It is June 22 as I am writing this piece. 72 years ago, on June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Between 1941 and 1945, 27 million Soviet people were killed, nine million of them soldiers. In his excellent 2008 Zeit article with the poignant title “27 Millionen,” this sheer unimaginable number of victims, historian Peter Jahn reminds us of this tragedy – and of the tragedy of forgetting, in Germany, the horrific suffering of a people and the ongoing significance of World War II, including May 9, for Russians. June 22, 1941 and May 9 (here, not May 8), 1945 are stark reminders that “dates are not just numbers,” as Literary Studies scholar Wai Chee Dimock observes in her work about different ways to measure time across cultures (Through Other Continents, 2).
Sadly, I look in vain today for similar, or any, articles in the German press that commemorate this important day in history. 72 years is a long time. To some. The German-Russian Museum in the historic location of Berlin-Karlshorst contributes, every day, to challenging forgetfulness:
For a third-generation German, this past year of living in a former Soviet Republic has pulled World War II into the present like only the city of Berlin does, with its material scars, memorial sites, and reminders, official and unofficial, of the terrible war and its legacies, which connect Russians and Germans until this day. The next blog posts recount the many occasions in Bishkek, from quietly told stories of a lost family member to official (victory) celebrations on national holidays, that revealed that 72 years can be both a long and a very short time, depending on (how much we are willing to allow into our lives) historical awareness, the work and impact of memory, and empathy. The same goes for 68 years. Dimock, who refers to Aristotle, articulates with clarity the questions that matter greatly, if not most, I have found, for doing and teaching transnational history in different parts of the world. And for understanding its urgent implications and lessons for living in the precarious contemporary moment: “Are the properties of time truly identical to the properties of number? And do modern human beings always experience time as a measuring tape, uniform and abstract, untouched by locality, and untouched by the differential weight of the past?” (Through Other Continents, 2).
I experienced for the first time the “differential weight of the past” and the touch of the locality Kyrgyzstan last August, barely a week or so in a country that still felt so strange to me and that did not seem to offer points of connection. And, to borrow once more from Dimock’s beautiful thinking and prose, I experienced at the same time what she calls the “many loops of relations, a densely interactive fabric” (Through Other Continents, 3-4) across space and time. A colleague and friend, a brilliant mathematician and pianist trained in classical music in Bishkek, treated us to a piano performance. An impromptu concert. In a small room, lined with framed pictures of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov. An eminent audience.
And with a piano.
Our colleague played, beautifully. Gershwin. Russian composers. “Strangers in the Night” and “I Did It My Way.” And two pieces by a German composer whose name I had never heard before. One of them because it reminds her of the sound of galloping Kyrgyz horses. In Bishkek, crammed into a tiny room, four people, of four different nationalities and cultural backgrounds, captivated by, and connected through, the work of American, Russian, and German composers. A special concert interspersed with lively discussions about music. A moment of overlapping connections: through music, shared cultural histories across national borders, and through international life paths that had led us into, and that crossed, in this small room. But there are more entanglements to this story. There is more history to this story. The story of a German piano teacher in Bishkek, who was a soldier during the Second World War and then a POW. Who fell in love with a Jewish woman in Bishkek and stayed and taught piano lessons. A wonderful and caring teacher he must have been, who insisted that his young student got a healthy lunch and made sure that her rehearsal dress was warm enough. I am struck and deeply moved by this story: not only because it is an unlikely love story during violent times, which persisted against the overwhelming weight and burden of war, hatred, and unleashed rage, but also because it is so unlike the horrible (war/postwar) stories about Germans and Russians that I grew up with in Germany.
Last August, a Bishkek moment. A special piano medley. Enabled, and later enriched, by a story about the past that one does not find in history books. Sometimes, perfect moments like this one refine our hearing and tune it to stories and sounds that seem unfamiliar. Or to familiar sounds and stories and we thought we knew so well but that we don’t recognize in their larger contexts. And how do they sound, these moments? Like hitting the right piano key. Like striking the perfect note.