Category Archives: Letter from abroad

Guest Author: Esther Dischereit: Correspondence between friends: USA/Germany. On the Situation of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Guest Author
Esther Dischereit

Correspondence between friends: USA/Germany

On the Situation of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine


Translated from the German by Kizer Walker

I send my friend that video, the one in which Vasilyevna Petrovskaya speaks. She is the mother of Russian-German writer Katja Petrovskaya, who wrote the book Vielleicht Esther [Maybe Esther, translated by Shelley Frisch, ] in 2014. A woman whose white hair moves a little in the breeze outside, where she has leaned her walking stick against a stone wall. Vielleicht Esther concerns the buried story of “Babushka,” her father’s mother who, in 1941, stayed behind in Kyiv alone, in the apartment that all the other members of the family had fled. She spoke Yiddish—a broken family mosaic.

My friend has seen the video. She and her kids listened to Petrovskaya say that, as a history teacher and a laureate of the Order of the Smile, she has the right to speak. In particular, she speaks to her colleagues, to Russian historians, to Russian women. She addresses all age groups and all nationalities. She appeals to the responsibility of historians to contribute to enlightenment. And she says that Russian troops have come to destroy, come to destroy freedom and to destroy the fact that Ukrainians have built independence and democracy. And then she says: “We have a lot of problems, but we will solve them ourselves. We do not need Russian troops here.” (

My friend writes:

Vasilyevna Petrovskaya’s message—and her messaging—are amazing. I hope her words somehow land where intended. It’s been a complicated set of emotions for me (mostly anger and upset) since this war began. It’s hard to think about anything else. Most of my reaction is to the simple facts on the ground right now—what that violent madman Putin is doing, and the mass suffering going on. 

But history is also swirling around in my head, inflected by family history. We’re 100% from Ukraine (of course things did not end well for any family members that did not emigrate—those who survived the pogroms did not survive the Nazis and collaborators among the Ukrainians). It’s incredible, the democratic society Ukrainians have been in the process of building, after such terrible historical chapters… and now this destruction. Who knows if there will be any possibility to rebuild.

And then the role of oil and gas in Putin’s war machine. Have you seen some of the public letters about that? The organization I work for signed this one:

I was up all night during the takeover of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. Supposedly the Russians are on their way to a 3rd nuclear site now. 

I write:

Today again Bebelplatz in Berlin—demonstrating—incoming refugees at central train station and central bus station…

it looks like Putin is repeating the Grosny action—and Mr Bennett obviously is familiar with such a kind of war as well, looking at the Gaza war. I have no idea. It looks like whenever anyone owns a weapon, a rocket, whatever: it will be used.

For a moment I thought of the peaceful resistance concept, but how can you show your peacefulness to drones and rockets… they reach the target although the soldier is drinking coffee at the time. I nearly do not dare to talk to Ukrainian and Kazakh friends or Belarussian friends—I have in fact nothing to say. I know, I see, I watch, I see them dying, I see them being incarcerated, I admire them, we admire them and they disappear—they might come back as ghosts in forty years. Where are the voices of religious leaders —— I have nothing to say. I thought of Prague in 1968. I thought of Berlin in 1953. I thought of the Hungarian uprising. All these people were betrayed in the end, left alone and by themselves, ready for the years in prison. Some prominent figures were brought outside the country by diplomatic means —— most of them remained. Or: 40 million would go to exile, leaving an empty bucket which was once their country. Who owns what – who owns me – who owned me —— the Ukrainians already had been the poor, working in the EU, in Poland and elsewhere. If wheat and corn supplies become short, the African continent also will have another period of hunger. And I might go tomorrow when my neck pain gets less, will go to the central bus station and offer some tea to the tired Polish bus drivers.

My friend writes:

Even considering my very different vantage point (not being in Europe, not being involved in the things you are involved in, not knowing the people you know), you have captured so many of my thoughts of the past week: the way I found myself questioning the role nonviolent resistance could play (though I see the fantastic images of unarmed residents standing down Russian troops in some towns, the brilliantly altered road signs to confuse the invaders), anger with Israel (its own violence, plus its hosting of Roman Abramovich, plus the questionable relationship with Putin), the missing voices of religious leaders, the fate of the wheat and barley crops, and the sad prospect of the “empty bucket,” which will also be a vastly contaminated and horrible graveyard. 

