Fifty Years of Turkish Immigration 'Guest Workers' Relive Their Journey to Germany

Some 50 years after Germany and Turkey signed a labor agreement, a group of 35 so-called Turkish 'guest workers' embarked on an anniversary train trip to relive their original journey. Following her father's path, writer Yasemin Ergin rode along last week, recording their memories in the first two parts of her series.

Yasemin Ergin

"Don't worry if the train leaves without you," the man from the travel agency says. "It'll come back again. That's just for the TV crews, because they need to film the farewells twice." The two older men who just asked me what Ayben, the female rapper jumping around on the stage, has to do with their history, are getting nervous.

We stop chatting and watch as our fellow passengers board the train, waving enthusiastically under the direction of journalists and tour operators, camera crews and photographers. It is a trial-run farewell.

Slowly, the train begins to move. Heartbreakingly melancholy music plays and a screen behind the stage continues its slideshow of photographs of Turkish guest workers in Germany in the 1960s and 70s. The immigrants moved to Germany to help fuel the country's Wirtschaftswunder economic miracle in the decades following World War II.

Most of the eyewitnesses reunited at Istanbul's Sirkeci Train Station this sunny fall day are not particularly impressed by the staged nostalgia.

A 70-year-old retiree who has joined our group, and whose nametag identifies him as Ahmet Yetis, laughs when I ask if he's looking forward to the upcoming journey. "It's not as exciting today as it was 50 years ago," he says. "Back then, we were young and naive and we didn't know what to expect." He drops his voice, as if speaking confidentially, and whispers, "Actually, these days I prefer flying. It's faster and more comfortable. Back then, we didn't have any choice."

Tracing My Parents' History

A short time later, I'm sitting in a compartment and skimming through the biographical summaries of the trip participants. As the train passes the remains of Istanbul's historic city wall and the dismal, densely developed residential areas on the edge of the city, I try to find connections between the stories of the 35 Turkish-German retirees with whom I will travel for the next five days, and my parents' story.

Are there men here who left for Germany the same year as my father Ismet? He boarded a Munich-bound train at Sirkeci Station in 1973, later than most others. Ismet Ergin, 29, was a tailor from Alanya, then still a sleepy Mediterranean town in southern Turkey. He snatched up one of the last possible tickets to Germany, just before guest worker recruitment ended in November of the same year.

Is there anyone on the train from the same region as my parents? No, but I do find one passenger, Nuri Yilmaz, who arrived in Munich in 1968 and was then sent to work in Lübeck, just like my father.

I make my way through the compartments, getting caught up in countless conversations along the same lines: How does it feel to re-enact the journey that once led to a new life and a new home? What memories surface as the train stops, as they recognize the stations we pass, as they talk with their fellow travelers?

'Black Train'

Nearly everyone on the train is repeating their original journey for the first time. In the 1960s and 70s, anyone who wanted a work permit for Germany first had to come to the German liaison office in Istanbul to be examined for physical eligibility. Those deemed strong and healthy were generally sent to Munich on the next train. After that initial train journey they always went by car when they returned to Turkey on vacation. That was the cheapest way, and also offered the unbeatable advantage of being able transport an almost unlimited amount of luggage in both directions.

Sebahattin Cosar, 69 and originally from Bayburt in northeastern Anatolia, tells me they called the train to Germany "kara tren," or "black train," not only because the old steam engine coated everything in soot, but also because so many of the men on the train were grieving over leaving home and afraid of the unknown. He cried a great deal and spent the entire train ride thinking about his wife, whom he had to leave behind, Cosar tells me.

It sounds like a sad trip, I think, as fields and a sparse landscape pass by and we approach Edirne, a city in western Turkey on the border with Bulgaria.

Then, I meet Fehmi Atar, a man with light brown hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks, who wants to pose for a picture in his Georgian fur hat and bursts into hearty laughter after every other sentence. The train ride was a blast, he says. Many of the travelers had brought instruments, and they played music and danced and looked forward to unaccustomed freedom. "We were all in our early 20s and leaving home for the first time," he explains.

It sounds like a fun trip, I think. Then the train stops: We've reached the Bulgarian border. And for the first time since this journey began, I have my own memories.

Afraid of Bulgaria

Every summer until I was 12, we drove to Turkey for vacation. That meant three endless days in the backseat of the car, plagued by motion sickness, boredom and my older brother's teasing. We didn't take real breaks, because my parents didn't see any reason to waste valuable vacation time or additional money in backwards Balkan countries, where they were kept busy bribing border guards and traffic police.

Instead of staying in hotels, we made brief stops at service areas, where we generally stuck with other Turkish families, who were just as afraid of Yugoslavs and Bulgarians as my parents were. Bulgaria in those days was notorious among Turks who traveled through the country. Turkey's destitute neighbor was considered corrupt and dangerous, while its people were seen as criminals. I never really understood where exactly this aversion came from. But I have clear memories of the "routine check" at the Bulgarian border, in which the customs officials unhurriedly took our car apart, unscrewing the back seat and, to my outrage, even carefully inspecting my toys, all because my father had accidentally slipped the wrong denomination of money into our passports.

"Well, and now they're in the EU and we're not," chuckles Fehmi Atar, as we wait inside the train for our passports to be processed as a group, passing the time by telling each other our stories of the Bulgarian border decades ago.

When we arrive at our hotel in the city of Plovdiv in western Bulgaria late in the evening, I call my mother in Germany. "What do you mean, you're staying in a fancy hotel in Bulgaria?" she laughs. "That's not an authentic trip!"

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