In 1990, I was one of thousands of immigrants coming to Germany. We spent our first six weeks in a gymnasium, and then moved to a temporary dwelling. The German locals turned out to be very welcoming. Still, as an adult, I learned that being uprooted as a child is a traumatic experience, irrespective of the kindness of the new place. Sixteen years after I had left Meerbusch, I took a stroll to that gymnasium, to our apartment, and to my high school. During the refugee crisis in 2015, refugees have been housed in its gymnasium – just a few hundred metres from my first accommodation. Establishing a foundation in my Polish home village, I share my experiences and knowledge gained as an immigrant. Immigration is never a one-way road. If both sides really meet, they can evolve and create something new. This is how progress happens.
In November 2017, I took a walk from my friends’ place in the German city of Neuss to a small town nearby called Meerbusch. Finally, I felt at peace with who I was and how I had become that person. My German life had started in the summer of 1990 in a gymnasium, where the German authorities had prepared a shelter for the many immigrants coming to Germany after the Fall of Communism. I lived in Meerbusch for 11 years. I left in 2001 for college, and never went back to live there.
The summer of 1990 was hot as hell. Inside the gymnasium, there were 12 families in 12 cubicles of about 6m2 without doors, and half of them without windows. I started learning German to prepare myself for my first day at German school. I was eight years old. On the first day of school, I was sick with chickenpox, which gave me two more weeks at “home”. Later, on my way to school, I would pass by this building not knowing that it would become our third home in 1992. The second one was to be a temporary dwelling for immigrants in another town.
After moving to a real apartment in 1992 (the one near our “first home”), I started attending high school, which, in Germany, starts in the fifth grade. It was only a short walk from our flat if I used the back entrance of the school building and passed a small residential area and the sports field. When my Polish grandmother would come to see us, she’d always say that this was a deserted ghost town as, unlike Polish villages and towns, there were hardly any people walking around.
In contradiction to my first two school years in communist Poland, I found German high school to be an oasis of liberty. In my opinion, the lockers were the epitome of teenagers’ freedom. In Poland, students had to drag their heavy books around every day. Here, we could leave some of them at school. We could also leave anything we wanted to in the lockers. They were our small “rooms”. I found it very thoughtful of the adults to give us something we could be responsible for. Throughout my high school years, I learned that the teaching style would resemble the locker room: we were allowed to withhold anything we wanted, and were responsible for what we kept inside while being allowed to defend it. Here, I learned that I was allowed to have a strong opinion about a poem, novel or a short story. I was an individual.
When starting high school, I was invited to take part in the Mary Poppins high school musical, in which I was meant to sing in the choir. The music rooms (lit up in this photo) were where I made new friends. This was the first time that newly acquainted people did not recognise me as a foreigner. My German had become fluent! What’s more, in these music rooms, I got to know my best friend. It’s his place I had left to take these pictures in November 2017.
In this photo, you can see the music room lit up, the garden inside the school building, and a reflection of the arts section of the school with Superman painted on the wall. This photograph is a perfect reflection of my soul and my biography. Having come from beautiful landscapes in Polish Masuria, I attended a high school named after the artist Ewald Mataré, where, in various classes, I had the chance to explore my artistic talents as a singer, actor, writer and visual artist. This school, with its wonderful teachers, was essential to my further development as a cultural scientist and photographer, while retaining my love for nature. Nature has always been a strong force in my personality, and in 2013, I returned to my home village in Masuria.
The German community was really welcoming and I found friends immediately. Growing older and being a teenager in love with the man who is now my husband, then being a teenager living in Poland, I grew more and more alienated. I increasingly recognised that I wasn’t a German. But I wasn’t a Pole, either. Aged fourteen, I started comparing my living in Meerbusch to a kind of boarding school – I just had to attend in order to one day have a better life in Poland. At this time, I started growing really unhappy and lonely. I still have recurring nightmares about cycling through an empty town looking for a way out. In these dreams, I keep riding in circles with no exit in sight. This loneliness is something I am still learning to embrace.
There were about 660 students at my high school, and probably five were from Poland. The town was then known as the German town with the most millionaires . Obviously, I wasn’t one of them. Nonetheless, I had the opportunity to learn from people representing a social class we had not known in communist Poland. At school, the worst insult was to call somebody a “Pole”. I was one of them, which I never denied. Being the best student in class and very well integrated, I still often felt alienated – like this small container here, in front of the high school’s gymnasium. I was very touched to learn that in 2015, refugees were housed in my high school’s gymnasium. Coming back and seeing the gymnasium being renovated after it had sheltered refugees felt like I was closing a door in my life in order to move on.
The seven sorrows of Mary
In this photo, you can see a small chapel and a street sign with the street’s name meaning “The seven sorrows of Mary”, which is a Roman Catholic devotion. It’s situated in a nice alley in a rural area of fields that reminded me of my home village. I would cycle here almost every day. What’s more, Mary is my middle name, and in Poland, I had been raised in my grandmother’s Roman Catholic household. This is why the road of the seven sorrows of Mary became a place dear to my soul. However, in 1994, I became an atheist, and it was due to the freedom of thought we were given at school that I felt free to make this decision, and to choose a life against my beloved grandmother’s will.
I am your guest
It was kind of schizophrenic to be supported by so many persons and still listen to awful jokes about Poles. Later on, we learned about Hitler and the “Untermenschen”. Obviously, Poles were still thought of in that way. Throughout my 11 years in Meerbusch, I often felt like I was observing a cosy party while standing outside the building and looking through the window. Although achieving the school’s second-best A level and being a well-integrated student and member of the town’s community doing charity work for refugees, I was denied a recommendation for a scholarship by the schoolmaster, without any good reason. To me, this denial was like an “Untermensch” certificate. It’s only in 2017 that I came to embrace this part of me, and deeply understand that I can just walk in and attend the party as well – anywhere in the world, and not using the back entrance.