Immigrant Tales

Crushed by the Fall of the Berlin Wall

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Actress Sonja Chan stands before a memorial to those who died trying to escape East Berlin. The stories of immigrants are left untold.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Immigrants in Germany rarely get to tell their stories about how they experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall. A new play gives them a voice.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • “We Are the Play” is one of a series of events in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9.
    • About 190,000 foreigners were in East Germany at the time the Wall came down.
    • Some 2 million guest workers came to West Germany between 1961 and 1973.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

A woman in a headscarf yells as a tour guide takes people round a still standing section of the Berlin Wall.

“We came here and built up this country. But after the wall fell, you had no further use for us,” she shouts.

“Shhh,” says the guide.

The people listening to the pair are actual visitors who have come to the site of the Berlin Wall, but both the guide and her heckler are actors.

They are performing a play about Germany’s immigrant communities at the time of re-unification. While the narrative about the falling of the Berlin Wall still focuses on the impact it had on German citizens and on the geopolitics of Europe, “We Are the Play” focuses on immigrant communities who had their jobs, and often their residency permits, snatched away from them in the months after reunification.

Held at the a memorial site at Bernauer Strasse,  on what was once known as the “death strip,” a no-man’s land monitored by guards that divided East from West, the play is part of 25th anniversary events taking place throughout Germany this year.

Actress Dilan Gülmez, who plays the role of one of the Turkish guest workers, said her role mirrors the experiences of her own parents, who were among a first wave of post-war immigrants to Germany. The country saw a massive influx of migrant workers, starting in the 1950s, and accelerating in the 1960s and 1970s, who came to contribute to the post-war reconstruction of West Germany and to what known as the Wirtschaftswunder or economic miracle.

Turkey provided the cheap, flexible workforce that West Germany needed to sustain its economic growth – Ms Gülmez’s parents worked in an Opel car factory in the West German industrial heartland around Rüsselsheim –  but these workers, and their families, were frequently mocked and looked down on by Germans.

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“We Are the Play” draws from interviews with dozens of people who experienced re-unification. Source: Susan Paufler

 

While Germans may have celebrated the fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989, the play presented the many questions immigrants had after the Wall fell. “Can I stay here?” “How do I pay my rent?” “Can my children stay here?” “Do you want to learn Turkish?” “What do you see when you see me?”

On the other side of the Wall, another set of immigrants were struggling with German attitudes. The play tells the story of people like Phan Huy Thao, one of approximately 60,000 Vietnamese who moved to the German Democratic Republic, as East Germany was known, in the post-war period. Mr. Phan arrived as a contract worker in 1989 and while East Germans could visit the West as soon as the Wall came down, he and his colleagues were initially barred from making the trip. Instead, they were offered 3,000 deutsche marks (€1,500) to return home to Vietnam. Those who stayed lost their jobs.

There was little sympathy from East Germans who were themselves struggling to cope with the sudden disappearance of the state that had both controlled and also organized every aspect of their lives. In the play, the tour guide yells back to Ms. Gülmez’s character.

“It was harder for us. Our country disappeared from one day to the next. At least you had somewhere else to go.”

“But this is our home,” responds the Turkish character. “Where else should we go?”

This issue, of how Germany views its guest workers and immigrants, dominates the play. From the prejudice in the old East Germany –Vietnamese workers were housed far away from other East Germans and were forbidden to have children – to the threat of attacks from neo-Nazis.

“This is really a problem for Germany. It has nothing to do with the Wall,” said Suheer Saleh, a 52-year-old Egyptian-German who lived in the East German city of Dresden at the time of re-unification and was interviewed for the play.

Daniel Brunet, the theater’s producing artistic director, said most immigrant communities had said their experience of Germany both before and after 1989 had been marked by racism, and that Germany had to deal with the huge demographic changes that are making immigrants a central, and permanent, part of German society.

“Our stereotype of what a German is has to change as the country has transformed absolutely and completely. People have to think differently, if every fifth German has an immigration background,” he said.

About 190,000 foreigners were in East Germany at the time the Wall came down, including 90,000 who had come as contract workers. Some 2 million workers came to West Germany from Turkey, Greece, Spain, Italy and the former Yugoslavia between 1961 and 1973.  While the original guest worker scheme had envisaged the migrants going home, in fact many stayed and settled in Germany.  Even in the early 2000s, more than 50 percent of all foreigners living in Germany were citizens of a country that had supplied guest workers to Germany in the post-war period.

Twenty five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many of those witnessing the play are too young to have real memories of what that time might have been like. But actor Jonathan Aiken said it is the play’s discussion of discrimination – of all kinds – that particularly resonates with the audience, and has them nodding their heads in agreement.

“It’s amazing how people know so little about each other and how images of migrants are distorted,” Mr. Aiken, who plays a young man from Mozambique, said. “It is important to keep asking more questions.”

Lara-Sophie Milagro, who grew up near the Berlin Wall in the western Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg, said she still today finds Germany much less open to discussing issues of race than the United States or Britain.

“Racism is everywhere, but it’s not as much of a taboo over there,” said Ms. Milagro, who is mixed race and plays a tour guide from West Berlin in the play. “Here, it remains a taboo.”

“We Are the Play” is a production by Sisyphos, der Flugelefant (SdF) in co-production with ETB | IPAC and in cooperation with ehrliche arbeit – freies Kulturbüro. It runs in Berlin until September 27. To contact the authors: cermak@handelsblatt.com; williams@handelsblatt.com

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