I nearly tripped. Opening the door to leave for work, I accidentally stomped on a man’s chest. Sheltering in our doorway, he was laying on his back. Carrying my bike and my messenger bag on my shoulder, the impact of my weight must have been painful. He screamed so loudly, everyone on our block must have heard him.
Thankfully, I regained my balance and landed on the sidewalk without falling. “Are you alright?” I asked in English. In our neighbourhood, that would likely have been the best way to communicate, as most of the homeless persons tend to be from eastern Europe and unable to communicate in any of the local languages – Arabic, German or Turkish.
“Dziękuję,” (Thank you) he responded in Polish looking a little dazed. His eyes were bloodshot, and he smelled like an outhouse. I could see what looked like track marks around his neck. Then, in broken English, he added, “I must go.”
Within seconds, the man got up and walked away, as though nothing had happened. “Just another day in Neukölln, I muttered and rode off to the office.
It was an especially poignant scene, one which would have been more instructive if I had seen it from the other side of the street. One of dozens of transient persons, many with drug problems, that I run into daily, during the summers, they’re their own readymades, paintings in an open-air art gallery showcasing poverty and every other manner of social ill.
The drug aspect is particularly poignant, as is its triangulation with persons from the former Soviet bloc. They contrast starkly with the Middle Eastern and Balkan migrants, who, while poor, and largely Muslim, don’t appear to be as marginalised as these white men from Germany’s less than liberal neighbours.
As a journalist, I deplore the practice of poornography. People on the margins are always less likely to object to being photographed than those of more fortunate circumstances. But when you live around so many of them, one is also obliged to document their plight and presence. When they’re invisible, there is no way to raise consciousness of their situation.
In 2018, Berlin experienced an especially long summer. Starting in mid-April, the season did not end until the middle of October. That meant there were a lot more rough sleepers to run into. The most I’ve ever seen in any of the cities I’ve lived in, in Europe, North America and the Middle East. That it turned out to be Germany made the visual experience even harder.
The reason is autobiographical. The first time I encountered rough sleepers was in Tel Aviv. It was the early 1970s, and I was walking through one of the municipal green spaces, north of the Hilton, bordering the beach, with my father. I saw two people laying half naked in the hot sun, on a park bench. They smelled something awful in the early morning heat.
I asked my father what they were doing there. Focusing on their uncovered forearms he saw that they both had numbers tattooed on them. “They’re Holocaust survivors, child,” he said, pointing. “They survived the concentration camps.”
Arriving at work that day, in Berlin, I remembered that moment in Tel Aviv, rather vividly, for the first time in years, speculating about the continuity between what I’d seen in the two cities. I wagered they might very well have been Polish, too.
Commentary by Joel Schalit. Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.