New train to Germany will refresh memories after 50 years

This Wednesday the state-run Turkish Radio and Television Corporation will host a remembrance event at the Sirkeci railway station.

It was a long ride; it took more than three days. Muharrem Mirlihay entered the train in the Sirkeci station in İstanbul, and left it in an alien country far to the north: Germany.

This happened in 1961, and the young man from İstanbul took the train because Germany needed a workforce for its booming industries — and he needed an income after his own company, a copperplate printing business in İstanbul, had gone bankrupt. Mirlihay, now 85 years old, was one of the first guest workers to move from Turkey to Germany.

This Wednesday the state-run Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) will host a remembrance event at the Sirkeci railway station. A “Germany train” will leave on a symbolic trip to Munich in southern Germany. This project will bring to life the memories of many guest workers from those first years.

Mirlihay started to work at the construction company Züblin in Berlin in 1962. He stayed there until 1988, when he retired. He is still partly living in Berlin: He has an apartment there as well as one in his old hometown, the İstanbul suburb of Şile on the Black Sea. His daughter and son live in Berlin, but the grave of his wife, who followed him to Germany in 1963, is in Şile.

“I like the climate and the food in Şile,” he told Cihan news agency, sitting in a cafe in the town center, “It keeps me healthy.” He prefers to speak Turkish; his knowledge of German has remained rather limited, although he belonged to the very first wave of “guest workers.” The agreement between the Turkish and the German state governing the transfer of laborers was signed on Oct. 30, 1961.

The 50th anniversary will be celebrated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, and for the occasion many cultural events are taking place or have already occurred in both Turkey and Germany.

It was not Germany’s first guest worker agreement — similar agreements with Italy, Spain and Greece were already in place — but it was the one with the deepest impact. However, at the time when the contract was signed no one could imagine how profoundly this piece of paper, bearing German government file number 505-83 SZV 3-92.42, would change German society. Thanks to this, Europe’s biggest state developed willy-nilly into an immigration country.

TRT’s Germany train will follow the historic path of the guest workers: They also travelled from Sirkeci to Munich before they were allocated from there to different cities. The train will arrive on Oct. 30 in Bavaria, on the actual anniversary date. In a press conference on Friday, TRT General Manager İbrahim Şahin gave information regarding the project.

According to him, Turkish workers who immigrated to Germany from Sirkeci, journalists, artists, and politicians will join the ride.

“Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, who is responsible for TRT, and Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ, who is responsible for Turkish citizens abroad, are likely to join this train tour. The parliament speaker will also be with us until we reach Belgrade. Ten deputies from different political parties will also join the Germany Train. This train journey will allow us to produce a documentary on our people’s immigration to Germany in the 60s. There will be live music shows aboard the train, which will be shown live on TV,” said Şahin.

Fifty years ago, Muharrem Mirlihay felt very sad after the train from Sirkeci arrived in Germany. When he got off the train he “deeply regretted” his decision to leave Turkey, his wife and his two children, he said, “I knew no one, I didn’t understand the language.” The first months he worked at different factories in the southwestern State of Baden-Württemberg before he moved to Berlin. His son and his daughter were born in Turkey, but started primary school in Germany after they and their mother had followed Mirlihay to Berlin. Mirlihay’s job at the construction company Züblin was to repair and operate cranes. He liked his job and his colleagues; his boss helped him to find a good apprenticeship for his son.

After 12 years, in 1973, Germany stopped recruiting Turkish workers because of the economic downturn due to the oil crisis. By that time, 2,659,512 Turks had applied to be guest workers, and 648,029 of them had been placed in Germany. About half of them returned to Turkey, the other guest workers decided to stay with their families in Germany. Today more than 2.5 million inhabitants of Germany have Turkish roots, like Mirlihay and his children’s families.

He said that now his homeland is half in Turkey and half in Germany. One of the things Mirlihay liked most about Germany was that thanks to his rather good income he did not have to work evenings and weekends, and therefore had more time for his family. Difficult to cope with were the prejudices and the rejection he sometimes felt in Germany. “On the other hand, we also had contacts with some German neighbors, and we visited each other.” Cihan news agency asked Mirlihay: If he passes away in the remote future, does he want to be buried in Berlin or Şile? “I think when I am dead I will not care,” he says.


21 October 2011 Friday