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Looks Like I'm German Now

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Why do people of other countries opt for German citizenship? How do they feel with their new nationality? Two Babelians, Karolina Golimowska and Daniel Tkatch, talk about their experiences.

Karolina Golimowska: Poles apart

In this piece my name is K., not to be confused with Ms K., whose role is also very important in the process described below. Equally crucial are the federal eagle, the Berlin bear and Ms B. – the other prominently featured faces of the German state – and the question as to why both animals are sticking out their tongues.

I come from Warsaw, and my name sounds Polish. Not even a tiny little bit German or French. Just Polish. Or, for those who are not specialists, somehow Slavic or eastern European. For me Poland means family, herring with sour cream, and hot potatoes. Poland is my language. Poland is the country that I haven’t lived in for the last nine years. My whole adult life takes place elsewhere, mostly in Germany.

For me Germany primarily means Berlin. That’s where I studied and then got a scholarship to go to London, and that’s where I returned afterwards. Berlin is where I work on my PhD. Berlin is where my friends are. Berlin is my life.

Berlin means plasterwork on high ceilings, big parks, women with unshaved calves, street demonstrations and flea markets, East-West dichotomies, Sunday brunches, and white wine spritzers. Berlin means a bike, my first job, my first wage, my first rented flat.

Berlin also stands for the first discriminatory experiences and critical viewpoints about Poland from outside of the country itself. Finally, Berlin is great bakeries and a huge selection of yoghurts in grocery stores.

A train, the Berlin-Warszawa Express, connects Berlin and Warsaw.  It runs between my childhood and my adult life 3 times a day, 7 days a week.

The wrong end of the coolness spectrum

Polish people don’t have a particularly good reputation in Berlin. This is possibly due to the proximity of the border and the constant commuting of construction workers and cleaning ladies, which is very common. Border regions can easily become problem zones; a no-man’s land, 60 kilometres of nothing in particular, nothing to the left and nothing to the right, as far as the eye can see.

Many of my Berlin friends have never been to Poland. Their immediate association with the country is World War II and a whole bunch of uncomfortable topics, which being a German you would rather prefer to avoid. Some of them have been just over the border, to the ‘Polish market’ – an institution that had to be explained to me at first. Alexander says that one of the things you can buy there are all kinds of neo-Nazi devotional objects. All things strictly prohibited in Germany – some hundreds of metres further on the other side of the border – are displayed on camp beds: T-shirts, steel helmets, CDs, Mein Kampf.

To be on the safe side, those lacking personal experience with Poland are mostly rather sceptical. Foreigners in Berlin fall into two categories on either side of the coolness spectrum. French people are cool, their German sounds so cute. Spaniards are also cool, and so are the English and Italians. Everybody knows about tapas, fish and chips or pizza and everybody wants to learn their languages because they are so attractive and useful. English is a must and can be best practiced with native speakers. The Queen is well known too; and James Bond, of course. Americans are also on the cool side. 

Is there anything Poland is known for? Most of my Berlin friends cannot name a single Polish writer, not to mention film titles or secret agent figures (and yes, they do exist!). Probably the most famous one is called Hans Kloss, aka Stanisław Kolicki – a charming cult double agent, loved by several generations of Poles.

Polish people are on the uncool side. You have to explain yourself quite a lot, and some things are simply impossible for us here. I am not allowed to vote although I live and pay my taxes here, but neither are other non-Germans. I cannot apply for a Fulbright scholarship in Germany because I am not German. I cannot apply in Poland either because I live in Germany. I can't become a civil servant. Once, at Robben & Wientjes, I was not allowed to rent a van with my Polish driving license. Officially because of insurance issues, unofficially because they thought I would disappear forever with the car to Poland: the land of thieves.

When searching for an apartment, an estate agent told me on the phone: "The owners do not wish to have any more foreigners living in this house. Don’t even bother trying." In 2008 at the job agency I was told that it is good that Polish citizens need to obtain a special work permit in order to work in Germany, "otherwise the country would be populated with panhandlers and prostitutes." These are moments in which I feel totally helpless and powerless. I am reaching the limits of my possibilities. I can do what I want, but some things remain unattainable. I encounter legal and social borders that I can neither influence nor change. I remain in one place instead of moving forward. So what to do?

After a long emotional rollercoaster and many conversations with friends and family, I applied for German citizenship. As an EU citizen, I am allowed to keep my Polish one and hence become a holder of dual citizenship.

What does this feel like? I remain a granddaughter of a forced labourer at a Siemens factory during World War II and of a first-aid worker in the Warsaw Uprising. I am still a great-granddaughter of a school director who survived Dachau, Oranienburg, and Sachsenhausen and who kept writing letters to his beloved wife throughout all those years in concentration camps. He had to write in German, which he learnt. He wrote on special forms on which he then glued a stamp with Hitler’s face on it and hoped to receive an answer, a sign of life.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I cannot discuss my decision with them. I only have the letters.

