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Journey Into The Unknown "1983"

by Anton Bedoe Zollner
Translated by Diana Lambing

     Put yourself in the shoes of someone in his 50th year who suddenly finds himself on the street with a wife, two minors and a 75-year old mother, all their worldly goods in three suitcases, and five tickets into the unknown. In the suitcases are changes of underwear for several weeks and for each person a ‘best’ dress or suit; the tickets are valid for the journey from Temeschburg to Nuernberg and the only identity papers are the famous ‘brown passports’ which indicate that the holders are ‘stateless’. Each person also carries money on them - a hundred lei each! One is allowed to take that much!

      No, these people are not posing for Stefan Jaeger’s triptych, ‘The Immigration of the Swabians in the Banat’. Nor are they colonists from the Maria Theresia era, but they are 20th Century emigrants. In this country they are called ‘Aussiedler’ [emigrants], or at best ‘ethnic german Romanians’. But the life of suffering for this Banat-Swabian family has not yet reached the end here on the dark and empty streets of Temeschburg. There is still an act missing from this ‘play’ which could be titled ‘Swabian Export’. The final ‘act’ takes place during the night of 23rd / 24th November 1983 at the border station of Kurtitsch (official name: Curtici). Luggage check and, if necessary, a body search. “What’s that?”, “Why would you need that in Germany?”, “The export of these things is forbidden!” - these are the usual sorts of phrases you hear at customs.

      The adults of the family in question are called into the customs room with their three suitcases. “What have you got in there?” is the first question. “Everything that I’ve worked for in the last 30 years” is the answer. But that’s not good enough for the official and so the unpacking begins. As the customs officer finds almost nothing but underwear, he says, “But I’ve got to tax something!” Notice that interesting jargon is used here: one is spoken to in the familiar form [Du], but God help the ‘stateless’ person who would dream of answering back in the same manner! He then looks the family up and down and finally decides, “We’ll tax your wife’s new coat. Agreed?.” How can one answer when the ‘Orient Express’ is leaving the ‘Glorious Fatherland’ in a few hours? Of course one agrees and says, “Thank you very much! Please keep the change out of the 2,000 lei and here’s another 1,000 from me for a beer.” How can one not offer the extra 1,000 when the customs officer has just spotted the children, who have since been called into the room, are wearing gold earrings? One knows that children are not entitled, as adults are, to export the usual 10 grams of gold jewelry. So the ‘stateless’ person argues that if the children’s jewelry had been hanging from the adults’ ears, then they wouldn’t be breaking the export law. But the ‘goodhearted customs official’ doesn’t insist on the change of ownership and even refuses the ‘earned’ 1,000 lei - he only keeps  the ‘small’ change of 400 lei as pocket money instead. And so the payment of duty for the ‘stateless’ people is over and they are happy and relieved to have passed through customs so easily. But one suspects there are others who ‘pay duty’ who leave with tears in their eyes because they didn’t know the ropes.

      But the final ‘act’ still doesn’t seem to be over. An officer from the border troops comes up to the ‘stateless family’ and demands that the father follows him. They leave the station waiting room and the four female members of the family gradually grow restless, frightened and jittery. Nearly all their fellow countrymen who are in the waiting-room notice the incident. Naturally, everyone thinks something bad is about to happen again. When the man ‘abducted’ by the official eventually reappears, smiling, in the doorway, a sigh of relief comes from the family. The other people present soon return to their own thoughts.

      Nobody was allowed to know the subject of the conversation which had taken place outside, not even the family themselves. Everyone - even the children - knew that otherwise the border, which was now almost within reach, could be closed to them for ever. Actually, nothing unusual had happened in the isolated corner of the station. “Attention! Get your things ready for the boss! He’ll call you in a minute”, said the official. The person concerned knew exactly what this was all about. “Why should we waste the boss’s time? Here’s the 1,000 [lei] - please give it to the boss. Is that alright?”. There follows a handshake, as with former ‘comrades’ and with that the official duties relating to the ‘betrayed Fatherland’ are over for ever.