On the drones, I read a remarkable book a couple years ago by Catherine Taylor. Her brother was a drone operator (drinking his coffee…): You, Me, and the Violence, “a book on drones, power, and feelings of powerlessness.” (



P.S.: A fascinating thing is going on here: Of the many American Jews that descended from the millions of immigrants from the Pale of Settlement (much of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, east-central Poland) some don’t really know what it was all about, and how it relates to their own (ethnic? national?) identity. (“Wait, am I actually Ukrainian?!”) The war seems to be releasing an impulse to figure this out. A kind of reckoning is going on. (And we’re not alone: a non-Jewish Ukrainian-American friend I’ve known for a decade took the time during her wartime distress to spontaneously apologize to me for the crimes of those Ukrainians who were on the wrong side of history in the 19thand 20th centuries.) What I’ve been seeing over these past couple of weeks, as this horrific onslaught is going on, are American Jews, with our difficult roots in the Pale, coming forward with an outpouring of solidarity with contemporary Ukrainians and the society they’ve tried to build.

I write:

ZOB Berlin – the central bus station – the group of Polish-speaking volunteers have signed in for the night. Right away they are talking with the bus drivers. Chocolate, stuffed toys, SIM cards – someone comes with a box of fancy soaps in hand and wants to donate them. Inside, in the tiny waiting room: an eleven-year-old boy kneels on a small play mat and gathers up matching Lego pieces, next to him boxes with personal hygiene items and a clothes rack with warm things … In Frankfurt am Main, a woman who has been in transit with her two-year-old for the past six days say she hopes her husband can follow – in a couple of months, she says, then she says in a year. I say nothing.



The Global Suburb (A letter from Salzburg, Oct. 19, 1998)

[NOTE: When I was directing Bowling Green State University’s study-abroad program in Salzburg, Austria, in 1998-99, I wrote a series of letters to the faculty list back at BGSU. I got wonderful responses, so I kept writing them! This one, from October, 1998, reflects on how Austrian and German culture have absorbed and adapted American culture, including borrowing words, especially from popular culture, business, and high tech.

I wouldn’t come to all the same conclusions today.  A lot has changed in twenty years – for example, Netflix is making many series produced abroad available to American audiences – and a lot sounds quaint and out of date, but a lot has stayed the same or continued to develop in the directions described.]


The Global Suburb

Last week I bought some potato chips–“Chips” in German–with the brand name “Funny-frisch.” “Frisch” means “fresh,” and Germans seem to think that “funny” is the adjectival form of “fun,” so this probably means “fun-fresh,” not “humorous-fresh”.  The product and the name have the aura of America, where both the snack (German “Snack”) and the idea of eating for fun come from. Countless such borrowings show the pervasive influence of American and international culture in Germany and Austria, especially in business, popular culture, and high technology.


Many a German “Manager” hopes that his “Management” has the “Know-how” to provide the “Level” of “Service” required to avoid a “Flop.” Whether his “Business” involves “Leasing” or “Investment” in “Blue chips” (not to be confused with “Microchips” or “Funny-frisch Chips”), he will probably want to provide his customers with either a “Hotline” or “online internet business” opportunities–in short, “E-Business.”

The “Kids” in Central Europe are hip to “Hip-Hop” and “Rap-Musik,” of course, if they’re “cool.” If they watch “TV” they probably avoid “Gameshows” and “Talkshows”–the realm of the uncool–and prefer “Videoclips” on MTV.

One cable station fills the dead hours after midnight with uncommented footage of various “Raves,” especially last spring’s “Love Parade” in Berlin, a huge demonstration of resolute pleasure-seeking, a sort of urban Woodstock without illusions. The Love Parade’s motto, “One World One Future,” displayed in English on banners in mid-Berlin, is not unconvincing, even if global unity is being ushered in not by abstractions about peace, love, and understanding, but by CDs, McDonald’s, Gatorade, CNN, and the Internet. To paraphrase Brecht, “Fast Food,” then ethics. To be sure, the global suburb is peopled by the propertied: “Consumers of the world, unite!”


