U professor watched as Germany reunified

  • Article by: BEN COHEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 10, 2007 - 9:09 PM

Cultural anthropologist Daphne Berdahl studied how common people coped as two countries became one.

As a child, Daphne Berdahl was troubled by the post-World War II division of Germany into two countries, and she grew up to become a cultural anthropologist and University of Minnesota professor.

Berdahl, who studied people in the former East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, died of breast cancer Oct. 5 at her St. Paul home. She was 43.

Berdahl, who was born to American parents in Germany and who later lived there as a sixth-grader, "saw the division between East and West, and was profoundly moved by it," said her husband, John Baldwin, of St. Paul.

In the early 1990s, Berdahl and her husband moved to the village of Kella, Germany, where she did the field work that resulted in her book "Where the World Ended: Re-Unification and Identity in the German Borderland."

During the Cold War, the Communist regime didn't allow maps showing Kella. Visitors needed a pass to go there.

Kella was "where the world ended," said her husband. "Our back yard was as close to the barbed-wire [border] as you could get."

Once there, Berdahl immersed herself in the culture of the village as the people there became citizens of a unified Germany.

She helped the men slaughter hogs. She painted silk with the women. And she joined in their clubs and social lives.

"Finding this common humanity and respect is what really defined her," said her husband.

Berdahl was among the first to note the nostalgia for the Communist past and the frustration with the new freedom, which was accompanied by less financial security.

Berdahl's observations of everyday life were sage, and they show European history being made when Germany reunified, said Matti Bunzl, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois.

In Kella, Berdahl watched confused shoppers as they suddenly were confronted with many choices at a new supermarket.

"She took a moment in front of a grocery shelf, and sees in that moment historical change," Bunzl said. "A new way of life is being born in that moment. She was one of the finest ethnographers our discipline has produced."

Anthropology's leading lights agree with Bunzl's assessment, said Gloria Raheja, a U of M anthropology professor. "She did just stunning work, one of the best contributions to post-socialist Europe that we have," Raheja said.

Raheja said Berdahl also worked hard to make the university's Anthropology Department better by encouraging a regular stream of anthropologists to visit the Twin Cities, and she promoted interdisciplinary scholarship.

Berdahl was adviser to Ph.D. candidate Lisa Anderson-Levy.

"I was struck with her ability to direct the class so that the students felt they were getting their own answers, but all under her direction," Anderson-Levy said.

Berdahl earned her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. After postdoctoral work at Harvard University, she joined the University of Minnesota in 1997. She won a Guggenheim fellowship this year.

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