By Amy Valencia
Today we made our way to the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum (FHXB), where we were to begin our walking tour of Kreuzberg. As our tour guide Intissar Nassar introduced herself, we were greeted by a man whom she said was a famous Berlin pop star. I didn’t catch his name, but I did catch his band’s name. We were meeting a member of Mr. Ed Jumps the Gun. Heidi was visibly excited as she talked to him and discussed the meaning of the band’s name. He then waved goodbye and Intissar began to describe our next three hours. In the hours to come, we would learn how Kreuzberg had become the vibrant multicultural neighborhood it is today.
Walking into FHXB’s eldest exhibition, we sat around Intissar as she began to recount the history of Kreuzberg. She began with the 1960s and the rise of the Berlin Wall following the end of WWII. The Berlin Wall was built by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1961. Large concrete barriers completely separated West Berlin and East Berlin for 28 years. While the Berlin Wall divided many families, it also separated approximately 60,000 people from their jobs (Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall), which caused a severe labor shortage. To remedy the labor shortage, young people from Southern and Southeastern Europe were recruited as “guest workers.” Intissar emphasized that these individuals never intended to remain in Germany indefinitely—their intention was to earn money and return home at the completion of their three-month work permits, as wages in Germany were significantly higher than in their home countries (White 755).
Intissar explained that many countries were initially reluctant to help Germany because of its ugly past and that Turkey was one of the first countries to agree to send “guest workers.” Subsequently, in groups of 10, work permit applicants had to pass three tests. These tests were comprised of a hand examination, a medical exam, and a literacy test. Applicants had to show their hands to examiners in order to make sure their hand size was useful for the jobs needed. The medical test and future medical costs had to be paid by the employer; with that said, the employer made medical exams as cheap as possible by making all 10 applicants see the doctor together. They would stand next to each other in their underwear as the doctor examined each one of them, which was dehumanizing and humiliating. The final test, the reading and writing test, was to assure employers that the workers could integrate into society. Applicants were graded and those deemed intelligent enough were allowed to come to Germany for work.
Walking around the exhibition, Intissar’s words also were depicted in the pictures on the wall. Guest workers were sent to live in tight living conditions. Residents on multiple floors in one apartment shared one outside bathroom, and showers had to be rented. Needless to say, many residents went without privacy or comfort. Further, guest workers did not know the German language or culture, and for the most part, they were without family. Living in these alienating conditions made it more important to remember their goals and focus on achieving them. At the end of their three-month stay, employers saw no reason to repeat the process of obtaining and screening guest workers. So, in order to save money, they asked workers if they would like to continue to work and extend their work permits. While some chose to go home, many decided to stay and remain in Kreuzberg. Part of this is because in Turkey, people would label the Turks in Germany with a badge of difference. For example, Turks in Germany were called Almancilar, a derogatory term. In a 1994 survey, “83% of Turkish respondents said they were no longer considering a return to Turkey” (White 755). This was, in part, because they were now othered in Turkey.
Through photographs and short captions, the museum exhibition also showed the journey of Kreuzberg. Kreuzberg sat along the Berlin Wall in West Berlin. Because their stay in Germany was now indefinite, “guest workers” looked for other places to live with better living conditions. They were now able to bring their families over, but many were still unable to afford a living space fit for a family. Te government promised to assist in renovations of the buildings, but Intissar explained the lack of immediate intervention by the government; families were paying rent for buildings that should have been condemned. The Berlin Senate Committee for Construction and Housing turned to a plan for restoration with “residents remaining in their buildings and having input to the restoration process” (Bockmeyer 52). The advisory panel included 50% resident representation; however, it notably did not include “significant representation of Turkish or other immigrant groups” (Bockmeyer 52). The Berlin Senate presented itself as working with the people; however, they failed to include the communities composing the majority of Kreuzberg’s population.
Along these lines, Intissar also spoke with us about a model of Kreuzberg in the museum, because Heidi’s daughter Chase asked her why there were huge gray buildings that seemed to be out of place. Instead of answering her question, Intissar asked us to guess, and we left the museum. We passed through an alley where Intissar asked us to turn around and notice the gray building behind us. The buildings that we had seen in the museum’s model were in fact the “new” (new in the 1980s) apartments for “guest workers” and their families. The apartments had more privacy, bathrooms inside each apartment for example, but still failed to adequately address the families’ needs. To fix one issue, the lack of schools for children, a parking garage that was rarelyused was turned into a kindergarten.
As we continued walking through Kreuzberg, Intissar addressed some of the issues facing this community today. She makes it clear that while there may be an increase in dangerous activity, according to some, she doesn’t believe it is any different than any other big city. She still feels safe at night, but has to be cautious just like she would anywhere else. On the other hand, gentrification has also been an issue for this community. The culture this community has worked hard to develop is now being diminished in lieu of the modernization of buildings and an increase in the cost of living in Kreuzberg. It’s position in the “shadow of the Berlin Wall” allowed for the expression of freedom and creativity. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, this vibrant multi-ethnic and creative community has become a tourist destination. Hence, everything must become “slick and hip” to compete for tourists and investors. The transition into a new era is leaving behind the community that built it.
Our last stop on our tour of Little Istanbul was the Merkez Camii mosque. Entering a room used for prayer, we removed our shoes and sat in a circle as Intissar explained the significance of the mosque for the Muslim residents of Kreuzberg. For example, in order to combat the hostility and tyranny leveled at their community, including gentrification, the multi-ethnic people of Kreuzberg embrace a “feeling of we.” That “feeling of we” resonated with me. In a predominantly white space, people of color build communities to support one another. For me, I see this kind of community building in two parts of my life. The first is with my family. I am the daughter of two immigrant parents. They built their community through family and friends, and have created a network of unconditional love and support. The second place I see this is back at Colorado College. During my first two years at this predominantly white institution, I found my community in SOMOS, the Latinx student union. Without other students of color, I could not have made it to my final year as an undergraduate. For these reasons, and many more, I know it is important to learn about the history of Kreuzberg, where communities come together to make sure their voices are heard, to make sure their culture is not erased, and to make sure that they are seen. A lesson in unity that should be shared not only in history, but presently, as well.
Amy Valencia is a senior at Colorado College from Waukegan, Illinois. She is majoring in Political Science with a minor in Feminist and Gender Studies. She focuses her studies on immigration policy and the effects of these policies on Latin American communities. Amy is excited to be studying abroad for the first time and ready to explore Berlin!