      Shortly afterwards the ‘Orient Express’ heading West arrives at the station. The platform is completely cleared, everyone has to go into the waiting-room, the doors are closed and guarded by an armed border guard. In the early morning hours of a cold November day an unusual activity now begins. In every wagon the roof recesses are opened, lit up and searched. Inside, the seats are dismantled and all niches checked. At the same time border guards search between the wheels and the floors of the wagons. And as if that wasn’t enough another official finally arrives with an Alsatian dog which sniffs through the whole train again.

      Only now, after the performance of these costly ‘important’ procedures is the transport of the ‘stateless export goods’ allowed. They can now queue for the last time and reclaim the duty paid suitcases. On the platform there is total silence as one listens to the clumsy calling of the German names. Only the ones called are allowed to board and that’s why everyone is afraid that they’ll miss their name. The lucky ‘stateless people’ are already in their seats on the train, but most of them still can’t believe that they will cross over the tantalizingly close border. Only when the blue, yellow and red flag is behind them does the open-plan wagon shudder into life. One even allows oneself to imagine a future in the motherland, even if none of these travelers knows what it looks like. The ‘Orient Express’ travels towards this unknown future with several dozen ‘stateless’ people through the dark morning of 24th November 1983.

The Arrival in the Motherland  (2)

      The ‘Orient Express’ had barely left Kurtitsch with its new ‘load’ of emigrants when it stopped again, but this didn’t worry the ‘special travelers’ any more. We were, thank God, already on Hungarian soil. But here the scene which had only just taken place in Kurtitsch began all over again. Everything was checked: the roof recesses, under the seats, between the wheels. This time, only our suitcases were spared. Already then, in 1983, we were regarded as ‘Refugees from the Ceausescu Paradise’ and people treated us in an accordingly friendly manner. Our unique ‘brown passports’ drew pity amongst the Hungarians, too. Of course, this still wasn’t enough to be able to get a cup of coffee with our remaining Romanian currency. We were advised to use our five 100 lei notes as toilet paper. It was then that we realized we would have not a penny in our pockets for several days. Well, if nothing else happens to us on the 1,000 km [625 miles] stretch ahead, then everything will be alright. The first unpleasant surprise, however, already surfaced at Vienna where we had to change trains. We boarded an Inter-City train without having the necessary supplementary charge. The Austrian Railways ticket collector wanted to do his duty but how could he when both our lei notes and ‘brown passports’ were absolutely worthless to him? So there remained nothing for him to do but to take us as stowaways.

      We’d hardly reached German soil in Passau (our Motherland at last!) when we already began to feel that our ‘integration’ here wouldn’t run as smoothly as we were to be told in festive speeches in the coming days. As we handed our requested passports to the border police, the official gave them a look of contempt and threw them on the seats as quick as a flash, as if they were contaminated. And so we entered the Motherland with no form of passport control. Was this meant to be some sort of ‘Welcome’?

      Late one Wednesday evening we arrived at the gateway for immigration in Nuernberg, hungry, thirsty and above all, tired. Here, each arrival received a parcel of cold food which was supposed to last for three days. The food parcel had been thoughtfully put together, and there was even a beer. But as we looked for the longed-for piece of bread, we couldn’t believe our eyes. There was no way you could compare this ‘bread’ with our Banater white loaf. “Is there such poverty here as well?”, was our first thought. No! Just the opposite, as we would find out in the next few days in the Nuernberg shops. So why this ‘excuse’ for bread? We discovered that evening that apart from ‘our’ white bread and the dark bread of the bad times, there was also crisp bread!

      In the end, we had to live off our 3-day food parcels for five days and on top of that without our ‘daily bread’. We couldn’t even bear to look at the crisp bread, let alone eat it. Our ‘welcoming money’ was handed to us only on the Monday, that is five days later, and then only one hour before the next stage of the journey. The consequence of our lack of money during these days would affect our children most of all. When we visited the world famous ‘Christkindlesmarkt’ [Christmas fair] we suddenly found ourselves in a fairytale world. Even Hansel and Gretel in Grimm’s fairytales would have been in awe. Our eyes couldn’t take in the sights, nor our noses the smells which aroused an irresistible appetite for the thousands of kinds of sweets, as well as the Nuernberg sausages and the mulled wine. At the same time, it was snowing on the fair with its hundreds of thousands of lights. Around us, hundreds of happy children were milling around, enjoying their sweets and biscuits. Our young daughter, Gaby, couldn’t cope with this ‘fairytale land’ in which she had suddenly found herself. She broke down and collapsed in front of us.

