“Ausländer” in Hoyerswerda: A Foreign Worker’s Life in the GDR and Reunited Germany, Part 2

In an earlier post from a few months back, I looked at the issue of Vietnamese contract workers in the GDR through the experiences of Hieu L., father of Minh, a young woman I met through my work at the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University. After spending a number of years in the GDR in the 1970s learning German and completing engineering studies, Hieu returned to Vietnam where he worked as a university lecturer. In the mid-1980s, however, he received an offer to return to the GDR to work as a translator for Vietnamese guest workers and in 1987 he accepted, leaving his wife and young daughter behind to take on what was quite an attractive position compared to those on offer in his native Vietnam. If you are interested in Hieu’s work in the GDR, you’ll find plenty of those details in the earlier post. We pick up the story here in the summer of 1989 . . .

The Wende and a World Turned Upside Down

In the summer of 1989, Hieu received welcome visitors to his East German home in Wallendorf, his wife Diu and their daughter Minh. Minh explained: “My Dad’s contract was for five years and so we were allowed to visit him [in the GDR] for six months in the summer of ’89. We could do that because he was not a regular guest worker. He was more highly qualified and directly employed [ed. note – by the East German state, not a specific factory or industrial combine as was the case for most guest workers].” During the visit, Diu became pregnant with the couple’s second child and this important development in the family’s life was mirrored by the major changes taking place in geopolitics.

Indeed, the backdrop for the family’s reunion was the gradual disintegration of the GDR over the summer and fall of 1989, a situation which really picked up speed with the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. The scenes from the Brandenburg Gate in the aftermath of the Wall’s fall reached Wallendorf’s television sets and Diu quickly decided that she wanted to be part of this monumental moment. So, with Minh in tow, she and a friend boarded a bus for the once divided city. Once in West Berlin, they spotted a supermarket through the bus window, got off to marvel at all that was on offer there and even bought some soap and mandarin oranges. The scene remains vivid in Diu’s mind to this day: “Our eyes were sparkling with joy and we thought of West Germany as a prosperous country!”

The political changes, however, quickly plunged the many foreign guest workers inside the GDR into uncertainty about their futures. Minh relates, “My Mum told me that after the GDR ceased to exist [ed. note: formally on October 3, 1990, but the decision to unify was essentially sealed with the results of the March 1990 elections in the GDR], the contract workers had no ‘existential status’ anymore. So they were told to go back and they were offered or given 3,000 Marks or so to buy tickets and go back.” While some guest workers accepted this offer, for others, including Hieu, a return home was not particularly appealing and so he and Diu decided to try and stay and find a place for themselves and their young family in the new Germany.

Berlin, Abflug vietnamesischer Arbeiter

Returning home: in the fall of 1990 thousands of Vietnamese guest workers returned home via daily charter flights from East Berlin’s Schönefeld airport (photo: Bundesarchiv 183-1990-1109-032 / Bernd Settnik).

The decision to remain, however, brought with it many challenges and in order to have any chance to stay, the family was dependent on the help of their German neighbours and friends. More often than not, this support system was made up of former co-workers of Hieu’s. Minh explained:

“My Dad had a really supportive supervisor [from his last GDR workplace] who saw that my mother was pregnant, that my family couldn’t stay in the workers’ dorm where we were living, so he tried to find us an apartment, something that was really difficult at the time.  But he found us one in an old, unrenovated building in Oranienburg [ed. note – just outside Berlin]. It was still heated with coal, you washed in the kitchen, there was no bath, and only an outhouse outside. But he helped us find this apartment and that was a big help.”

After unification had been formalized in the fall of 1990, Hieu immediately went to the Ausländerbehörde (Foreigners Authorities) to try and clarify his status. Here his case caused more than a bit of head scratching for the eastern German bureaucrats adjusting to the new realities:

“They told him, ‘Please wait a minute, we have to check the new laws on this because we are not updated on the permission of Ausländer to stay here.’ So they had to do some research on the new rules and laws. And then afterwards they told my parents that, ‘Based on your status we are confident that we can prolong your stay for one year and after that you have to come back and we’ll figure things out from there.'”

During this period, Hieu learned, like many educated in the GDR, that their “eastern” education wouldn’t cut it in the newly unified Germany. He’d need to upgrade his qualifications, something Hieu began pursuing through a retraining opportunity. But after a time without any income, Hieu had to break off the course to focus his energies on working as a small scale vendor at open air markets in Berlin, the easiest way to earn the cash the family desperately needed. Minh labels the early years after unification as “the unstable phase” with her parents trying to figure out the best way forward.

