Reading in Berlin: Thoughts on Jill Stauffer’s Eth...

Reading in Berlin: Thoughts on Jill Stauffer’s Ethical Loneliness

Stumbling stones remembering five homeless men who were sent to their death at Sachsenhausen were installed near Berlin’s World Clock in April. Photo provided by author.

Stumbling stones remembering five homeless men who were sent to their death at Sachsenhausen were installed near Berlin’s World Clock in April. Image provided by author

The TV Tower at Alexanderplatz dominates the Berlin skyline. Image provided by the author

I brought Jill Stauffer’s Ethical Loneliness: The Injustice of Not Being Heard[1] with me to Berlin, where the question of listening—why it matters so much, what price people pay when they bear what Dori Laub calls the “unlistened to story”[2]—is still pressing. It’s a powerful book about the double abandonment and existential isolation that Holocaust survivors, black South Africans under Apartheid, and countless people worldwide have known, and still live with, because first we forsake them to tremendous harm and then give their stories no “just hearing.”[3] Given Berlin’s history as capital of the Third Reich and then East Germany’s repressive regime, it felt like a fitting place for an oral historian to grapple with the limits, and the possibilities, of listening. But when I got to the city, it hit me: there are thousands of refugees in the city right now, and close to one million throughout Germany, whose very future depends on being heard. Stauffer’s argument for the fundamental importance of listening is as much about today as it is about the past. This is a must read for oral historians and everyone who thinks attentive listening matters deeply.

When Gayatri Spivak asks if the subaltern can speak, she is in a sense asking if we can listen.[4] For Stauffer, the answer is often no. Even when our intentions are good, even when we mean to create a safe and open space for genuine listening, time and again we fail to hear the stories that survivors of mass harm have to tell. Stauffer derives the term ethical loneliness from Holocaust survivor Jean Améry’s writing about the profound and lasting isolation of being abandoned by one’s society. Améry killed himself in the late 1970s at least in part because he continued to feel alone with his story and betrayed by a society that refused to reckon honestly with its horrific actions.

Holocaust memorial on Grosse Hamburger Strasse in Berlin. Image provided by the author

Stauffer, a philosopher, argues that being heard is essential to repair, on both the personal and societal levels, after mass harm. “Survivors,” she writes, “want the harms they have undergone to be heard and the wrongness of them affirmed in a lasting way not only by perpetrators but also by the surrounding society.”[5] But as she carefully illustrates, all too often, truth commissions, international courts, and even oral history interviews fail truly to hear the very stories they were set up to listen to. The consequences of that failure matter, a lot. Not being able to tell their stories—without an imposed narrative or resolution—and have them truly heard leaves survivors not just abandoned a second time but unable to envision a place for themselves in a safe, shared world.

Stauffer unpacks several examples. They are compelling and troubling: truth commissions that impose forgiveness on survivors, courts that don’t know enough about a culture to interpret what they hear or to notice silences, oral history interviewers who insist on stories of resilience. The International Criminal Court, for instance, decides “what the right questions to ask about a situation are and, to a certain extent, what the range of answers can be”[6] before anyone has had the chance to testify, circumscribing “in advance what can be heard.”[7]

In oral history, we often talk about the intersubjective nature of the interview. Narrators tell their stories in specific ways because of the dynamics that play themselves out between the narrator and the interviewer. “An inter/view is an exchange between two subjects: literally a mutual sighting,” writes Alessandro Portelli. “One party cannot really see the other unless the other can see him or her in turn.”[8] If a narrator is to be able to tell her story on her own terms, the interviewer has to “make an effort to create a setting where people can draw their own lines and make their own decisions about it.”[9] If we don’t begin at a minimum with this, the project of what Stauffer calls “just hearing”[10] is doomed. Stauffer means “just” in both senses: simply listening and giving a fair hearing to. But as she illustrates, there’s nothing simple about the act of listening.