I haven’t checked to see whether the “Love Parade” has its own “Homepage,” but it wouldn’t take too much “Surfen” on the “Web” to find out. Whether with a “Notebook” or a “Desktop,” many Germans and Austrians are connected to the “Internet.” As might be expected, being “online” means being hooked up to a flow of American English terms like “Software,” “Hardware,” “Bytes,” “E-mail” and “Internet Service Provider.” You can check (“checken”) all this out by going to “Yahoo Deutschland” or one of the other German search engines. “Heute schon yahoot?” (Did you yahoo yet today?)

Even before the “Computer” became the conduit for the English language and American ways of life, the movies, television, and pop music were transplanting names, images, and words from California and New York to Frankfurt and Linz. American “Stars” are as well-known here as in the US. As the movie audience nibbles its “Popcorn” at the “Cineplexx” in Salzburg this week it can see “The Mask of Zorro,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Dr. Dolittle” with Eddie Murphy, “The Horse Whisperer,” “Lost in Space,” “Mafia,” “Armageddon,” “Godzilla,” and “Out of Sight.”


While I think it’s patronizing snobism to want to save the poor Austrians from such flagrant cultural imperialism–why shouldn’t they see the movies we watch?–it is too bad that most Americans will never see the other films in Salzburg this week–the cabaret film “Hinterholz 8,” or Niki List’s homegrown Austrian spoof “Heroes in Tyrol,” or “Lola rennt” (“Run Lola Run”), or the film version of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach’s novella “Krambambuli,” showing at the Mozart-Kino downtown. Too often we Americans do not benefit at all from the internationalism our culture has unleashed.

On television (public, cable, or satellite) this week you can enjoy the following American fare: “Full House,” “Mad About You,” “Baywatch,” “Star Trek Voyager,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “ER,” “The Simpsons,” “Alf” (remember “Alf”?–the Germans have never forgotten him), “Seinfeld,” “The Cosby Show,” “Married with Children,” “The Rockford Files,” “Friends,” “Suddenly Susan,” and “Who’s the Boss?”, to say nothing of the Hollywood movies, dubbed into German, but often with the original English titles (“Free Willy,” “Born to Be Wild,” “Bad Girls,” “Destiny,” “Tank Girl,” “Tin Men,” “Extremities,” and “Bananas.”)


But how many Americans are aware that after 24 years, the venerable police drama “Derrick” with its popular star Horst Tappert ran its last episode this past week? It’s too bad–although they’re importing “Homicide ” and “Law and Order,” Germans and Austrians have long been creating cop shows of the same caliber (I happen to like the genre). But who in the US has ever seen “Derrick,” or “Scene of the Crime,” or “Kottan on the Case,” or “Kommissar Rex,” or any of the other good shows that are filmed on the streets of Munich, Berlin, or Vienna?

“Derrick” is seen in Japan, the Netherlands, France, Israel, in 100 countries, but not in the United States. Is it stupidity or arrogance that makes US producers think that foreign fare won’t play? (Maybe that’s the same thing.) A TV special marking the end of this era is called “Goodbye, Derrick.” Not “Auf Wiedersehen, Derrick,” but a farewell in the language of Edgar Wallace and Hollywood. This is not just faddish; it shows a certain sensitivity to the cultural position of a German television police drama: we’ve borrowed from America, but made it our own.


There are many exceptions, but all in all Europeans are enriched by their knowledge of American culture. They learn English, and they’re globally oriented in a way that Americans simply are not, even though the means of global understanding through business, music, film, TV, and computers were largely developed in the US. Paradoxically, instead of using technology to bring the world to us, we use it to tell us our own stories to ourselves, over and over again.

You may protest that CNN and CSPAN bring the world to us, and indeed they are better than nothing. But while I can watch CNN here in Austria, I can also watch German news, Austrian news, and French news, and I could watch Italian news too if I could understand Italian.