Photo from East German Press Agency on October 30, 1990. Original caption "Bad times for foreigners living in eastern Germany. Though among the first to have lost their jobs and faced with often horrendously high rent for their spots in workers' residences, many do not want to return home and are looking for alternatives. Here a former Vietnamese guest worker makes his way to the town centre of Gera with a camping table under his arm and his wares stowed on his back and in a plastic bag. Once there, he'll try and earn some money as an illegal vendor (photo: bundesarchiv_bild_183-1990-1030-006)

Photo from East German Press Agency on October 30, 1990. Original caption “Bad times for foreigners living in eastern Germany. Though among the first to have lost their jobs and faced with often horrendously high rent for their spots in workers’ residences, many do not want to return home and are looking for alternatives. Here a former Vietnamese guest worker makes his way to the town centre of Gera with a camping table under his arm and his wares stowed on his back and in a plastic bag. Once there, he’ll try and earn some money as an illegal vendor.” (photo: Bundesarchiv183-1990-1030-006 / Jan-Peter Kasper)

In 1991 or 1992, they’d had enough of Berlin and decided to pick up and move to Schlungwitz, a town in southeastern Saxony near Bautzen. There, they’d heard, the local Ausländerbehörde (Foreigners Authority) was, Minh put it, “easy going and friendly with foreigners. And they also had friends there so, they thought ‘Why not just go there and try to get a extension to our residency permit since it seems to be easier there than other places?'”

Hoyerswerda Beckons
Renovated 70's era Platte near town centre (photo: author)

Renovated 70’s era Platte near Hoyerswerda town centre (photo: author)

It’s important to recall the social and political backdrop of these early years after unification and it is fair to say for foreigners seeking to put down roots in the former-East, the situation was less than encouraging. The transition to a capitalist economic order threw tens of thousands out of work and many eastern Germans, unsettled by the present and uncertain about their futures, saw unwelcome competition for the scarce jobs in the foreign contract workers who’d stayed on and the refugees who had come into newly unified Germany. With this economic downturn, the atmosphere in many eastern German towns and cities soured and this was exploited by neo-Nazi groups interested in pushing all non-Germans from the country. Attacks directed towards foreigners became commonplace and newspapers around the world filled with disturbing stories from heretofore unknown places such as Guben, Rostock and Hoyerswerda. How were Hieu and Diu able to see a future for themselves and their family in such surroundings? In my correspondence with Minh she suggested to me that her parents’ pasts in war torn Vietnam helped cast the challenges posed by unification into a less daunting light:

“In light of the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, I was reminded that my parents witnessed the reunification of two countries that were divided as a result of the Cold War. It is my assumption that they were enabled to cope with the precarious Wende situation because they already overcame a lot of adversity and deprivation during the Vietnam war and its aftermath, which might have been more existential and frightening than the opportunity to make a living in a newly reunited Germany that offered soap and mandarin oranges in its supermarkets.” (email to author, May 1, 2015)

Still, when Minh told me the next step on family path, I was incredulous. While Schlungwitz had seemed worth a try, apparently work proved hard to come by there too so when in 1993 Hieu and Diu received an offer to work in a new Asian restaurant in Hoyerswerda, they jumped. All fine and good, but in 1991 Hoyerswerda had been site of vicious anti-foreigner pogroms that had resulted in authorities removing all foreign guest workers and asylum seekers from the town. I inquired with Minh as to whether her parents knew about the town’s past when they moved there:

“I asked my Mum about this and she told me that she didn’t know it in advance and she can’t remember whether my Dad knew it and didn’t tell her, or didn’t know it either. But she didn’t know it when they moved there.”

The restaurant work proved short lived as the Asian restaurant went under in shortly after the family arrived. With no better option presenting itself, Minh’s parents decided to stay put and try to earn a living as textile vendors, a common occupation for former-Vietnamese contract workers struggling to find their feet in Germany. They rented a spot in the corner of a local supermarket where they displayed their wares and also became fixtures at the market days in the area towns including Hoy itself. Minh reported that it was here that Diu learned about the town’s troubled past:

 “She heard about it from the people living there. When she had her stand at the market, people would tell her, ‘Oh, here just next to the central market place was the Asylheim (refugee residence) that was attacked.’ But somehow in her narrative it [this event, ed.] kind of belonged to the old GDR. As she described it, she said, ‘Oh, you know what, when we moved, it had already happened.’ It had happened in the past. So when we moved there she didn’t experience any racism, or somehow she didn’t experience that in a very negative way, so she was pretty neutral about that.”