      All this only happened because we had been let out of our old home country as poor as church mice and so for five days had ‘not a penny in our pockets’. At the same time, though, throughout the whole of the country people were avidly collecting donations for the poor in the ‘Third World’. Nor could we understand why we had been given the ‘welcoming money’ only when we left Nuernberg, rather than when we had arrived.

      One hour after receiving the ‘welcoming money’, we sat cheerful and happy, but with rumbling tummies, in an Inter-City train and rattled towards Nordrhein-Westfalen.

                             On the Way to ‘Integration’  (3)

      It was the last Monday of the month of November 1983. Immigrants were brought to Nuernberg railway station where they boarded a train bound for ‘The North’. The group travel ticket was entrusted to me because our family, which included two schoolgirls (14 and 13 years old) and a 75-year old mother had the farthest to go. Feeling happy, we admired the beautiful Franconian winter scene with its pretty villages made up of mainly white houses. But we were soon to say goodbye with heavy hearts to our fellow countrymen who were staying in southern Germany. The last Banat-Swabians dismounted at Frankurt am Main, but we rolled on further into unfamiliar territory.

      The Free State of Bavaria was long behind us and the scenery we were traversing changed gradually ‘according to the degree of latitude’. At the time, we did not know that on crossing the river Main we had crossed the ‘veal sausage equator’, which for Banat-Swabians can be compared to the Tscherna (official name: Cerna) river. If you travel east from Orschowa over this river, not only do the fields suddenly look different, but also their smell. Our train rattled on through ever ‘darker’ villages and what to us seemed  really strange countryside. We had to change trains in Hagen, whereupon every member of the family refused to go any further. It was hard to convince them that the Ruhr area with its soot, the coal dust and the ground covered in rust, was no reason to turn back. And anyway: go back? Where to? There was only one aim to our journey: Unna-Massen Nord.

      In Unna we were to be met by a car. We eventually found it, and the driver, with a silent nod, beckoned us to get in. The drive to the camp passed in silence. My questions remained a monologue. But in the end we were happy and fortunate as we entered our warm and clean two-bedroom  accommodation. We were to stay here for over a month and when we emerged it would be as ‘freshly baked German citizens’.

      The following morning we wanted to look for other fellow countrymen before the visit to the authorities, but we were shocked to find that throughout the whole settlement only polish was spoken. It was like being in Poland. There was not a single authority, school or church which hadn’t been created solely for Poles. So where are the Germans, we asked ourselves. There were several - the Silesians who had had to flee in 1945 and who were now the administrators here. This was fortunate for us new arrivals, otherwise we couldn’t have made ourselves understood. In school, our children had special lessons as they were the only ones who spoke german. Naturally, we enjoyed a ’special status’ in this camp; in the whole of Unna-Massen Nord we were the only ones, apart from a Banat-Swabian couple and a Siebenbuerg-Saxon woman, who could really be called Germans.

      These were exciting times for our children. They experienced their first ‘official’ Advent and likewise Father Christmas, who came to the school heavily laden and by helicopter to boot! We all experienced the first ‘legitimate’ Christmas holidays for 30 years. The Nordrhein-Westfalen State and the charity organizations gave many Christmas presents to all immigrants; the adults received their first basic essentials and the children received many toys.

      But as well as the goodwill the people had shown us, we also experienced disappointments - not from strangers, but from relatives who told us that everything that had been given to us had been ‘taken’ from them, i.e. paid for by their taxes. You can imagine how such words, after so many years, really couldn’t affect us any more.

      Equipped with our new german identity papers we left the State of Unna-Massen Nord on January 4th 1984, unemployed and recipients of unemployment benefit. We moved to Cologne where we got a cheap apartment in a hostel for immigrants. We definitely wanted to settle down in a large town so that all kinds of schools would be easily accessible to our children (including the High School). We ourselves hoped to find work in Cologne and at the same time to finally become fully assimilated. But it was to be several months before this happened.

