Strangers, guests, workers or angels: Sometimes it’s hard to tell
After World War II, Germany needed male labor. There were not enough German men to provide it in the postwar period.
From 1955 till about 1973, the German government embarked on a program which brought “guest workers” into the country. They were brought in mostly from Greece, southern Italy and Turkey. The plan was they’d come to Germany, rebuild the country and then go home with a nice nest egg.
In came the Sicilians, Greeks and Turks. The idea was that they were “guests,” not permanent residents. But a lot of them stayed.
By the time I was living there in the 1990s, there was at least a second generation.
One day we had a neighbors’ get together and I found myself sitting next to the young Turkish woman who lived across the courtyard from us. We must have gravitated towards each other because we kind of looked alike: both of us had dark hair and dark eyes; both of us had grown up somewhere else, and both of us spoke broken German.
One of the German women started breastfeeding at our table, very casually.
The Turkish neighbor saw the shocked look on my naïve American face, so she leaned over and whispered “We don’t do that in public in my country, either.” I just nodded, grateful that someone understood my consternation, tried to collect myself and not stare.
I focused instead on the young Turkish woman, who had a pretty face that was so comforting, because she had dark hair, olive skin, big brown eyes: so familiar, given where I’d grown up.
Another time when the Turks came into my purview was a night when I was on a train going home. I’d just bought a tablecloth that matched my dining room perfectly, so I was peacefully, happily and silently doing mental room décor.
A group of young people in their late teens or early 20s got on. They were also happy: talking and laughing amongst themselves, which is a universal young people thing to do.
I barely noticed it. I’d taught high school, and I recognized that those kids were just happy and exuberant. That’s all. Nothing untoward about their behavior. My tablecloth was far more interesting to me.
Suddenly, something in the background sounds shifted.
I was jolted out of my décor reverie and looked up at a tall, blonde, terribly angry German man in a business suit, in his 30s or 40s, who was screaming at the kids in a red-hot fury. By that time, my German was good enough to understand:
“Gehen nach hause! Raus! Nach hause gehen, alles!”
“Go home! Get out! Go home! All of our problems are because of you!”
Not one person in that train car tried to stop him, including me.
To this day I kick myself for not standing up, facing him down and chastising him on the spot.
Today, I can think of quite a few comebacks I could have used, one of which might have been “Don’t make us have to cross that ocean to sort y’all out again!” or, “If you’re going to act like that, give us our Marshall Plan money back!”
Given what has been transpiring in the USA in recent years, I think it’s just as well I kept my mouth shut, or I’d be eating my words with a side of bratwurst today.
But in that moment, I just sat there silently like a sheep, just like everyone else. The only thing I did differently was to stare at him in shock. Everyone else kept their heads down and their gaze averted.
I still kick myself for being such a coward.
He didn’t mean, “go home to your Frankfurt tenements.”
I believe he meant, “Get out of my country! You don’t belong here!”
The thing was, those kids had been born in Germany.
They were already home.
When “angry man” got off at his stop, I stood up and moved over to sit with the young people.
I suppose I should have mentioned that they were Turkish. But they were speaking in German.
They looked so much like my Sicilian American schoolmates. They looked so familiar to me.
Quietly, I started chatting with the girl I’d seated myself beside.
I said, “I am so sorry that happened to you. So sorry.”
“It’s OK,” she said. “It happens all the time.”
The boys and the other girls just nodded and shrugged and said, “Thank you for your kindness. But don’t worry. We’re used to it.”
I told her, “I love Turkish food. You guys use a lot of eggplant, like my family does.”
“Oh, where does your family come from?”
I told her, “Sicily. A few generations ago, they left Sicily and went to America.” She nodded, understanding immediately.
I realized that we had a lot more in common than just eggplant…
She told me, “Oh, I love America! I hope to go there someday!”
I stayed with the Turks past my own stop. I got off the train with them, planning to catch the return train home.
I stood there on the sidewalk with them and asked them if they felt all right to walk home, and they said it was fine. Happens all the time, right?
The girl and her brother smiled and waved goodbye to me. I hadn’t noticed how slightly built they were.
They just looked so small as they walked away.
Recently, the Turks again have my attention. The people who are a big part of the group who is saving the world are a married couple, both highly trained scientists.
They are also from the Turkish Gastarbeiterin community, the “Guest Workers” who were brought to postwar Germany who were supposed to go “nach haus,” when the rebuilding was finished. The father of the husband was a factory worker.
In Germany, as in all of Europe, if you qualify academically, you go to university on the government’s dime. The catch: you must do well academically or else, auf wiedersehen.
It seems that Sahin and Tureci took full advantage of the German university system, because their German educations enabled them to develop the Pfizer vaccine that will save humanity from COVID-19.
The group of young people I talked to that night on the train in the early 1990s would be middle-aged today, just about the age of Sahin and Tureci.
I can’t help but wonder.
“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hebrews 13:2
Cherie Calletta was born and raised in Hammonton. She graduated Saint Joseph high school in 1977, then graduated from Rutgers College in New Brunswick and went to Japan for four years to teach English as a foreign language. She later spent about five years in Germany outside of Frankfurt am Main. After several years in Charlotte, North Carolina, she returned to Hammonton in 2002, where she and her husband make their home.