Puterbaugh Festival with Jenny Erpenbeck

Gehen, ging, gegangen. Go, went, gone. That’s about how my last semester of undergrad felt.

In March, I attended the Puterbaugh Festival for Jenny Erpenbeck, a prestigious German writer whose signature piece of work, Go, Went, Gone, has gained international praise, including from the globally engaged university located smack-dab in the middle of the United States. Following the event, I read part of her book, even though I don’t consider myself much of an avid reader, though I’d like to be. The story centers around Richard, a retiring German professor with East German roots whose direct interactions and friendships with refugees shape his perspective in a society that is growing increasingly hostile toward migrants. Richard himself experienced displacement in his lifetime, but his history does not automatically transfer to compassion to refugees until he begins to know them personally.

I was most intrigued by one speaker at the round-table discussion who had performed a psychological experiment to study how people would respond to or help others who had experienced displacement. Serbians who were displaced in the 1990’s were recruited to participate. Two groups were primed with questions; one priming them with their national identity, and the other priming them with questions of displacement, experiences that  they would share with refugees. Each participant was given a certain amount of money, and they could send some, all, or no money to an anonymous refugee in Syria, and what they did not send, they could keep. The sad conclusion was that both groups sent only about 25% of their money. This implies that even the Germans who might have had similar experiences to Syrian refugees in the past (a large majority of Germany’s population are refugees or descendants of refugees), are still not much more sympathetic than those without experiences of displacement.

But at the end of the discussion, an older professor at OU stood up and made a remark that gave the audience some hope. He said that throughout history there have been some key books, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that revolutionized societal thought and changed history; Go, Went, Gone could be such a book.

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