By looking at the sites where listening fails, Stauffer tells us a lot about what it means to question. Testimony and interviews usually begin with the interviewer. And as Portelli points out, “By opening the conversation, the interviewer defines the roles and establishes the basis of narrative authority.”[11] If our goal is to listen deeply to what narrators have to say, whatever that is, then as interviewers we must strive to ask questions that imply no judgment, that infer no right answer, that suggest no restrictions to the form a story should take or the content we can bear to hear. Stauffer urges listeners, and thus questioners, “to reflect on the limits to what they already know and how that affects what they are able to hear.”[12] Hearing, in the sense of fully understanding another, can never be perfect, but if we question ourselves as interviewers and work to recognize when we are inadvertently constraining a narrator’s ability to tell, or precluding our own listening, we stand a chance of at least hearing well.

Berlin is teeming with survivors’ stories. Some get a hearing.

Plaza where stumbling stones were installed. Image provided by the author

Public memorials to the victims of the Holocaust, like the stumbling stones[13]embedded in the sidewalks, are all over Berlin today. For more than twenty years, the artist Gunter Demnig has been installing 10cm by 10cm markers—each a testament to an individual’s story and a reminder of the responsibility we all bear for the world we create—usually in front of the last voluntary address of people the Nazis persecuted. Each stone names a person, the year of their birth, the day they were taken, where they were sent, and what happened to them. I always stopped to read the stumbling stones I passed, a small act of bearing witness, and I noticed that many included Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp within walking distance from the last stop on an S-bahn line that goes through the heart of the city, where SS leaders met monthly to assess their evil progress. In April, Demnig installed the first five stones commemorating homeless men who were sent to their death at Sachsenhausen. With Ethical Loneliness on my mind, I went to see these stones, which sit in front of what was once a cheap restaurant where homeless Berliners often ate, and then to Sachsenhausen to pay my respects.

There’s a wooded area with memorials near the entrance to the camp. Green speakers sit close to the ground, excerpts from interviews with survivors looping over and over. I sat and listened for a long time and eventually recorded a man’s story about the death march[14]out of Sachsenhausen in April 1945. The audio tour includes other stories from survivors as well. Each is particular, specific. One survivor answers an imagined skeptic—“Was it really so bad?”—with something like, “It was a thousand times worse than I can say.” Stauffer wonders if Améry would feel that Germany has made a sufficient public reckoning with its past. I wonder, too, if the people who survived Sachsenhausen and whose stories are now part of the memorial there felt truly listened to. But their stories at least demand a hearing.

While the main building of the Stasi headquarters (shown here) in Berlin is now a museum, part of the enormous complex is being used as temporary housing for refugees. Image provided by the author

Berlin isn’t doing well when it comes to reckoning with the mass harm that East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, perpetrated for forty years. With its vast apparatus, the Stasi, as the writer Anna Funder points out, easily “ruined the lives of anyone it chose: men, women, teenagers, children.”[15] When the Wall fell in 1989, Germany reunified without holding many people to account. “Almost all the high-level functionaries,” writes Funder, “retained their positions and their pension rights and are now much better off than their former victims.”[16] At Berlin-Hohenschönhausen,[17] East Germany’s main prison for political prisoners, former prisoners now lead tours and describe their own experiences. And victims and former Stasi tell their stories in Funder’s Stasiland,[18] a book that beautifully illustrates the power of listening in trying to understand a place and the experience of its people. Beyond that, survivors have had very little chance to tell their stories. I spent six weeks in Berlin, most of it in the former East, and while the East German aesthetic—from the monumental, Soviet-style buildings that line Karl-Marx-Allee to the ubiquitous plattenbau buildings—is still an important part of the city’s streetscape, I didn’t see a single marker that suggests a public reckoning with the fact that the East German government, with the Stasi doing the dirty work, literally tormented its people. By law, Germans have access to the Stasi files[19] that relate to them so that they “can then clarify what influence the Stasi had on their destiny.”[20] People can find out what the government really did to them, but there has been no forum where they can tell their stories of what those actions meant for them. This is ethical loneliness: perpetrators moving unscathed and unrepentant through society, survivors alongside them, quietly carrying the weight of their experience.