While I can hear Madonna and the Beastie Boys, I can also hear Such a Surge and Rainhard Fendrich. While I can see “Der Soldat James Ryan,” I can also see “Solo fuer Klarinette” (Solo for Clarinet), a current German movie drawing much attention. American culture is available, even dominant, but not exclusive.

Granted, some broadcasters like RTL in Germany have succeeded in importing or imitating the worst of American TV. The “Talkshow” is now a fixture on German cable and satellite (still the only forms of purely commerical TV in Germany and Austria), and it is just as tasteless as at home. “The Wildest Police Chases in the World” is probably not the best ambassador of America. On the other hand, at least its viewers know that America exists, that it has big cars, wide roads, and desperately stupid drivers. They have seen it. What have Americans seen of Germany on television or in the movies? Not much.

So, even though a group of lexicographers in Germany called last week for contributions to translating English borrowings into “real” German, I am not concerned about Americanism ruining German and Austrian culture. Germanic tribes learned to make wine from the Romans, Caribbean islanders turned oil company junk into steel drums, South Africans claimed the electric guitar as their own, and British guys like Van Morrison and Eric Clapton turned Black American music into something that Black Americans like to listen to too: cultural clashes and exchanges have always been productive as well as destructive.

The Germans and Austrians, I trust, are smart enough to know which parts of American culture they want and which ones they have no use for. The “leveling” of culture is as much the triumph of the petit bourgeois (culturally dominant in the US) as it is an Americanization.

To throw out popular culture and its language because it is not German enough, or not “authentic” (whatever that might be), or not sophisticated, would not only be arrogant, it would be as foolish as if we threw out diplomacy and its language because it is French. Any attache worth her dossier seeks detente and rapprochement with as much finesse and elan as she can muster, without worrying about French cultural imperialism.

Besides, American culture is transformed when it is adopted. This dialectic is reflected in strange ways. David Hasselhoff is known in Germany not only as the star of “Baywatch,” but also as a singer. A singer? Something in the German taste (or lack of it–Germans invented kitsch, after all) can stomach this idea even if this American export never made it as a crooner in the US.


The live event of the year, with David Hasselhoff. 

The dialectic is also reflected in the language, in the form of words and phrases that are English but not English at the same time, that somehow convey international panache (that pesky French again), but are puzzling to native speakers. “Happy ending” has become “Happy End” in German. An emcee is a “Showmaster.” Clearly English, but clearly not a word we use. And the now-ubiquitous cell phone is known here as a “Handy.” An English word, but who in Cleveland or Liverpool would know what you’re talking about?

And so English, mostly American English, pours in more and more. Commercials revel in it. Business pages cannot get by without “Joint Ventures” and “Crossrates.” “Singles” and “Teenager” buy “Singles” and “CDs,” the “Chartbreakers” they hear on “Melody FM” during “Drivetime.” Sheryl Crow is as big as she is in the US, and so are “Boygroups” like the Backstreet Boys.

But where is the reverse flow? Every German fan of Hip-Hop knows who Busta Rhymes is, but how many Americans get to hear Moses P., a German purveyor of fine rap? Granted, the heavy-metal group “Rammstein” (a pun on the name of a NATO air base) has had German-language hits recently in the US, but this is the exception that proves the rule. The last spate of German music on US radio was over 15 years ago (Nena, Falco, Trio). This does not mean that German pop musicians stopped making music with German lyrics after 1983.

Maybe because so many cultures are within our borders, we don’t need to hear German rock or Italo-pop. Maybe because we do so well exporting our shows, we don’t have an economic need to import others’.

But the economic power of the Hollywood industry isn’t all that keeps foreigners out. There is a corresponding aesthetic, something about the products themselves that recycles our self-images and keeps us from seeing beyond them.

For Europeans and others around the world, American culture is a window, but for Americans it is a mirror. America send its images out to the world, and much of the world happily welcomes their casualness, their directness, their fun. Americans themselves, however, don’t follow those images across the planet. America sells but it doesn’t buy. It stays at home, busy at its transmitter, only it hasn’t turned on its receiver. America is everywhere and nowhere.