West Germany′s Yugoslavian guest workers: Come for a year, stay for a lifetime | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.10.2018
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West Germany's Yugoslavian guest workers: Come for a year, stay for a lifetime

Fifty years ago, West Germany signed a labor agreement with the socialist government of Yugoslavia. Many of the guest workers initially came to the country for one year, but ended up staying the rest of their lives.

Barbed wire, stern-looking uniformed police with machine guns and dogs at their sides — the images were reminiscent of World War II-era prison camps. That was the first thing 19-year-old Bosiljka Schedlich saw when she came to Berlin as a guest worker half a century ago. She still remembers flying to East Berlin and then taking the bus to West Berlin. Once in the West, she saw the scars of war.

"I saw the traces of war in the faces of the city's many lonely women as they walked their dogs alone," said the 69-year-old. "I saw it in the missing arms and legs of the city's many men as they pushed themselves around in wheelchairs. I asked myself: 'What did they do during the war?'"

Read more: How Germany became a country of immigrants

Schedlich shared the basement of her dormitory with 1,200 other Yugoslavians, as well as displaced Germans from Eastern Prussia and Silesia. "I was confronted with the past that my parents had known," she said.

Bosiljka Schedlich (privat)

Schedlich came to Germany to help pay for her education

Schedlich did not want to spend her time dwelling on the past, however. She had come to Germany to build her future and earn money to pay for her studies. "I came for a year but it still hasn't ended," she said laughing. Now retired, she is currently enjoying a vacation at a small rundown farm on the Croatian island of Sipan.

'Life took hold of me'

Renovating the tiny farm gives Schedlich a feeling of "getting back to her roots." She was born Bosiljka Grgurevic, in the Adriatic coastal town of Split, and grew up in Dalmatia. After completing high school, she decided to move to the West as a guest worker when the Federal Republic of Germany, also known as West Germany, signed a labor recruitment agreement with the socialist government of Yugoslavia in 1968. When she arrived in her new country, she began working in a factory and then, six months later, as a translator for other Yugoslavians in her women's housing dormitory. Up to that point, Schedlich's life seemed no different from that of any other Yugoslavian guest worker, but her path soon changed. She spent half of her earnings on German courses, which led to better jobs and eventually a degree from the Free University of Berlin. "Life took hold of me and I never considered going back," she said.

Read more: Turkish guest workers transformed German society

Still, many of Schedlich's compatriots viewed their work abroad as strictly temporary, according to Serbian historian Vladimir Ivanovic, an expert on Yugoslavian guest workers who is currently teaching at Berlin's Humboldt University. "Their aim was not to emigrate but to quickly earn desperately-needed money," he said.

Yugoslavian guest workers (M. Gutic)

Many Yugoslavians participated in the guest worker program as a quick way to earn money

The financial problems within Yugoslavia were exacerbated by the country's shortage of jobs. Indeed, the Yugoslavian government wanted to enter into the labor recruitment agreement with West Germany as a way to solve its unemployment woes, Ivanovic explained. However, the government was unable to export unemployed workers until diplomatic relations between Yugoslavia and West Germany were established in January 1968.

No going back

"The first generation [of guest workers] thought they would work for a couple of years, save some money and then head home," said Josip Juratovic, a member of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, for the Social Democratic Party. Juratovic was once a guest worker himself, as was his mother. Like many mothers and fathers who became guest workers at the time, she left her son with her parents. After Juratovic finished school he joined her in West Germany and trained as a mechanic. He worked on an assembly line for 20 years before going into politics. "I came as a guest worker, then I became a migrant, and now I am a German with a migrant background," Juratovic said.

Josip Juratovic (Reiner Pfisterer )

Juratovic, who was once a guest worker himself, now serves in the Bundestag

His story mirrors many of the more than 1.5 million guest workers who came to West Germany from Yugoslavia, and were known as "Yugos." By the 1980s, it had become clear to many that there was no going back, in large part because their children had become firmly rooted in German society. They were attending local schools, spoke very good German and had little to do with the society from which their parents came. "That was the first realization," Juratovic said. "But then a second came when war broke out in former Yugoslavia and it became clear that they simply could not return."

A new homeland

By opting to stay, the guest workers were confronted with a new problem: integration. German society was convinced that these hardworking immigrants were already integrated. Historian Ivanovic echoed that sentiment, pointing to the many similarities between German and Yugoslavian culture. "They also ate meat and potatoes, they spoke German and did not look markedly different, so they were invisible as a group," said Ivanovic.

Read more: Yugoslav wars: A home for forgotten refugees

Bosiljka Schedlich calls the phenomenon "pseudo-integration."

In truth, however, most Yugoslavians congregated with other Yugoslavians, either in churches or organized groups from their homeland. Although it was difficult for many of those first-generation immigrants to learn German, their children and grandchildren were rightly seen as well-integrated.

Yugoslavian guest worker passport for Muhamed Gutic (DW/M. Smajic)

Many Yugoslavian guest workers initially saw their time in West Germany as temporary, but eventually ended up staying

Schedlich believes that had a lot to do with the guest workers' work ethic. "Most Yugoslavians put great value in their children's performance at school," she said. "Just as they thought they needed to be the best workers, they also thought their children had to be the best students at their schools. Thus, many of those children got a very good education and went on to earn university degrees. They made a very conscious decision to live their lives in Germany."

"They are still bound to their family traditions, but they are also very connected to the German community," Schedlich added.

So what does the term "homeland" mean for first-, second- and third-generation Yugoslavians? Schedlich has a simple answer. Both her ancestral home and Germany are her homeland. The world today is much more integrated than it was, she said: "I am just as much at home on Sipan as I am in Berlin. I cannot separate the two." 

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