Between 2000 and 2007, a Neo-Nazi terrorist cell murdered ten people across Germany. Even though eight of the victims were Turkish immigrants, the state didn’t initially consider the deaths to be racially motivated. It wasn’t until 2011, when two of the members staged a failed bank robbery, that the police forces connected the dots: all of the crimes were the work of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a Neo-Nazi group.

With her recent book Flowers for Otello, German-Jewish author Esther Dischereit wanted to pay an homage to the victims of the NSU, who had been largely ignored in the public discussion that followed the assassinations. Dischereit presented her work, a combination of dialogue and poetry, at NYU’s Deutsches Haus last Thursday.

Beate Zschäpe, one of three founding members of the NSU, was given a life sentence in July of 2018. The other two, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, were found dead following the failed bank robbery, in what some believed to be a suicide pact. The trial lasted for five years — one of the longest since after World War II — and included the testimonies of 600 witnesses. Along with Zschäpe, four other individuals were convicted as accomplices in the murders.

While the prosecutors maintained that Zschäpe, Böhnhardt and Mundlos held full responsibility for the murders and multiple bank robberies, others question how these crimes could have been carried out by only three people. Dischereit herself argues that the three perpetrators must have been part of a far larger network, and that both the state and the secret service failed to investigate it fully. Recently, German-Turkish defense lawyer Seda Basay-Yildiz, who represented a victims’ family members in the NSU trial, received a threatening message signed “NSU 2.0.”

Flowers for Otello is written in both German and Turkish. The book begins with a series of poems called “Lamentations” that describe everyday occurrences like shopping at a store or being annoyed by a sibling, all of which acquire new meanings in the aftermath of trauma. The second section is a libretto between Otello, the moorish general who gave his name to the Shakespeare play, and Enver Şimşek, the first victim of NSU. Their dialogue takes place in the underworld.

In creating a dialogue between Otello and Simsek, Dischereit wanted to address two central issues surrounding the murders: race and class. Most NSU victims, she noted, were poor immigrants. Dischereit said that she wanted to place Simsek, a flower-seller, and Otello, a high-ranking general, on equal footing. She also believed that the character of Otello provided a way to discuss racist feelings toward the Turkish population in Germany.

For nearly two years, Dischereit attended meetings at the German Bundestag, Berlin’s federal parliament, which were re-examining the evidence surrounding the murders. About three times a week she attended sessions that lasted up to 14 to 16 hours. Afterwards, she said, “I went home and took a shower. I needed to rinse it out.” During that period, she also spoke with lawyers who brought the victims’ cases forward, and traveled to the cities where the murders took place. Although she said the Turkish community supported her work, she did not speak to the victims’ families until after the book was released.

Dischereit initially did not want to speak with victims’ families out of fear of reopening their trauma. At NYU, she insisted that she doesn’t see herself as “the voice of the victims.”

“This is nonsense,” she said, pointing out that the victims did not ask her to speak for them. However, Dischereit said that Germany’s failure to protect these individuals was “something we needed to mourn over;” her aim in writing Flowers for Otello was “to have lamentations in the public sphere.” When the finished work was first aired over the radio, Dischereit insisted that all the German radio stations air the piece at the same time, in a “symbolic act.” In spoken word performances, the poems and dialogue are read as shifting between German and Turkish.

This is part of Dischereit’s desire to shift the focus from the crimes themselves to those who suffered. After the crimes first came to light, the media produced what she called “an overdose of perpetrators” which included very little information about the victims. She said that, through her writing, she wanted to remind people that these individuals were neighbors, people they knew and saw in their everyday lives.

The work ends with a poetic listing of the victims, which includes their professions, the number of children they had and their ages. The list is designed to be a dialogue between two individuals. Placing an emphasis on the importance of remembering, it ends with the following exchange: “Do you really have to list all the names?” “Yes, I am going to cite all the names.” The book also includes a list of NSU crimes, and an appendix of information that Dischereit used while composing the dialogue.

“We are used to thinking of monuments in stones or in plaques,” said Dischereit, holding up a copy of the book, “but this could also be one.”

Emilia Otte is pursuing a MA in European and Mediterranean Studies at NYU. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a degree in English and a minor in Italian Studies. This piece was originally published by New York Transatlantic

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