About Fikrun

    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    We Are All Refugees
    How Germans, and Others, Deal – or Don’t – with Displacement

    The willingness of Germans to take in more refugees than other Europeans is linked in part to German history. After the war, many Germans were driven out of the regions from which they came. However, for a long time the German people were reluctant to address this aspect of their past. Our author relates her family’s tragic history, and draws instructive parallels with the present day.

    Ever since childhood I have been haunted by mental images of refugees storming our cities. Hordes. Barbarians. Destroying all of the civilisation and culture that we rebuilt and salvaged after the war.

    The multitudes of refugees coming to Germany today are my nightmare become reality. They frighten me, as they do many others. I feel threatened: existentially, practically, economically. I am afraid that these strangers could take away the little I have and drive me out.

    What emotional residue forms the basis for these fears, which, faced with the concrete – indeed, excessive – challenges presented to us by the onslaught of refugees, betray so much emotion, so much that is still unfiltered? In the German countryside, where I grew up, there were no foreigners. We were the strangers: my parents, grandparents, who came from the East. Refugees, all their lives.

    Fragments of stories

    Back then. I remember my father’s factory, the fragments of a family business that actually started in the East, was expropriated, then rebuilt in the West by him and my grandfather, until the re-founded company had to file for bankruptcy. I remember a haute bourgeois world salvaged only in fragments, in family photos and a few items of furniture, the whole irrevocably destroyed. I remember that fragments of this world occasionally surfaced, as did its shadow sides, for example when my grandfather interjected late one evening, under the influence of a glass of wine, that not everything was bad in the Nazi period and autobahns were built under Hitler. That things improved – initially.

    But I also remember suppressed sobs, fragments of stories, about bombs in Dresden, massacres of Jews, about Jewish company reps who were saved thanks to my grandfather’s unobtrusive actions. But these stories were never more than shreds, torn-off scraps. And not only because the grandfather telling them was unable to communicate anything coherent, but also because the words themselves were not very welcome. It was imperative to create an ideal world, in a family welded together for a few hours on Sundays around the grandparents’ coffee table. Anything that might have provoked argument, disagreement or grief was nipped in the bud.

    In this world of dispossessed Eastern factory owners, refugees who were too proud to ask the state for help, who tried to make a new start in the West under their own steam but soon foundered, there was no place for a coherent story, no description of the feelings aroused by what dispossession, flight, forced displacement had done to the family. There was also no place for the emotions bound up in it: anger, fear, despair.

    The fight for survival smothered emotion. The joint, often grim determination to make it again, after all. We roll up our sleeves. Soldier on.

    My parents’ first meeting

    1949. Post-war Berlin, not yet divided into two halves but still strewn with ruins. A rich uncle arranged my parents’ first meeting: my father, Karl Lehmann, just returned from four years as a Soviet prisoner of war, impotent, broken, full nonetheless of dynamism and hope, kitted out in his best suit and a big hat, met my twenty-one-year-old mother, the sole proprietor of a medium-sized business in Thuringia with the name Tabarz, at a Berlin couturier’s. He stood on tiptoe and said, like a child: I’m Karli. They got engaged.

    Karl Lehmann, equipped with a sports car and a generous appanage, studied textile engineering in Krefeld in order subsequently to assume the management of the rubber factory. Furthermore, he was supposed to become the director of a chain of textile shops that the rich uncle, who had no heirs, had set up along the inner-German border.

    Soon, when Germany is reunited, half the East will belong to us – this was the uncle’s plan, uniting his two future heirs. But in 1953 the Ministry of Finance in Berlin carried out an audit of the company, found supposed violations of the GDR’s economic laws, and threatened to send the economic commission to conduct a search. My mother fled via Berlin’s Anhalter Station with a suitcase full of documents and family silver.

    We can do it! We won’t let them drag us down.

    Everyone acted as if the war had never happened and the haute-bourgeois pre-war past could be salvaged in the post-war, federal republican present.

