kindness of strangers

Department of Honour

Department of Honour
Written by Cathoel Jorss,

I just acquired the most beautiful new German word. We are discussing privilege and a new acquaintance says he has to do something ehrenamtlich – oh, how divine, can ‘ehrenamtlich’ mean ‘voluntary’? An ‘Amt’ is a bureau, government department or office. But ‘Ehre’ means honour.

Germany is overrun with Amts. Ordinarily they sound faintly menacing: the Ordnungsamt, Department of Order, takes care of ticketing people’s unlicensed dogs, illegal parking &c: a histrionic graffito in the local drug park screeches, in orange, Ordungsamt = Terror!!. Online I find a website called Ehrenamt Deutschland, which offers a definition: honourable offices can be anything which is performed “freiwillig, gemeinwohlorientiert und unentgeltlich,” that is, anything that is pursued of one’s own free will, is oriented towards the common good, and is unpaid. The formality makes it sound almost stultifying but there is all this generosity and warmth beating away underneath.

As Australia turns itself into a vast gulag for imprisoning children, and other countries up and down the escape corridor into Europe close and razor wire their borders, Berliners are opening refugee cafes, holding garage sales and donating food, organising ‘Asylum Seeker Airbnb’ to help match people’s spare rooms with exhausted new arrivals. I find it so moving to think that by teaching German once a week in the giant refugee camp that was once the old Tempelhof airport, this Berliner becomes part of the Department of Honour.

17 comments on “Department of Honour

  1. Cathoelamt!

    Rhyll McMaster April 26, 2016 at 5:16 am
  2. Fine piece!

    Stephen Cole April 26, 2016 at 12:36 pm
  3. A language which can scoop life’s complexities into single words? Yes!

    Alison Lambert May 2, 2016 at 1:24 pm
  4. What a lovely way to put it, Alison, you have opened my eyes. So thank you for the Augeneröffnungsgrosszügigkeit.

    Cathoel Jorss May 3, 2016 at 12:19 pm
  5. I think you do a fantastic job of capturing Berlin, Cathoel — your posts were so nourishing during the winter for me, and continue to be, as a writer from far away finding my way here, and finding my way into a difficult project. Thank you ❤️

    Hinemoana May 9, 2016 at 2:23 pm

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