Tuesday, 3 March 2009

(hi)story of my grandparents as guestworkers (part 1)

Italian Guest Workers in German Auto Factory, © Bettmann/CORBIS
Original caption: To fill the gap of labor shortage in West Germany, Italian "guest workers
" are hired by the Volkswagen Automobile Manufacturing Company in Wolfsburg. These young men working on the assembly line are among the 4,000 Italians who have arrived North of the Alps, seeking their fortunes in West Germany.

As I already wrote in my previous post my grandparents left in the late 60’s Yugoslavia, to work as ‘guestworkers’ in Germany. My grandfather had a job offer in a factory called Georg Grube, which was producing car parts for the booming car industry of the time. (image below, a photograph I took in 2007, the factory is still working, the tower is a leftover of the mining industry which operated in the same spot until 29th March 1965 ending 2500 years of mining in the area, source:wikipedia

My grandmother was 39 years old and my grandfather was 40. They contributed to the ‘economic miracle’ of the postwar Germany, and yet, they remained temporary, their lives marked with the highs of returning home during the holidays and lows upon returning to Germany. My grandmother said that every time they left home, they were subdued, quiet in the car, didn’t speak to each other for a few hours. Slowly the landscape would change and they would each have mourned and accepted the physical fact that they have now left and won’t be back until the next holiday. She said: “Kad ides kuci ides ko leptir, bez ikakvog umora. A kad idemo nazad nikako stici, nemas volje. / When you go home you go like a butterfly, but when we go back (to Germany) it seems as if we can never arrive, we have no will to arrive.”
I interviewed my grandparents over the past year about their experiences of being guest workers, here is an extract from our conversation (photograph of Marija i Vinko Kovacic, 2007):
“Teski su to dani bili, ostaviti djecu, jezika ne znas. Ja ucim iz rijecnika, a mislim sta mi djeca rade, kroz posao i kroz razgovor, moras nauciti. Mama zavrsila srednju skolu, ujko 5ti razred. Ostali sa bakom. A ja se nikad nisam od njih odvajala. Jezika ne znas, sve razumit moras, a ovamo razmisljas o njima. Zasto ih nisi povela sa sobom? Ne mogu djeca skole prekinuti.”

“Those were hard days, leaving children, and one doesn’t know the language. I was learning from a dictionary, while wondering what my children are doing at this present moment, but through work and conversation you learn the language, you have to. Your mother finished the secondary school, and your uncle was 12 years old when we left. They stayed with their grandmother. And I never was apart from them until then. You don’t know the language, but you have to understand everything, and at the same time you are thinking about your children. I asked why she didn’t take her children with her to Germany? She answered that they couldn’t stop their school.”
She added: “Svakome, ko god bude dosao u Njemacku bilo je tesko, dok se ne prekalis. Everybody who came to Germany had a difficult time, until they toughen up (prekaliti is a word referring to working on a steel or any hard material until it was melted and put into shape, but the word is also used metaphorically for life situations).”

Now, I don’t want to paint the picture of only suffering, surely on some level these migrations have been also a positive experiences of discovery, change, new possibilities. Zlatko Skrbis writes in ‘Transnational Families: Theorising Migration, Emotions and Belonging’ that ‘Migrant stories are linked with the experiences of adjustment, settlement, nostalgia, a shattered sense of belonging, renewal, loss, discrimination, abrupt endings, new beginnings and new opportunities - all potent sources of emotions.’
And Nenad Popovic in his essayistic book “Life in the Shadow – Zivot u Sjeni” writes that surely for some guest workers the anonymity of life in Germany was even thou a lonely experience, also a relief from certain social pressure (p. 51) but that also they “emigrated into privacy”, and one could add into invisibility.
Migration is of course an experience of a full spectrum of emotions, situated in the complex personal, cultural and political situation, and one should resist the temptation to see all guest workers as victims of higher economic goals as set by the grander political and administrative forces of their respective countries. At the same time, this particular predicament that nobody forced guest workers to migrate, carries within it a certain kind of collective guilt towards their country, even betrayal – on a specific political context and a relationship of the socialist government of Yugoslavia to the labor migrations, some of which started much earlier then the signed agreement in 1968 see Ivana Dobrivojevic essay ‘In quest of welfare – U potrazi za blagostanjem’. (I also aim to write more about the specific context of the Yugoslavian guest workers in the future post).

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