Making it in Germany

Misha Aster: A cultural historian

Misha Aster: A cultural historian
Photo: Sabine Devins
The Local's series "Making it in Germany" presents Misha Aster, a Canadian cultural historian in Berlin.

Name: Misha Aster

Age: 31

Originally from: Hamilton, Canada

What did you do before coming to Germany?

I was going to university. I did semesters in London, McGill in Montreal and couple years in the States and a semester in Russia to get my Masters in Dramaturgy, which is a kind of theatre degree. After finishing university, I came to Europe to work in small theatre companies, just bouncing from city to city, project to project.

What brought you to Germany?

I came to Berlin for the first time in 1990 on a family trip and I remember we arrived by train at the Zoologischer Garten station, and walking out of the train station to be confronted by this extraordinary image of the Gedächtnis Kirche. I thought this is an extraordinary place. This is an important place. I need to get to know this place better. I was 12 at the time, but it was one of those events and experiences that leave a lasting impression. When I finished high school in 1995, I was looking for something to do before starting university and it was around the same time that there was a Leonard Cohen song of which the refrain was about taking Berlin. So in 1995 to 1996, I was here for eight months and fell in love with the city the first time and left and went to university. But I always wanted to come back and was always searching for an excuse and eventually that materialised in 2006.

What do you do here in Berlin?

That question is the bane of my existence. You could say I’m a dramaturge, but no one knows what that means. I spend my time in and around theatres and musical institutions working on productions. I’ve also carved out a niche for myself as a type of historian writing the histories and studies these cultural institutions.

How did you get started with that?

Essentially, I was asked. During my first stay here, I was fortunate to have been befriended by a musician who played with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. We met on a train and had a lot of time to kill so we had a long, involved and quite fascinating conversation. One of the topics that popped up was the experience of the Berlin Philharmonic during the Third Reich. This friend of mine found it bizarre that he, as a member of the orchestra, had no idea what had happened to his colleagues 60 years ago. Our conversation went on from there, but we both agreed that this was something worth investigating. Around 2002/2003, this friend called me up and said, ‘OK, now is our chance. Come to Berlin and lets find out the story.’

He introduced me to some people and let me into the archives. It was more to satisfy our own personal curiosities at first, but I started and as I got into the research, I realised there was a really fascinating story here, and more over, one that hadn’t been told yet. Then we decided that maybe more people would care about it than just us, so it became a book. I accumulated and researched through various visits to Berlin over a few years until 2006, when I finally made the move to Berlin and sat down to actually write.

Now that book has been translated from the German into French, Spanish, Japanese, Italian and will soon be coming out in English.

How much German is involved in your day-to-day work?

I write in English, but I use German sources and write for a German audience and the books are translated into German for publication, so I use the original German sources in my materials in order to maintain authenticity rather than having the work translating back and forth.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you moved here?

When I first came here, I didn’t speak the language. It was 1995, just six years after the Wall came down and English wasn’t yet as widely spoken here as it is today. Once I had a grasp on the language, I had to come to terms with the German attitude toward work and how they categorise people by the work they do, so how I categorised my own role and how I’m cast in people’s social networks. It was easy to connect to people through work, but I found it difficult to make friends on a casual basis. There is a more rigid social structure that what one is used to encountering in North America.

What do you love about living here?

I love the fact that I have a specific set of passions and interested relating to culture, music and theatre and any night of the week, there is the most wonderful array of cultural experiences to choose from. I love that about Berlin, but even more is the fact that there are other people in this city that are equally passionate about there sets of cultural interests and they also have this immense selections of experiences to choose from and we will actually overlap, despite living in the same city and always being busy with things. Its an incredible diversity of experience to offer. The sense of openness, the sense of plurality in that regard. It’s a city that doesn’t try to be like anywhere else. It doesn’t emulate other places and in that way, is very comfortable in its own skin and in that way, people here can then too feel very comfortable and confident in who they are and what they can contribute to the city.

How has Germany changed you?

You’re expected to be forthcoming about what you value here. Becoming aware of that and being able to be more forthcoming and more expressive about what I value and recognising that other people have that same opportunity, that its part of the culture. Coming from a Canadian perspective where we’re always so polite and concerned with making sure that no one could take offense, it was an adjustment. Here you make your case, and don’t have to apologise for it.

What advice do you have for someone who is looking to ‘make it’ in Germany?

Go to the theatre. The theatre is one of the best ways to take the pulse of a society. You can often tell how a society functions and how people feel in relation to each other in how they communicate.

Know someone who’s “made it” in Germany? Email us at: [email protected]

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