Taking the test

On the way to becoming German one has to take a test. The score is meant to prove "legal and social knowledge as well as knowledge of German living standards." I have to wait 6 weeks for a free spot to take it. I then sit in a large room at a community college in Neukölln. There will be ten of us. An employee of the school gives us an introduction. She talks very slowly and very loudly. She is cross-eyed and it is impossible to tell who or what she is looking at.

Then she distributes the tests comprising 33 questions and we begin: "What kind of a state is Germany? A) Monarchy, B) Dictatorship, C) Republic, D) Princedom?" – "If a person reaches a certain age in Germany, he or she in most cases receives A) a pension, B) a salary, C) nothing, D) an educational loan?" – "What does the abbreviation CDU stand for? The Club deutscher Unternehmer (German entrepreneur Club)?" – "What did Willy Brandt want to express when kneeling in what used to be the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in 1970?"

Wrong answers provided as options in questions concerning the nature of the foreigner, or the ‘other’, are quite remarkably, and to a large extent, based on stereotypes: "A black man applies for a job as a waiter in a restaurant in Germany. What would be an example of discrimination? He does not get the job: A) because his knowledge of German is not sufficient, B) because his financial expectations are too high, C) because of his skin colour, D) because he does not have sufficient professional experience required for the job."

Since I had already lived in Germany when the ‘citizenship test’ was introduced, I can well recall the vivid discussions in the media at the time. Already back then I had the impression that the test is only a pseudo-solution for the problems that German society seems to have with migrants, which cannot yet be directly addressed or discussed. What happens is a shifting, a relocation, of these problems.

Sometimes I even think that the actual aim of the 310 multiple-choice questions in the test catalogue is to provide a cover for issues that the Germans themselves should try to deal with: "How do we imagine Germany as a heterogeneous society in which more and more people come from elsewhere?" – "What are we afraid of?" – "What intercultural intolerances do we feel unable to acknowledge and address because of our collective past?" – "Are all of them really so bad that we cannot talk about them openly?"

We, immigrants, are not in the position to answer these questions for you. All the questions you ask us in the test are, in my opinion, of secondary importance. They reveal much more about you than our answers will ever reveal about us.

The Eagle and the Bear

I hand in my test and am the first one to leave the room. On my way out I ask myself why the man of colour applies for a job at a restaurant and not, for example, at a management consultancy. Three weeks later I receive the score: 33 points out of 33. Four months after that a letter from Ms K. of the naturalisation office finds its way to me. She writes that she is very happy for me and sends her congratulations. I am supposed to call her to arrange an appointment. One week later I meet her in her office and pick up a piece of paper that states that I have been a German citizen since the previous week.

Ms K. hands over a green document in a white folder to me. On the document the federal eagle looks to the left and sticks out his tongue. On the folder I can see the Berlin bear, also facing to the left and, just like the eagle, sticking out his tongue. I think: How weird! I then have to sign that I understand what it means to hold dual citizenship, and this, as I find out, is location-sensitive and can mean different things according to where I am.

In Poland I am Polish. In Germany I am primarily German. I should then never look for help at the German embassy in Warsaw, as they won’t help me. In all other countries, says Ms K., I am both and can choose which documents to use to prove my identity.

Later on at home I google "federal eagle + tongue" and find out that animals in coats of arms are always portrayed as brave fighters and are meant to give the impression of being great defenders: "The eagle appears to produce a shout that should make others feel in awe." 

The next morning I pack both of my new animals in a bag and take them to the city office to apply for an ID card and a passport. The lady in charge, Ms B. tells me she has never seen a naturalisation certificate. She makes a photocopy of it and smiles. She then asks a colleague to help her out with filling in something on her computer. The colleague is visibly older than her and visibly unhappy that he has to help: "If you weren’t gone for so long, you would know how to do it, Ms B."

She clenches her teeth. After he leaves the room, she says, "If you ever have kids, make sure you don’t stay on maternity leave for too long! It really hardly ever happens that people show up with such a document." I nod, showing that I understand

The idea and meaning of citizenship remain abstract to me. I know that thanks to dual citizenship I will no longer fall into so many legal and social gaps. I will no longer be discriminated on the basis of my ID. In the evening I talk to my father over the phone and tell him about the events of the last few days. He asks, surprised, "What do you mean Ms K.? In Poland it’s the president of the country who awards the citizenship to the new Poles in an official ceremony!" 

It was indeed everything but spectacular, but I guess it tells us something about the number of people obtaining citizenship in each of those countries. I have been careful with announcing my new identity to too many people. Lena says we should celebrate. Sarah congratulates me. Daniel says in the photo in my new passport I look like Jane Doe...


The article consisting of two parts written by Karolina Golimowska and Daniel Tkatch has been originally published in German by the magazine "The Germans" (No 05/2013) and awarded with the German-Polish Journalism Award Tadeusz Mazowiecki in May 2014. Gazeta Wyborcza published it in Polish in August 2014. Here is Daniel's part.

Translated from Jetzt bin ich also Deutsch: Erika Mustermann und die Wappentiere