the last weeks.
Unlike German literature for young adults, the range of children’s books on the subject of diversity is still marginal. Usually books about diversity are transposed to the animal kingdom, or they depict ‘alien’ cultures by having foreign children invite their German school friends to an ethnic celebration. The Jewish Passover holiday, the Muslim Eid-al-Fitr, or, alternatively, the Chinese New Year, are described with one and the same formula: mom prepares the celebratory meal, dad explains the origins of the holiday, and the kids watch the central rites until they have to go to bed. Most of these books have no real plot.
Ingke Brodersen chose a different approach: she tells her story from the perspective of a little boy named Sascha, who emigrated from Russia to Berlin.
Sascha is in nursery school but he’s already well-informed about his family history. He speaks confidently about his German ancestors, who came to Russia 200 years earlier under the rule of Tsarina Catherine the Great, who was herself of German descent. He also tells of his Kyrgyz grandmother, with whom he had a very special relationship. He finds it particularly difficult to say good-bye to her. After his arrival in grey, autumnal Berlin, a new life begins with a dreary daily hostel routine, communication problems at nursery school, and a friendship with Samira, a Chechen the same age as he, all of which are portrayed authentically. Sascha describes his father’s reaction to his friendship with convincing naïveté:
“‘I would rather you didn’t meet this Samira. A Russian shouldn’t be friends with a Chechen. Russians and Chechens don’t like each other.’ ‘But you always say we aren’t Russians at all, we’re Germans.’ Papa was quiet. But he looked angry.”
These words reveal with refreshing, childlike simplicity the absurdity of ethnic conflicts conveyed by a supposedly all-knowing and unerring adult world. Sascha’s father comes to terms with his son’s friendship with Samira, the Chechen girl, and at the end of the book there’s a celebration – an intercultural Russian-German Christmas.
While reading this book, I recognized myself in Sascha. I was about the same age when my parents, my siblings, and I left the Soviet Union. My parents told me that we were leaving to go on a long vacation. But when we said good-bye to my grandparents, I sensed that there was something unusual about this trip. I didn’t think seriously about our emigration – or the implications of our multi-ethnic family heritage, which included Jewish, Ukrainian, Russian, Finnish, and possibly German roots – until I was an adolescent. Our arrival in Berlin, which had been unified only months before, was similar, in fact identical, to Sascha’s, with my homesickness, a foreign language, the gloomy dormitory, and the grey outdoors coloring my memory of this time. The grey-ness turned out to be seasonal. Samira in my story was Marcin, a preschool classmate with a Polish mother and a Georgian-Azerbaijani father. We became friends and, soon thereafter, so did our parents. Our friendship helped us find our place in our new surroundings. As I’m writing all this, more and more memories from this time are re-surfacing, feeling as distant as a previous life. A lovely feeling, especially now – having lived in Germany for so many years – that my process of emigration has reached an honorable conclusion: last month I became a naturalized citizen.
Roman Labunski, Diversity in Schools/Education
Ingke Brodersen, Sascha und sein neues Zuhause, Hamburg: Carlsen Verlag 2011, 24 pages, in German, with numerous colorful illustrations, 3 years and up.