    Over the next few years, Karl Lehmann and his father rebuilt the suitcase factory that had been expropriated in Saxony immediately after the war, in the Westphalian town of Dorsten. But in 1966 the firm had to declare bankruptcy.

    Violence behind the façade

    Behind the reconstructed façades of the German economic miracle, the traumas of war, the fears and the guilt lived on. My parents were not so much proactive as driven.

    Hysteria, tears, your father’s a loser, we have to separate – I remember dramatic scenes that took place in front of me during my childhood, when I was incapable of comprehending the background to them. Nor did my parents do anything to try and explain things to me. They didn’t have the words. The overwhelming external forces they sensed acting upon them were redirected against me as maternal violence. My father stood by. His aggression erupted in outbursts of rage. It was always someone else’s fault: parents, brothers, business partners, customers. Banks. But my parents redirected rage and disappointment self-destructively against themselves, as well. One evening my mother took me with her into her marriage bed; in the morning she was lying motionless beside me. My screams must have alarmed the neighbours. I remember cloths, an ambulance, and paramedics, carrying my mother out on a stretcher. A suicide attempt in the garage involving all three of us was abandoned.

    Afterwards, it was never discussed.

    We can do it. This was an over-estimation, also of their own powers, possibilities.

    Coming to terms with the past, only superficially

    Germany would have become a different country if its own history had been addressed on an emotional level, beyond the official coming to terms with the past. It would have been warmer on the one hand, more rational on the other.

    Despite all the claims that we have overcome the past in such exemplary fashion, it must be said that the guilt of the Nazis, of our fathers, grandfathers, still weighs heavily on our shoulders. That determines our reflexes, including in the refugee issue. We Germans are extremists – for both better and worse.

    The reflexes, the patterns familiar to me from my post-war childhood are the same ones we are encountering today in the refugee debate. The same bustle of activity, the same actionism. We can do it. Keep calm and carry on! We’ll manage. Onwards and upwards. Soldier on. An example to the world. These morale-boosting slogans have a compulsive ring to them. They repeat patterns that were already present in the Federal Republic’s reconstruction efforts.

    The same actionism

    But my fear is that this time they will not reach the German people. And contrary to the morale-boosting slogans in the media, the rest of the world is very far from perceiving them as worthy of emulation, either. On the contrary: they are generating resistance, not only among the local population but from other nations, too. This is complicated by the fact that, in the shape of the refugees, we Germans are also being confronted with the part of our history that emotionally, in the deeper layers of our feelings, we have never comprehended as part of us, but have always warded off.

    A people that flocked behind a leader, Hitler, who called for racial purity and world domination. And who were still swearing allegiance to him at a time when the collapse of this idea triggered the biggest mass migration in history, namely the forced displacement of Germans and of other peoples. We are this, too – self-destruction, self-obliteration. We followed this path, to the bitter end. Why? Emotionally, we have refused to examine these questions, because we cannot bear to look at the answer – at our own hideous face in the mirror.

    Familial guilt, inherited across generations

    Back then, in the post-war period: in our own house with swimming pool that my parents built in the Seventies with ‘burden-sharing’ compensation money and by taking out additional loans, Great-Grandmother Adele Adloff, who founded my mother’s company in Tabarz with a single loom, stared down at her descendents in the hallway with hook nose and stern, company-founder gaze. She had conveyed to my mother when she was a child that it would have been better if she had never come into the world, because her brother was supposed to take over the factory alone one day. Besides, her motto was: neither a whistling woman nor a crowing hen ever came to a good end.

    The brother preferred to become a forester. When her father, Adalbert, asked my mother, a fourteen-year-old girl, whether she would like to take over the company in his stead, she laughed in his face; a spoiled upper-class girl.

    Not long afterwards, and shortly after the death of his wife, Adalbert Adloff died as well.

    My mother felt guilty all her life. She felt that she was insufficient for her ancestors’ requirements.

    This was never discussed, either.

    We functioned. We were the perfect German model family.