To underline Diu’s assertion that the racism of Hoyerswerda’s past had no impact on her and that the family didn’t suffer from racially-motivated exclusion in these years, Minh related the following story her mother had told her:

“The guy with the stand next to her [ed. note – Diu] at the Hoyerswerda market looked like a neo-Nazi with all the accessories, the bald head, boots, etc. So she could tell that he’s rechts  [ed. extreme right-wing politically] but in her contact with him she just found him normal to her. She didn’t find that he treated her in a racist way or called her names or stuff. She said, ‘When you approach people in a nice and friendly way, then they will be normal to you.’

She had her narrative about that, she said, ‘It’s not the population of Hoyerswerda who’s rechts (right wing) and who’s to blame; it’s not the whole population of the town. It’s a small group of right wing-extremists and youth.’ She would say that it’s a problem of youth without perspectives. So she has a really healthy way of looking at this.”

Needless to say, Diu’s perspective on Hoy flies in the face of how most outsiders perceive the town and its population. And while it’s only one person’s perspective, it is one that is rather difficult to dismiss given that it comes from a visible minority woman whose work in Hoy required her to interact with the townspeople everyday. Another interesting aspect of Diu’s point of view for me is that it echoes to a significant degree the points that Hoy’s mayor Dieter Brähmig made when I met him in 2006. At that time, listening to a town father and its leading elected official deliver what sounded like a standard line of defence for the indefensible, I had a hard time suppressing my skepticism (details on my visit with the mayor are found in my earlier post here). I knew that the factors that had created the pogroms of 1991 were not particular to Hoy, but the mayor’s line of argumentation had me feeling “Methinks he doth protest too much.” Diu’s testimony makes we wonder whether I was unfair in my wariness.

School Days: “A Sheltered Childhood”

Minh's grade 5 class photo from 1996 (photo: courtesy Minh and Diu).

Minh (3rd from right in front row) in her grade 5 class photo from 1996 (photo: courtesy Minh and Diu).

For Minh herself, her memories of Hoyerswerda are also very positive. A young girl of 7 years when the family arrived, she started school in Hoy and has nothing but good things to say about her time there:

“I had a sheltered childhood (“wohl behütete Kindheit”  in German) in Hoyerswerda and I always attributed this to the fact that I was pretty well integrated at school. I didn’t have any problems there. I had fun at school, I had friends at school, I spoke German.

Later on, thinking about this time, I decided that it was also a good time when we lived in Hoyerswerda because I was just before my puberty. So I was in this naïve phase of childhood where I was still protected from those reflections about discrimination and racism.

My experience of the world was limited to the way the world treated me and the world in Hoyerswerda, in terms of teachers and friends, treated me in a really friendly and supportive way. I saw that my parents had a hard time for sure, but my world was generally pretty good.”

Minh told me that she had been back to Hoy on several occasions in the years since her family’s departure. However, despite her happy childhood in the town, going back is strange. Practically none of her school friends remain there. I ask if she could imagine returning there to live and she smiles and shakes her head: “The town is too quiet. Walking around you get the feeling that the future is not something that will happen in Hoyerswerda.”

Minh's elementary school in Hoyerswerda (photo: courtesy of Minh and Diu).

Minh’s elementary school in Hoyerswerda (photo: courtesy of Minh and Diu).

Farewell to Hoy

After several years of life in Hoy, the family was shaken when Hieu was diagnosed with cancer. After four years of treatment, Hieu passed away leaving Diu and the children in an even more precarious position. Mourning the loss of her husband and lacking the support he gave, Diu came to the decision to return the family to Berlin. Though it would mean starting over, there the family would find the support of some distant relatives and a large Vietnamese community. And so in 1999, Diu took Minh and her younger brother Chien to the Friedrichshain district of what had been East Berlin. In the years that followed, Diu opened up her own convenience store in Wedding, a district in what used to be West Berlin. Her shop is only short distance from the Böse Bridge, the site where the Berlin Wall was first breached on the evening of November 9, 1989, a location which belies the considerable distance that Diu and her family have traveled to find their place in their German home.


    • Thanks for bringing that to my attention!

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