‘Could I offer my child a better life?’: Russian-Jewish Immigration to Germany
Career perspectives, social security, a higher standard of living: these are just some of the reasons why around 120,000 Russian Jews left their homeland and migrated to Germany in the 1990s. As explained in the interview with Isaak B. published on HTTP earlier this year, this immigration was the result of an official agreement enabling Russian Jews as a group to leave the Soviet Union. But their experiences were highly individual. For some, the reason for leaving was discrimination against their religion and culture in the Soviet Socialist Republics and their successor states. Others asked themselves: ‘Could I offer my child a better life?’ The biographies of Russian Jews in Germany have their own trajectories linked to their background, age, profession, gender, life experiences, expectations and aspirations. What follows is a summary of my conversation with Anna S., who moved to Germany in 2000 and has now found a new home in Augsburg, Bavaria, giving insight into the perspective of a young woman and a mother.
As the coach made its way on the two-day journey from Moscow to Nuremberg in Germany, Anna S.’s astonishment kept growing. What surprised her wasn’t so much all the things she could see through the bus’s big glass windows. Rather, she was surprised by the boy sitting next to her: he was eight years old, yet confident, eloquent and full of spirit. The boy was her son. Over the years, she hardly had any time to watch him grow up. From early morning until late in the evening, and even at the weekends, there was just work. The grandparents took care of the little boy. But now on the coach to Germany she finally had the time to get to know him and become a caring mom.
As Anna S. is telling this story, the voice of this self-assured woman becomes warm and soft. And it also becomes clear why she made the decision, fifteen years ago, for herself and her family, to leave behind, which had been her life until then. By the time she was thirty she had achieved a lot: a degree from the conservatoire in Moscow, one of the most renowned academies of music in the world; a leading position as deputy head of a high school; and a ‘Teacher of the Year’ award. Nonetheless, she had the feeling that all the decisions in her life had been made by others. ‘I had to become a music teacher even though I never loved the subject. I always felt as though I were in the wrong place. All I’ve ever wanted was to learn languages’, Anna S. says. But behind the Iron Curtain no one was interested in foreign languages.
The day Anna S. started making her own decisions and filled in her emigration application at the German embassy in Moscow, the school secretary informed her that she was in the final of the ‘Teacher of the Year’ competition. A few weeks later Anna S. actually won the competition. She returned home to her husband overloaded with presents and flowers. He was holding the acceptance letter in his hands. Three months later the family was sitting with a small travel bag for the three of them on the bus to Germany.
From the moment she received the letter, Anna looked forward to leaving and started learning German. ‘I was married to my dictionary’, she says, describing the eagerness with which she absorbed the new language word by word. In the offices of the civil service in Germany, she didn’t want to feel ashamed of not understanding or not being able to hold a conversation. She didn’t want the help of an interpreter. She wanted to manage things on her own. Even now, sixteen years after her arrival, she still practises, and gets excited if she acquires new vocabulary from watching TV or reading newspaper. During the interview, she makes use of difficult words such as ‘indoctrination’ or ‘relativization’.
I had to become a music teacher even though I never loved the subject. I always felt as though I were in the wrong place. All I’ve ever wanted was to learn languages.
Does she have any regrets? Would she now make different decisions? ‘[I regret] that I didn’t migrate earlier’, she says. When she went to the embassy in 2000, the German government had been offering Russian Jews this opportunity for ten years. Once she had safely arrived in Nuremberg, she was asked where she wanted to live from then on. Anna S. hadn’t given this much thought. Only one thing mattered: ‘I’ve lived in a huge city like Moscow for such a long time, I don’t need that anymore.’ She therefore asked for a ‘small, godforsaken place’ – and ended up in Augsburg.
In the first years she spent almost every minute with her son to make up for lost time. ‘Could I offer a better life to my child?’ She is positive about what is to come with the German education system, the healthcare system and the social security benefits. Nowadays she works as a salesperson in a shoe shop. With this, she has discovered a new talent. ‘I can sell you anything’, she says with a wink. She enjoys her new job – but also the fact that it leaves her a lot of free time to spend with her family. Her son has grown up; he moved out two years ago. Now he lives in his own apartment and is studying at university. His main subjects are German language and literature. He still amazes his mother.
Anna S.’s story based on an oral history interview conducted for a recent exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Augsburg.