    New barriers: Ukraine

    I recently travelled through eastern Ukraine. It was a journey to places of destruction, flight and forced displacement. I retraced the refugees’ path – to places that were home to them, and which they had now been forced to leave. I fought my way through checkpoints, past queues of cars and people. I stayed several days in Donetsk, in separatist territory, where a junta kept the frightened population brutally in check. I managed to get by on both sides of the front. Driven by the question of how violence originates, from what abyss, and what it does to people. I also wanted to know what flight signifies; also for us, who are currently taking in, day after day, so many refugees. Broken, distraught people, with difficult histories. Can we actually help? I ask myself, repeatedly. Are we even capable of doing so?

    In Donetsk, in the territory of the separatists who have broken away from Ukraine, I met Svetlana. She could see no longer see any future there for herself and her family. Her husband worked in Konstantinovka, on the Ukrainian side, and they had already found refuge in a small rented apartment. Now she had returned to Donetsk for the last time, to turn off the water and electricity in her house. Svetlana knew she would not come back again.

    Svetlana: a woman in middle age, born in Donetsk, who had never in her life taken any interest in politics. A mother, who had lived only for her little house, her family. Her house was nothing special, a grey, single-storey, flat-roofed building from the 1940s, bought for a good price, renovated bit by bit over the past fifteen years by herself and her husband, made cosy, tailored to the family’s needs.

    Svetlana cried often. Before, she said, they, the people of Donetsk, were as one. Now there was already a wall between herself and her neighbour. It separated those who had fled from those who stayed behind, had lived through the bombing of the town, seen the dead and wounded and were still being subjected to terror.

    Suddenly I understood what my young mother had gone through when she left her villa and the factory with a suitcase in her hand, as if she were just going on a short trip. I understood the pain, and the silence about it. I understood what it meant to flee. In that moment I also understood why the past had never loosened its grip on my parents.

    The idyllic snow-globe homeland shattered by reality

    My parents had idealised their previous life, had turned it into a glass globe and kept it on the shelf. German unification gave them the chance to return to their homeland. They ran back to their homeland and saw that the artificial snow behind the glass of the globe was, in reality, cold.

    After three years of paperwork and wrangling with the Treuhand agency responsible for managing the GDR’s state-owned companies, my mother got her crumbling house and mothballed factory back.

    On her first visit to the 20,000 square metre site she found herself walking through ruins. The demolition of derelict halls and the disposal of the accumulated hazardous waste alone was going to cost 1.2 million. In the end, all my mother was good for was to act as liquidator. The old boiler house, the tubing room and the little tower have been demolished; it’s an unfamiliar piece of land to me now, she wrote, sadly, in a letter. The sale of the buildings still standing on what had been declared an industrial zone dragged on, especially as the situation for workers in the town was bleak.

    As a self-employed man, my father had never paid into the state pension scheme. The only pension he was entitled to was a small one. He had lost his job prematurely, the house had long since been sold, the proceeds of the sale were dwindling. Their debts were mounting; they were bankrupt.

    A last telephone call with my mother led to the final break. Your father and I want to kill ourselves so that you’ll still get an inheritance, she said. My life is ruined.

    I felt threatened, as I had in childhood when I was at the mercy of her beatings, and I broke off contact.

    Six months later a Cologne policeman called me and told me they had taken their lives in a Cologne hotel, in the bathtub.

    Personalities destroyed by war

    When travelling, particularly in the crisis regions of the former Soviet Union, I understand that I am not alone with my unresolved pain and my guilt.

    War, I saw recently on my trip to Ukraine, not only erects a wall of silence between those who flee and those who stay; it also draws a dividing line between servicemen and women, and civilians. Anyone who has been to war will never be emotionally fit for civilian life again, however hard he tries, hyperactivity and morale-boosting slogans notwithstanding.

