Friday, 13 March 2009

how did I arrive in the Flotten strasse

I interviewed a very interesting and inspiring woman, who came to Germany in 1968 from Croatia (at the time Yugoslavia) to work for the AEG Telefunken company, a radio and television company. She planned to stay and work for only a year in order to save money for the university, but as with so many ‘guestworkers’ her year has lasted a lot longer then intended. Bosiljka worked together with other women from Yugoslavia, producing Mister Hit gramophones. In the factory she was responsible for checking the gramophone needles, which were made of the diamonds and safire. She would spend all day intently looking and checking that there are no blemishes or faults with the diamonds. She told me of a reoccurring dream she kept having at the time, which was of a huge black hill, and everything was black, except the one dot, which was the diamond.

*image above - Mister Hit, AEG Telefunken, 1971

Having learnt German rather quickly, Bosiljka went to the University to study German language and literature in Berlin, but continued working closely with the guestworkers, assisting them with translations and advice.

Bosiljka told me that when she arrived in 1968, she and many other guestworker women lived in a dorm for women, which in the Second World War was used as a forced labour camp. This building, or rather a whole complex of buildings was in the Flotten Strasse, in the area of Berlin called Reinickendorf, in the northwest Berlin. She was showing me a photograph in the catalogue of the exhibition she organised in 1987 about the ‘guestworker’ women, titled ‘Der Weg – Jugoslawische Frauen in Berlin/The Journey - Yugoslavian women in Berlin’. In the photograph taken inside the dorm (which is shown below, a scan of the image from the catalogue) a woman is lying on a bed, with the metallic rim, and she is dressed in a shiny dress. Next to her are other beds, and it looks like it could be a hospital, but it is her festive clothing that suggest it is a different place (why is she holding a book, did she just come back from a dance, or going to the dance, or meeting someone special, or maybe she took the dress from the cupboard just for the photo...?). Bosiljka tells me that the beds they slept on, were the same beds, as from the hospital, which was there right after the war, when the labour camps were closed. (Were they the same beds as in the forced labour camp?)

She said: “We were the proud daughters of the partisans who fought against the Germans in the 2nd world war, and here we were, in Germany 23 years after the war. We all felt a sense of guilt that we were going to Germany and we saw so many traces of the World War II all around us, there was not a single building which didn’t have bullet holes from the bombardment, there were many older man without parts of their body, hands, eyes, legs; there were many older woman walking on their own, with their dogs on the leash. All of this has made us a lot more grounded, and made us realise that this is not what we saw in the partisan movies (films made in the socialistic Yugoslavia after the WW2) and that there are no SS soldiers. But, in our people there still stayed a need to prove themselves, to be better then the Germans, to serve as an honor to our partisans who have died in the battle. This led to that the Yugoslav guestworkers were the most recognised, but also that they have exhausted themselves through the hard work of proving they are better then the Germans and of course better then the Turks, as they were oppressing us for 400 years" (referring to the ottoman Empire, which occupied large parts of what was Yugoslavia from the 14th – early 20th century).

*images above: scan of the photograph from the catalogue, guestworker outside the Flotten strasse dorm, 1968; image below: Flotten strasse now (I tried to piece the images to work out where in the Flotten strasse was the dorm)

In an essay by Karolina Novinscak, titled ‘From ‘Yugoslav Gastarbeiter’ to ‘Diaspora-Croats’: Policies and Attitudes toward Emigration in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Republic of Croatia’ Novinscak gives the historical and the political context within which the policies of the Yugoslav government were shaped towards the labour migration from Yugoslavia at the time. She writes that “until 1962, the ruling Communist party under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito condemned labor migration as illegal. It was a point of honour for socialist policymakers to provide work in a society self-managed by the workers. In socialism, work was seen as a moral duty and being unemployed not only as a ‘moral scandal and personal shame’ but a criminal act. In the first decade after World war II, people who left SFR Yugoslavia for economic reasons were treated like enemies of the state.” (from the book Postwar Mediterranean Migration to Western Europe. Edited by Clelia Caruso, Jenny Pleinen, Lutz Raphael, 2008, p. 125-143.– with thanks to Monika Mattes for sending me the essay)
“A reassessment of the restrictive emigration policy actually occurred after several political and economic reforms in the 1950s that got Yugoslav nonalignment, the economic self-management and industrialization off the ground.”, writes Novinscak, “In socialist Yugoslavia this was the time of big changes. At the beginning of the 1960s, SFR Yugoslavia surprised the whole world again by opening its borders to unemployed citizens and legalizing migration to western industrial capitalist countries. It was the only socialist country to join the workers’ transfer from Southern to Western Europe and until the 1973 recruitment ban, Yugoslav manpower was highly requested in the West, especially by German employers.
In 2005 people from the former Yugoslavia formed the second largest foreign population in Germany, with 963 000 persons, most of them former labour migrants from the 1950s and 1960s."

“Labor migration from the former Yugoslavia to Germany wasn’t just based on adventurous individual decisions of young and unemployed people, but mostly consisted of an organised labor-force export, which was created in order to accomplish the economic interests of both the sending and the receiving state.” (p.130)

In our interview Bosiljka spoke of the guilt that many ‘guestworkers’ felt, a sense of a betrayal of the socialist dream, a sense of duty to be exemplary workers, to be the ambassadors of their country, the representatives. The guestworkers may have left their country but were only temporarily working abroad. The official title for the ‘guestworker’ was exactly that: ‘worker who is temporarily working abroad – radnik na privremenom radu u inostranstvu’, this official word was changed in the everyday speech into ‘gastarbajter’ taken from German ‘gastarbeiter’. Novinscak quotes a speech of an official to the crowd of labour migrants, taken from the documentary film “Special Trains” by Krsto Papic, which confirms the rhetoric at the time:
“I would like to greet you on the behalf of the Institute for Employment before you leave to work abroad. We are convinced that you all know that you are leaving for a foreign country and that, over there, each of you represents our country and that, by the behaviour of each of you, people will judge our country and nation.” (p.137)


  1. do you think the barracks/dormitories from the concentration camp era are still standing? i understand that those buildings were in the triangle formed by the s-bahn and kopenhagener str. i was up there last weekend looking for traces of where my grandmother had been during the war, in the concentration camp, but i only found factory buildings.

  2. Hi Agi,
    I only now saw your comment.
    I couldn't find the remains of the barracks from the concentration camp era - in their place are couple of newly (well, probably built in the 80s) built barracks housing couple of families (I think they were from Algeria), who were looking after that piece of land. The original buildings from the ww2 era are 28-42 Flotten st and closer to the site where the forced labourers - concentration camp prisoners were housed is no 59. The whole area behind 28-42 Flotten str and going along the Kopenhagener str has the buildings built in the 30s. I have some documents of the buildings with info which got from a local archive, if you are interested let me know. Email me - info[at]margaretakern[dot]com

  3. Hi Agi, just to add that I would be interested to hear more about your grandmother's experience of being at Flotten strasse.
    I found some texts about it, but it seems not much has been written about it, and yet it was a big Argus Motorenwerke factory. This post has references to books+texts, which may interest you: