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Origin – homeland – the experience of foreignness | The migration experience in historical contexts With its presentation of four different texts on personal experiences of having to leave one's homeland and face an entirely new environment, ULB invites all members of the university to share their thoughts, comments, notes and critical remarks on the texts.

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American Reiss description (1723)

Franz Xaver Urfarer (born in 1691)
Origin: Regensburg
Migration: Mexico – Mariana Islands
Reason for migration: religious mission

The author was a Bavarian clergyman, a member of the Jesuit order, which is reflected in the addition of “Soc.(ietas) Jesu” after the author's name as well as his first name, which are both references to St. Francis Xavier, a co-founder of the Order. His 1723 account of his journey to and missionary stays in Mexico and on the Mariana Islands is a historical source for the spiritual foundations and leitmotifs of the Jesuit mission overseas.

Reading the texts gives us an idea of the deep conviction and pronounced idealism with which many 17th and 18th century European missionaries were determined to take the true faith to the indigenous population, and thereby help them – and themselves – to salvation in the form of eternal bliss. The way they had been shaped by their origins and cultures left them perfectly prepared to undergo great privations in order to achieve their goals. The attitude with which one declares oneself ready for the purpose of temporary emigration is characterised by a combination of humility and pride.

My Emigration to America (1829)

… in addition to remarks regarding the ecclesiastical, economic and moral state of the local Germans and tips for would-be émigrés

Jonas Heinrich Gudehus (1776- 1831)
Origin: Remlingen, Lower Saxony
Migration: USA
Reason for migration: professional situation

It is a typical emigration story of the early 19th century. At the beginning of the book the author indicates briefly that he feels his professional situation is unsatisfactory, and speaks of his hopes for a new start as promised by the liberal environment and unlimited opportunities of the lifestyle on which the USA's reputation was based.

The text is a highly detailed, vivid account of the conditions he found in the existing communities of German migrants, and provides authentic insights into the reality of life at that time. This also includes curious utterances about the linguistic “mixed idiom” of German dialect and English pronunciation cultivated by the immigrants.

The central motif with regard to “origin” is the friction between the leading culture of the country of origin and the unusual habits and beliefs in the country of immigration, to which the immigrant community responds with cultural adjustments. The migrant painfully feels the gulf between the convictions of his origin, which are based on the Protestant faith and familiar ecclesiastical structures with their “benevolent strictness”, and the lax handling of religious education, for which he feels responsible in his new homeland, and he feels personally disappointed by the lack of appreciation of his commitment in his new professional environment.

What is particularly impressive is the incomprehension expressed with palpable indignation with regard to certain “rampant” freedoms in dealing with – religious – school lessons and worship, although the irritation arises out of the observation that the immigrant compatriots like to follow this liberality.

The warnings to potential emigrants regarding thwarted hopes, homesickness and intellectual loneliness in the farming environment, where there is no alternative to hard physical labour, are particularly moving.

Seventy years. The story of my life. (1896)

Otto Roquette (1824 – 1896)
Origin: (ancestors) France – Silesia
Migration: Darmstadt
Reason for migration: career

“Often a stranger in new surroundings”

The autobiography by the historian and literary scholar Otto Roquette (1824-1896), a professor at the Polytechnic – the predecessor institution of the TH/TU – in Darmstadt since 1868, describes several experiences of origin, departure and new arrival, which also take place on several levels:

  • expulsion of his Huguenot ancestors from France in the 17th century,
  • which, after countless migratory movements, led the family further and further east to the Polish border region;
  • three changes to his place of study, likewise across Germany from East (Berlin) to West (Heidelberg) and back to the East (Halle);
  • first employment in Dresden;
  • and finally the appointment in Darmstadt.

