Refugees are our past - and our future. By Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlstrom.
2016 marks the 28th anniversary of my refuge to Germany. On 27 of January 1988, I crossed the German border, with my parents, my brother and one suitcase. My registration number was P28/75-78/88 stamped in ‘Grenzdurchlager Friedland’. I am a German with 'Migrationshintergrund', in short, I am a refugee.
I hardly remember this time. I was four years old when my parents made a second attempt to leave communist Poland. They first tried to escape in 1981 but martial law came in their way. Luckily, the second attempt - seven years later - was successful.
We spent the first eight months in different transit camps in Germany - in Friedland and Una Massen. Both camps had been established after WWII by the British to deal with the millions of German expellees and war returnees. We shared a room (and bathrooms!) with 30 other refugees; food was served in a canteen. There was no privacy. We spent most of our time waiting for the paperwork to be accepted and the asylum to be granted. It was only in the late summer of 1988 when we obtained permission to rent our own apartment. It was the beginning of a new life. We had finally arrived in Germany.
I admire my parents for what they did. They left everything behind: their job, their belongings, their security system, their country - and their family. They did not speak a word of German. Despite this uncertainty, they have decided to leave, with two small children and no money to a country which they hoped would offer them what they have long dreamt of: political freedom and peace.
War has been in our family for centuries. My grandfather was German, born in Prussia in 1899. At the age of 18 he served as a solider in WWI. In 1941 he was called in by the Wehrmacht to fight in WWII. He served most of his time in Italy as a lorry driver until he was captured by the British army. He then decided to return to communist Poland only to find out that the new powers had confiscated his land.
My grandmother was twelve years old when she was sent to Potulice, a Nazi concentration camp known for cruel ‘Germanisation’ experiments on Polish children. The camp was also notorious for its brutality on children - child labour day and night, at times without food. Despite the harsh and brutal conditions, my grandmother, famished and ill, survived three years of concentration camp. She was liberated in July 1945. Her late husband, my grandfather, was a member of Armia Krajowa, a Polish resistance movement during WWII in German occupied Poland. During the war he spent most of his time fighting in the underground. By the end of the war in 1945 he had to hide another two years in the woods fearing communist aggression.
Our Polish-German history has taught us a lot about resistance, resilience, the brutality of war and the importance of peace. My parents were determined to break with this history: They wanted to be the first ones not fighting in a war!
I am thankful to Germany. I remember the old lady and her husband who picked me up from Kindergarden because my parents had full time jobs. I remember the ‘Welcome to Germany’ sign that the kids at school gave my brother on his first school day. Or the German wife of an American soldier who offered language classes to my parents. I am thankful to our neighbors in the various cities we lived who never feared our presence. In fact, we got regularly invited to various garden festivities and BBQs. I am thankful to the people who gave jobs to my parents. And I am thankful for the friends free of prejudices. It is those people who made us feel welcomed. They were essentially the drivers of peace. They turned us into the Germans we are today.
But it was also us - the many Polish immigrants - who made Germany what it is today: a more open, welcoming and peaceful society. Our long term efforts of national reconciliation have made Germany a better country - and a leading actor in the current refugee crisis. I do not think this would have been possible one or two decades ago. We were the drivers of peace for Germany - and Germany supported us. We have listened, absorbed and learned. We are the new citizens of Europe.
My story is not unique. We all share a similar story. Many of us are essentially descended from immigrants, revolutionists and drivers of peace.
Look around you.
Look at your own past.
My family history is only a fraction of it. We need to be reminded where we come from. We need to be reminded that Europe is build by immigrants. We need to be reminded that refugees have always been an integral part of Europe’s history, of your country’s history, of your own past. But most importantly, refugees are and will be Europe’s future.
I was lucky. Many of us are not. Let’s us be the drivers of peace. Not alone but as Europe.
I would like to thank my family for sharing their story and their individual contributions.