With the fate of nearly one million refugees seeking asylum in Germany at stake right now, the question of listening to survivors is not just a matter of the past in Berlin. For refugees, the right to stay comes down to how a government interviewer hears their answers to interview questions[21] about the persecution and abuse they faced in their homeland and to how the interviewer decides whose story counts. I went to the Stasi Museum[22] in the former Stasi headquarters one day and discovered on my way that part of the enormous complex is being used as temporary housing for refugees—survivors of mass harm living in what was the nerve center of a perpetrator of mass harm. Is this a metaphor for the risk refugees face or a sign of just deserts? Berlin has the chance to get it right this time and to give some of today’s most vulnerable survivors of mass harm the just hearing they deserve. How well the refugees’ stories will be heard remains an open question. In September, Germany’s far-Right, anti-immigrant party, Alternative for Germany, won its first seats in Berlin’s city-state legislature.

Ethical Loneliness was my constant companion in Berlin, as I contemplated Stauffer’s cautionary tale of listening gone awry, and the profound argument she makes about human interdependence, the responsibility we all share for the world we build and whom in it we keep safe.

But I didn’t need to go to Berlin to find relevance in her work. In fact, I haven’t been able to shake it now that I’m home in New York. We have our own mass harm to grapple with in America. The U.N. Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent noted in a recent report that “The colonial history, the legacy of enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the U.S. remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent.”[23] What is the growing call for reparations[24] if not a call for a just hearing for African Americans and a full reckoning with the history of enslavement and its aftermath? As Stauffer shows, efforts at truth and reconciliation, and repair itself, must at least begin with genuine listening to survivors’ stories. If we’re committed to justice, this is where we have to start—now.

[1] Jill Stauffer, Ethical Loneliness: The Injustice of Not Being Heard (New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 2015). For a more thorough introduction to Stauffer’s thesis, read this interview with her and watch this lecture she gave at Bard College: “Columbia University Press » Blog Archive » Interview with Jill Stauffer, Author of Ethical Loneliness,”; “Jill Stauffer Lecture,” Vimeo,
[2] Dori Laub, “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening,” in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (Routledge, 1992), 68.
[3] Stauffer, Ethical Loneliness, 111.
[4] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak? (Abbreviated by the Author),” in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, 2nd edition (London; New York: Routledge, 2006), 28–37.
[5] Stauffer, Ethical Loneliness, 67.
[6] Ibid., 64.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Alessandro Portelli, “Research as an Experiment in Equality,” in The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1991), 31. Italics in original.
[9] Alessandro Portelli, “Trying to Gather a Little Knowledge: Some Thoughts on the Ethics of Oral History,” in The Battle of Valle Guilia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), 60.
[10] Stauffer, Ethical Loneliness, 111.
[11] Alessandro Portelli, “Oral History as Genre,” in The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), 9.
[12] Stauffer, Ethical Loneliness, 165.
[13] “Stolpersteine – English Version,” accessed August 26, 2016,
[14] Edited from an audio installation at the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum and included here with the museum’s permission:
[15] Anna Funder, “Why Germany Can’t Get over the Wall,” The Times, November 3, 2009,
[16] Ibid.
[17] “Gedenkstatte Berlin-Hohenschonhausen,” accessed September 6, 2016,
[18] Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (London: Granta, 2003).
[19] “Tasks of the BStU (Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Services of the Former German Democratic Republic),” accessed September 6, 2016,
[20] Ibid.
[21] “The Interview: A Key Part of the Asylum Procedure” (Informationsverbund Asyl & Migration, Edition 2015),
[22] “Stasimuseum Berlin in Der Zentrale Des MfS,” accessed September 6, 2016,
[23] “Statement to the Media by the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, on the Conclusion of Its Official Visit to USA, 19-29 January 2016,” accessed September 6, 2016,
[24] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014,

LEYLA VURAL is an oral historian, writer, and editor in New York City. She has worked in communications for social change for more than 20 years and founded LV Communications to help organizations and people document and share their stories.