    I met Kazbek, a Chechen businessmen who was now fighting with the Ukrainians against the Russians. He hoped that by doing this he would in future also be able to end the dictatorship of his adversary Kadyrov, the Chechen president who enjoys Putin’s favour. I saw how he was taking up his ancestors’ old battles again, the same ones he was trying to escape when he ended up in Ukraine as a young man during the war in Chechnya. Now, twenty years later, he was reporting for duty again. It is also a fight against his own father and brother, who still live in Chechnya, meaning they stand by Kadyrov. I saw that, in this estranged family, speechlessness prevailed.

    I saw his distress, his anger, even aggression, when I asked him about his family. He remained trapped in patterns – collective, national – that he was unable to shake off. This successful businessman, now caught up in the martial conflict with the Russians, even experiencing moments of euphoria and happiness which in my eyes were illusory, was in the process of destroying everything he had established for himself. He was already lost to civilian life.

    I saw, still, again, my father and his elder brother. Their quarrel. The war of the brothers.

    At the age of just nineteen my father was sent to the Russian front as a lieutenant and tank commander, where he was wounded several times. Four years as a Russian prisoner of war destroyed his youth. Following his return, his eastern homeland as he had known it no longer existed. Afterwards he tried with all his might to adapt to the capitalist Western system. Ultimately, though, he was a man without qualities. He had been put through the ideological mincer repeatedly – first the Nazis’, then the Communists’, later that of capitalism – and it had broken him.

    He had been dispossessed of all that was his, in the fullest sense of the word. Thus, alienated even from himself, words, memories were lost to him, too. In fact, they had, in a way, been stolen from him, because in post-war Germany there existed no sounding board for his tales of war, flight and forced displacement, no space beyond morality and the apportioning of blame.

    I saw my father’s elder brother, too, who had the good fortune never to have gone to war. As a social democrat in the GDR he got caught between the lines, was betrayed to the GDR by his Western comrades and banished to a Siberian labour camp. He came back, a late returnee. Unlike my father, he was lucky enough to have been on the ‘right side’. That lent him self-confidence, a political ‘conviction’ – and respect, at least from the youngest of the brothers.

    The brothers didn’t like each other. Their relationship was troubled. They didn’t speak much to one another. There were often fights.

    My father’s younger brother, a lawyer, warned him not to take back my mother’s expropriated property. My father interpreted this as envy on his part.

    Contact between them was broken off.

    I, Cassandra

    On my travels through the East I often feel like Cassandra. I am speaking from a future that others – younger people, the refugees of today – still have before them.

    One morning in Donetsk I found Svetlana in her kitchen. Crying. Old family photos were piled up in front of her. She had torn them out of the albums; they were lighter like that, and were now easier to transport. She had noticed for the first time that there was writing on the backs of these photos. Now, in this situation, as she was being forcibly displaced, she realised that she knew little about her family. About her mother and her grandmother, who had been washed from Odessa to Donetsk by pogroms and forced displacements, the promise of a better future. Back then. Now she was trying to piece the scraps together and understand how it could have come to this, with everything repeating itself.

    Abandon your battle, I said to Kazbek, the Chechen businessmen. These are your ancestors’ battles. Not yours.

    The children keep fighting their parents’ battles

    The day before they killed themselves, my parents made their Will and appointed a stranger as their heir. In that first moment, when I found out, my initial emotion was relief. So I was not the reason for their suicide, as my mother had implied in our last telephone conversation.

    Since then, eighteen years have passed. And my dead parents still have power over me, now perhaps even more than when they were alive.

    Not a single day passes in which I do not think of them. What was it like for them, I ask myself, in their final hours?

    Perhaps it was like this: in the end all they were was driven, governed by a few frantically repeated words that hammered at the inside of their skulls – financial difficulties, social welfare beckoning, too old to start afresh. The decision was made weeks ago, the date fixed, the clock was ticking. Just don’t think about it. Plan every detail.

    Life has been ruined; at least the exit from it will be perfectly organised.

    And there was a lot to do: an auctioneer was appointed, notice given on the apartment, the leased Audi returned to the dealer. We’re going on a long journey. Order must prevail. The apartment was cleaned so that the things they had idolised in their lifetime could triumph over the living one last time in all their glory.