For the reference to “origin”, the first chapter (History and stations of the Huguenot family) on the one hand, and the last section of the book from chapter 16 (Time in Darmstadt) on the other, where Roquette himself sees a particular turning point, must be highlighted. The subject of origin is presented illustratively in these sections: the origin of the family resulting from its expulsion from the homeland and the “culture shock” as a scientist of Prussian origin in Darmstadt being the two poles in a life that is marked by constant changes in his place of residence. The fact that the feeling of home and the subjective concept of the term home change habitually, as it were, leads in the description of Darmstadt's peculiarities to some ironic refractions similar to those used by Stanišić. Large sections of the Darmstadt chapters are equally enjoyable to read.

From the distanced perspective of the new citizen, we learn countless historical details that also reflect the timeless behaviour of the people. For instance, the passage about the reactions to Roquette's refusal to wear the official civil servants' uniform that was customary in Hesse would have been something like an online scandal in today's Internet networks.

Time and again, the narrative alternates between reflections on great politics and observations of human idiosyncrasies. The core of the narrative is the examination of the author’s own place in life – the inner and outer home.

Postcard to Hans Schiebelhuth (1941)

Letter to Fritz Usinger (1947)

An die Deutschen (To The Germans) (first edition 1947)

Sang aus dem Exil (A Song From Exile) (first edition 1950)

Karl Wolfskehl (1869 – 1948)
Origin: Darmstadt – Munich
Migration: Auckland, New Zealand
Reason for migration: escaping from persecution

“Exul poeta (exiled poet)”

Here too, the experience of foreignness is twofold. Due to the persecution of the Jews by the Nazi regime, this member of a highly respected Darmstadt banking family that was firmly anchored in the educated German middle classes suddenly felt like a stranger in his own home country. His father, Otto Wolfskehl, was a building contractor who was involved, among other things, in the expansion of the Polytechnic (forerunner of the TH/TU Darmstadt).

As a Germanist and writer, Karl Wolfskehl also spent his life researching the cultural-historical tradition of Judaism, even more so in his years of exile. Full of dismay at the rapidly increasing, officially pursued aggressive anti-Semitism, about the relentlessness of which he had no illusions, he turned his back on Germany in 1933, immediately after the Reichstag fire, going first to Italy, which had long been his second home.

The deep cut, the burning of all bridges to his country of origin and with it the transition to the actual level of foreignness, came in 1938 when he emigrated to New Zealand as the result of the rapprochement between fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany: to the “globe's last island reef”, a greater distance from Europe “than any other residential point on the globe” (letter quote KW 2.8.1946).

The poems written in exile convey a sometimes painful confrontation with origin and foreignness. The concept of exile refers to a level of complete hopelessness at an extreme distance from home. And yet, as well as all the feelings of abandonment and insurmountable distances described in the poems, something happens that Stanišić also reveals: the release of new creative forces precisely through the moments of friction with and on the foreign environment, which in turn trigger new stimuli.

With many allusions to mythological and literary content, the epic poem “An die Deutschen” illustrates the deep and self-evident roots in German cultural history and in the central relationship between all expellees and their origin: the language.

Likewise, the theme of religious positioning is also always present, and quite clear in the posthumously published anthology “Sang aus dem Exil”, where the poet chooses the role of Job in the Old Testament to symbolically intensify his situation. As well as wrestling with fate, at this point in the book the four poems create an atmosphere both of arrival and of new hope. With the evocation of language as a universal sign system, the text provides the impetus for new movement in positive openness to the new living environment.

His great artistic productivity was both a contrast to and a way of coping emotionally with the oppressive living conditions of the blind and impoverished poet in the 10 years of exile preceding his death, as described in two original letters to his Hesse poet companions Hans Schiebelhuth and Fritz Usinger, as individually authentic as they are exemplary.

A few months after this letter, Fritz Usinger wrote an obituary for Wolfskehl in the Hessische Nachrichten, in which he described “An die Deutschen” as the “most powerful poem about German emigration”. In any event, each of them is a highly poeticised examination of origin that can take place entirely intellectually and in complete seclusion.

Although members of his circle of friends had planned and prepared for Karl Wolfskehl's return to Germany after the war, it was not to be. The poet from Darmstadt is buried in Auckland.