      At the time, we thought Cologne was a lovely town and we already had ideas of it being our adoptive home town. That’s why we went for many walks through the town and the surrounding area. At the same time, we managed alright with the language as people hardly used the ‘Cologne’ dialect in public and almost without exception used high-german. Of course, our ’high-german’ sounded strange, or rather more like ’foreign german’, whereas the locals had a ’prussian’ accent. The girls went to the ’Theophanu’ High School in Cologne without being put back a year. The only conspicuous thing was that they hardly ever had to learn anything. But the reports they received were always lower than those they had received in Temeschburg, even though throughout the whole school year they had lived off ‘stuff they had learnt and brought with them’.

      We lived in a quiet, german quarter but we were always bumping into a large number of ‘foreign fellow citizens’, especially Turks and Italians, which quite surprised us at the time. In a way, they reminded us of our old home town where the country’s people looked very similar. On the other hand, we immediately realised that our ancestors had settled in the eastern frontier area of the Danube monarchy  in order to protect the West from the Turks. Now we were coming back to the ‘Empire’ and found it ‘occupied’ by Turks! Funny old world!

                                     ‘Integration’  (4)

      For four months we had been sitting in Cologne and regularly ‘cashed’ our unemployment benefit without the employment office trying even once to find us work. One day, my wife and I were at last sent for. Happy and full of hope we went to the employment office. Unfortunately, there was no mention of work, but instead we were to be sent on a ‘Course for Immigrants on Language, Social and Commercial Integration’. So they didn’t want us to ‘integrate’ so much, rather than to extend our unemployment benefit for eight months. When we realized this, it became clear that the employment office was never going to try to find us work. But we also knew that to find a job could take any amount of attempts. I won’t even bother to write about the dozen adult education centers in Cologne with their lectures marked ‘red’ or ‘green’.

      It was in these circumstances that we applied for a job in the public services on 16th April 1984. The reply which we received a month later from the Cologne postal district read: ‘Unfortunately, all suitable vacancies have been filled’. At the same time, they had ‘tried hard to find work opportunities’ and recommended us to apply to the German Federal Post Office in the southern part of the Federal Republic. We tried it, and applied for eight postal district jobs, out of which we received seven offers. The most favorable one came from Munich: two qualified employees with some experience were offered part-time work with - the emergency services! In the seven months that we had lived as immigrants in the Motherland it had become obvious to us that there would only be menial work for us here. That’s why two part-time jobs in public service, at the same work place and in a large town at that, with the best schools of the Federal Republic, was too tempting to turn down. We couldn’t foresee, however, what all this would mean.

      The first hurdle was to try to find an apartment. In August 1984 we decided, at all costs, to look for an apartment in Munich. Luckily at the time the Federal Railways had their promotional week and because we were the 6,666th customer during this offer we were presented with a large bouquet of flowers at Cologne railway station and an envelope which contained the total cost of the tickets we had just purchased. Some people would think this first hurdle was a lucky break. Unfortunately, this was the only lucky break. At the next hurdle we already stumbled: looking for cheap overnight accommodation in Munich. At the station’s mission, the ‘lady’ was offered a wooden bench for the night, but no men were allowed there. This is why the donation collectors from this mission has never received a penny from us to date. Luckily, we found the ‘cheapest guest house in Munich’ at the edge of the town: 40 DM for a double room.

      The following day the interview with our future employer also went well. During our stay in Munich we also became convinced that the Bavarian way of life closely resembled the Banaters’. After spending almost a year in the North it felt as though we had found a part of Temeschburg again here in Munich. It was, however, made clear to us that it would be a whole year before any social housing would be considered for us - and that only on condition that we had found work in Munich. Our future employer also made it clear to us at the same time that employment would only be possible after ‘police registration in Munich’. What other solution was there?  Either we remain ‘immigrants’ for the time being, or we rent an apartment in the ‘free housing market’. We certainly didn’t want to remain ‘immigrants’; it wasn’t the sort of life we had imagined during all those sleepless nights.

      But an apartment in the ‘free market’ meant a rent of around 1,000 DM, deposit and commission, and this only assuming that we would be accepted by a ‘kind hearted estate agent’. So we chose ten possible apartments from the newspaper advertisements and tried our luck. One wouldn’t take us because we had children, another because we couldn’t give any references. The third one we didn’t even get past the telephone interview because of our strange accent. Others wouldn’t take us as tenants because we had no ‘regular income’ and one estate agent even said that he wouldn’t consider immigrants. The remaining apartments had simply already been let.

