Sunday, 22 March 2009

Piecing (hi)stories...

Time is flying by too quickly, and capturing the past moments, stories, numerous conversations already seems like trying to catch a fish with bare hands: the past is slippery, memory unreliable, and yet what I am trying to catch is the very thing of the past, and memory.
Time: 1968 – 1973. Place: Berlin.
At the same time, I am surprised by the details of some of the things I’m being told by the women who came as ‘guestworkers’ from Yugoslavia.

On the life in the dorms, to which they were assigned upon their arrival in Berlin they said: “There was a woman selling pots and pans right outside our Haim” (short for German Whonheim meaning the dorm). “The women who were more free, less restrained, they went out, and they were the ones that got married”. “The women would cut their pleated long hair, and became more city like. They would wear short skirts and dangle their legs over the window fence, while outside a group of men would gather.” “There were seven of us in a room with only a small cupboard between the bed, and a table with four chairs.” “The room cost 70 DM (Deutche Marks) and I received 500DM after the taxes, so it was quite a lot to give just for the room”. “My mother had to hide my brother as he was not allowed in the dorm, but soon after we got a flat and the whole family could live together.” “I was the youngest in the dorm, so the older women would make me drink 10 egg-liquors before I went out”.

*the only image I have so far from the guestworker dorms is this one, and the image in the below blog post, all are from the exhibition catalogue "The journey - Yugoslavian women in Berlin", 1987. Note Tito picture, and more difficult to see is the AEG Telefunken's Mister Hit gramophone.

Each company which employed ‘guestworkers’ would recruit them in their country of origin, so for example they would advertise on the local radio stations, or a word would simply spread around, that ‘the Germans were looking for workers’ and people would register. They then had to go through the medical check up and several woman said that they took the healthy and the young ones. Majority of the women I spoke to so far, had come when they were 18, 19 years old. “They checked if the palms were sweaty”, one woman said, “and we kept washing our hands so they don’t look sweaty, because this company was making watches so your hands had to be dry.” They checked information about the family, and speaking a bit of German was desirable. After the check up, the travel was arranged and the new workers traveled together, in one case one bus of men and one bus of women left the place (and these are small towns or villages, which makes me wonder what the ongoing effect of this mass migration might have been and still is…) And pretty much everybody told me that they thought they will go for one year, nobody thought they would stay very long. One year was the length of the contract and after that period they could change their jobs, or go back. If they decided to change jobs before one year expired, they had to return the travel expenses, as the companies paid for their journey to Germany. Also, the companies hired the dorms, and took the money for them from the wages. For many, living in the dorm, was a bearable solution, as they wanted to spend as little as possible, in order to save money, send money home, and as the time went by, to build a house, buy a car, and so on…the list grew, and so did the time…it flew by too fast…

*image released by AEG celebrating 75 years of the Ausbildungswesen 'on the job training', in September 1988. (Kreuzberg Museum archive)

*front cover of the publication "Heimat in der Fremde" - "Home in Exile" (my translation), October 1980, also image below from the same catalogue.(Kreuzberg Museum archive)

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