Not many people do a work placement for their Year Abroad, I think it’s mostly because it requires more effort to find one than applying to uni or British Council. I was being quite picky: Berlin and preferably not a translation company. So not only did it have to fulfil the uni’s fairly strict requirements, I limited myself too.
Despite googling for too many hours, I didn’t find much so got desperate and asked everyone I knew who had any kind of connection to Germany. There were a few leads and help really does come from where you least expect it, but in the end it was emailing my boyfriend’s seminar tutor that led to success. My boyfriend had mentioned his seminar tutor, who was German, a few times and then that class was postponed as the he was going to Berlin. My ears pricked up and I searched him to discover that he’d studied in Berlin. Off I went to compose an email that may have had a slight whiff of desperation… To be honest, I wasn’t entirely expecting him to respond, let alone have contacts but he quickly replied and I had a meeting with him. He really went above and beyond anything I could have wished for and talked to everyone he knew in fairly major organisations. In the end, the opportunity with Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) is what suited me best and I could even choose when I started. As much as I hate it to be true, contacts do get you further in life.
A fairly unconventional route, but I’d been looking for something in that sector so it couldn’t have gone much better really. I didn’t get paid that much but with Erasmus funding it worked out OK, plus my work was really flexible with hours which allowed me to travel quite a lot.
I mainly worked in the archive: transcribing interviews with Holocaust survivors, writing introductions and overviews, indexing the interviews and creating timelines. Sounds easier than it was, trust me. It was interesting though and I gained a completely new perspective of the Holocaust as these interviews were with people in Ukraine who were forced into hiding to avoid the mass shootings. Personal anecdotes means you can appreciate the situation better than reading cold hard facts.
I was also proofreading and correcting some translations of the foundation’s publications. It was done on a hard copy of the transcript so one day they even let me do it outside! My workplace was round the corner from the Reichstag (German parliament) so I went to the grass in front of it and corrected transcripts in the sun. That was one of those moments where I felt especially lucky to be on a Year Abroad. Also, I went on a few trips to museums and exhibitions too, seeing the different projects that the foundation was involved in. I even met Hungarian Holocaust survivor Lajos Erdélyi at the publication launch of his memoirs into German in the Hungarian Embassy and he signed my copy to his “first Irish reader.” Being there was an incredible experience.
One day I also got the exciting bit of news that my name was going to be published in the inside page of a book I’d proofread and helped with small translation changes! Not massively significant but still pretty cool. I got the first print the other day and it was bizarre to see my name in there. It’s Regina Steinitz’s story of growing up in a Jewish children’s home and surviving the Holocaust in Berlin. What made it even more interesting was that I recognised most of the street names she mentioned because they were either around my workplace or my flat.
My colleagues were mostly really nice. The boss always waved enthusiastically to me each morning and used the informal ‘you’ that I even said “hey” to him one morning. Something I instantly cringed at but he seemed to think nothing of. It was interesting how casual everyone dressed and that apart from two older women, everyone used the informal ‘you’ with each other. I definitely overdressed on my first day!
One major drawback of my placement was that there were only two others my age so it was difficult to build much of a social life there. The others mostly had families and there weren’t any after work drinks or anything either, although we did go bowling a few times.
Despite some frustrations throughout the year, I enjoyed my placement. This was mostly due to my colleagues being lovely, some of them I actually miss seeing everyday, but also because I learned and experienced a lot. It was much more relevant to my career goals than teaching with British Council would’ve been and it helped me explore other career paths I hadn’t thought of either too. My recommendation is to start your search early, meet with the department’s placement supervisor so you know exactly what the regulations are and not give up hope too quickly.
Perseverance and luck are key.