      Twenty-four hours before our return to Cologne, that was on a Friday, we decided to ‘play our last card’, as was done back in our old home land. We called the agent of an apartment which had already been let and put forward a business proposal to him...in the beer garden. At the time, we were amazed when our proposal was accepted. We didn’t actually meet in the beer garden, but were received at the last minute in the estate agent’s office. I kept my promise and as an introduction to my talk, lay two 100 DM notes on the table. I then described our true position to him and at the same time made it clear to him that our chances of being assimilated were now entirely dependent on him. The outcome of the conversation? On Saturday we left Munich on the last train with a lease on a 2-bedroom apartment, but for which we’d had to pay an extra 4,500 DM.

      Leaving Cologne didn’t go as ‘smoothly’ as we would have wished. Most of the difficulties were made by the employment office. The people there simply couldn’t understand that our most fervent wish was to work. They also found it hard to believe that we had learned the german language at our mother’s knee. That’s why they didn’t want us to leave the Integration course. We were only able to do this once we’d been to see the director of the employment office. But even he couldn’t believe that we would want to give up 1,200 DM unemployment benefit in order to work for an emergency service which would only pay 900 DM per month.

      The High School which the children had been going to also gave an interesting ‘farewell speech’. Form teacher (Doctor of German): “Madam Director, the gentleman would like to take his children away. They are moving abroad.” Headmistress: “Abroad? I knew they were moving to Munich.” “Yes, you see! To Bavaria! That’s ‘abroad’ to us, isn’t it?” “Alright. But it is still in the Federal Republic.” Then she turned to me and said, “We are very sorry to lose such outstanding pupils. They were our pride and joy.” I asked in true amazement, “But Madam Director, according to their reports they were only mediocre students.” “Oh yes! You know, as pupils from a linguistic enclave, we couldn’t treat them the same as our own pupils. After their ‘integration’, that would have soon been resolved.” Now I understood the reason for the mediocre marks. It’s as though we were German citizens with equal rights.....but still not quite! What that means to a child, though, could make a study  for psychologists - and educationalists!

      Things went really badly with the move. As we had, according to the lease, an apartment in Munich from October 1st 1984, we also arranged to start the new job on the same day. On September 29th we heard that our new apartment was still a shell. At least we could register with the police with our lease, but where would we live? We stood with two children and three suitcases on the street, the container was at Munich station and mother, luckily, was with relatives in Cologne.

      In this situation there was nothing left to do but to move into an expensive hotel. But this was only a theoretical solution as the Oktoberfest was on in Munich and so all the hotels were full. Luckily we found a room in a Dachau hotel and a dear family who took pity on us. They offered to accommodate the four of us in a double room. This family felt for us and showed sympathy towards us several times, for which we will be eternally grateful. For nearly a whole month we became ‘Dachauers’ and I traveled to Munich and back three times daily. In the morning I took the children to school, at midday I collected them and the third time my wife and I traveled to work in the afternoon and returned to the hotel at night. So it meant going to bed at midnight and getting up at 5.30 in the morning. When we moved out of the hotel we had to pay 1000 DM on overnight stays alone.

      This happened on October 26th 1984 when we were ‘allowed’ to move into our ‘new apartment’. I say ‘move in’ because it couldn’t really be called moving in. The construction manager let us move into the apartment which was still being built and whose attic floor was still full of building rubble. Here, we slept on old rags, ate and studied sitting on suitcases, and cooked on wooden boxes. This is how we became the first tenants of the residential building and at the same time caretaker of the new building.

      On November 24th 1984 when we received our first wages in DM, we had 25 DM left to our name, but 1,500 DM debts with relatives. That was the price of our ‘integration’! For the second time in a year we were once again ‘without a penny in our pockets’. But for all that we had a job, a cozy home and soon afterwards a wonderful new adoptive country in Bavaria.

Translated by Diana Lambing from the original German version by Anton Zollner.
(note: one of the first contributed articles contributed to the DVHH)

[Published at DVHH.org by Jody McKim, 2003]

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