    Her last day

    The usual morning rituals: breakfast together in bed, read the papers, get dressed. Everything under control. The mother’s gaze brushes the mirror: her fine grey hair isn’t arranged today as it usually is, never mind. She is the driving force, she gives the orders, the father obeys, as always in forty-four years of marriage. In her farewell letter to a notary she makes her final dispositions: their urns are to be interred in the family tomb in Thuringia; only the minister is to be present at the burial.

    Then she writes her Will. The word suicide does not appear in the documents. Her death, she decrees, is to be treated as misadventure. My father indicates agreement in a sloping, slightly shaky scrawl.

    Everything must go: not just the address books, the food, the remains of breakfast, the rubbish in the bathroom. The façade of a nice middle-class life, of cleanliness and order, must be maintained, including for the strangers who will enter the apartment after her death. The father packs a hairdryer and a toilet bag in an old brown travel bag; he places a plastic bag on top containing a black, neatly folded, tri-polar electricity cable, with one end exposed. They enter the hotel’s marble-lined reception hall, pay 420 marks in advance for a double room, give the receptionist a postcard addressed to the notary: ‘We are in room 525.’ The Please Do Not Disturb sign is hung on the hotel room door. The father plugs in the hairdryer, checks: it’s working. The beige hip bath is quickly filled. They undress, squeeze naked into the little tub, sit opposite each other, wedged awkwardly, interlocking. Look at each other. Let go. Above the clouds. God be with us. The hairdryer falls into the bathtub. Electric shocks. Over. The end.

    We have to tell each other our stories

    I often catch myself repeating the patterns of my parents. I differ from them in one essential point, though: I lay everything bare, including my flaws. I don’t think one should hide anything. Even if it is painful, we should tell each other our stories. Only in this way do we escape the patterns that the untold stories hide.

    The crises of today, in the East as in the South, are a consequence of the things that were never told, either in classrooms or to those closest to us. Here as there, on this side of and beyond all borders and checkpoints, this telling was a missing element that could have conveyed meaning between the generations. This telling was needed, not just in a social context, within families, between victims and perpetrators – it could also have created a bridge across national borders.

    How can we today, in Germany, give the refugees a homeland if we are strangers to ourselves? If we ourselves have no homeland?

    Entrusting ourselves to one another

    More privacy, openness, intimacy is called for. Despite seventy years of ‘coming to terms with the past’, we are still right at the beginning. We are all refugees. We, here in Germany, should welcome the foreigners coming to us today, but within our limits, assessing the possibilities available to us.

    In doing this, we should not demand too much of them or of ourselves. Certainly, we should open up. Certainly, we should exchange ideas with them. But before we do this we should at last acquire an awareness of our own and our families’ stories. Stories that are still buried at the bottom of the family trunk and deserve, at last, to come to light. We should tell them amongst ourselves, but we should also entrust them to the refugees. Only then will we also be in a position to listen to the strangers’ stories. Only when we know ourselves where we come from, where we are now, and what we want to be in future can we offer the strangers protection, and give them what they – and we – most urgently need: a homeland.

    In Tabarz, my mother’s homeland, I too did not find the idealised place for which she had yearned. For me too, it is cold there.

    Tabarz – for me too it remains, to this day, a place of battles and fights. The townspeople have banished my family’s history from their memory. Soon I will be taking a dispute with my parents’ heir before the courts.

    The family tomb where my parents lie has completely run wild, overgrown with ivy. So far, the plain brown marble slab my mother had put in place before she even died displays only the names of our ancestors.

    Now, eighteen years after my parents’ suicide, I am piecing the fragments and scraps together and writing a novel about my family. I hope that the war will end and we will finally be reconciled.
    Barbara Lehmann is a freelance author living in Berlin. She is a feature writer for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and other media, and also translates plays and prose from the Russian. As a reporter she has travelled frequently to Chechnya. Her novel Eine Liebe in Zeiten des Krieges [Love in times of war] was published in 2015.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2016

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