Trauma, postmemory, and empathy

the migrant crisis and the German past in Jenny Erpenbeck's Gehen, ging, gegangen [Go, Went, Gone]

Brangwen Stone

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The novel Gehen, ging, gegangen [Go, Went, Gone] by the celebrated German writer Jenny Erpenbeck was published at the height of the European refugee crisis. The novel tells the tale of Richard, a retired Berlin classics professor, who becomes intrigued by the Oranienplatz refugee protest camp. He initially approaches the refugee crisis as a new research project, methodically searching for secondary literature, composing questionnaires and conducting interviews with asylum seekers, but eventually he begins to develop friendships with some of them. Throughout the novel, Richard, who fled from the approaching Red Army with his mother as a baby and then lived in the GDR until reunification, notices similarities between the traumatic experiences of the Oranienplatz protesters and the trauma in his personal history, German collective history, and ancient and medieval literature. This article focuses on trauma and empathy in Gehen, ging, gegangen, exploring how the parallels drawn between the varied fates of the asylum seekers and the stories of exile and displacement in the literary canon, and German historical experiences of displacement and loss of home, establish points of empathic connection between Richard and the refugees, and attempt to establish the same between the reader and the refugees.
Original languageEnglish
Article number88
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 11 Nov 2017

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2017. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • trauma
  • postmemory
  • empathy
  • German literature
  • refugee
  • Erpenbeck
  • Gehen, ging, gegangen
  • Go, Went, Gone

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