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AFTER THE ESCAPE

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Aehem Ahmad, the "pianist amid the rubble," had to flee from the civil war in Syria. 

In our special online feature, we tell stories about artists who have had to escape from their native countries, and how they have managed to turn their new destinations into home. Or not.

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The video of a young man playing the piano in the ruins of Yarmouk, a bombed out district in the Syrian capital Damascus, was broadcast around the world. In it, he sang and played for his people: to comfort and encourage them during the civil war. The young man was Aeham Ahmad, the "pianist amid the rubble." 

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Aeham Ahmad

 ... talks about a dramatic experience in Damascus.

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"It was my birthday: April 17, 2015.  I wanted to celebrate it as a change of pace from everyday life since people were already starving there. Someone had said in Yarmouk that the IS would show up. But we didn't expect them on that day. I was playing my piano outside and they fired at the piano and then threatened to cut off my fingers if I didn't stop playing. My father was also there and told them that it was his piano and not mine. He wanted to keep me out of it."

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Aeham Ahmad

... talks about his escape from Syria, and the valuable things he had to leave behind.

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"My wife Tahani, our children and I fled Yarmouk, in the middle of Syria. We were then imprisoned because we did not leave legally. After being in prison for 20 days, we bought our way out. Tahani stayed there and I moved on.   
But we lost a lot of money. We had to pay 11,000 euros to come to Germany." 

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The family had to separate: Aeham's wife Tahani went back to Yarmouk with their children to stay with her parents. Aeham Ahmad managed to escape via the Balkans and the Mediterranean Sea, finally arriving in Munich in southern Germany. 

After staying in Stuttgart, Bochum, Olpe, Münster, Gießen and Kirchheim, he was assigned to live in Wiesbaden at the beginning of 2016.  

He first shared a room 10 square meters (108 sq. feet) in size with five other men in a residential home.

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Music kept its hold on him. He would go to music stores and schools and ask whether he might sit down and play the piano. He was eventually invited to play at concerts, and got to know other musicians. He also found a manager.

In the beginning, he would play for little or no money. News of his story spread, however, and Aeham Ahmad ended up touring throughout Europe. At concerts, he prefers playing his own compositions and traditional pieces. 

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Aeham Ahmad

 ... sheds tears at a concert.

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"It is a great pleasure for me to play this song in Kassel today, together with a wonderful friend. We will play songs from Yarmouk and Germany. Maybe something will change so that this horrible war will not get even worse."

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Aeham Ahmad sometimes hates himself for being successful as the "pianist amid the rubble." He has meanwhile written an autobiography: "And the Birds Will Sing."

"'What are you thinking, you good-for-nothing impostor?'" he writes. "I think sometimes. 'Here you are, basking in the spotlight. So many have kicked the bucket. Why are you one of those who survived?'" 

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Saša Stanišić fled war-torn Bosnia with his parents in 1992. After the Cold War, the multi-ethnic state of Yugoslavia collapsed. People who once lived alongside each other began fighting one another: Croations, Serbs, Bosnians. And that in the middle of Europe. 

"You are fortunate if you can have a say in your escape," Saša later wrote. 

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Saša Stanišić was 14 years old when he arrived in Heidelberg with his mother in 1992. It was a city located on a river, just like his home city of Visegrad.

His uncle vouched for them. They were permitted to stay, but without a permanent right of residence. The horrors of war, however, stayed with Saša for a long time.

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Following occupation by Serbian troops, the Bosnian refugees just wanted to leave their country. Everything was in ruins; the cities were completely destroyed.

In Germany, everything was foreign to Saša Stanišić. And yet, somehow, it also seemed familiar: the ruins of Heidelberg Castle, the bridge, the river.  

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The only words Saša knew in German were "Fussball" and "Lothar Matthäus." "Schokoladen-Eis" (chocolate ice cream) was added to his vocabulary on his first day in Germany. For Saša , it was a taste of home.

He learned quickly, with a real thirst for knowledge. He was lucky to have a patient German teacher in his integration class. He mastered the German language and read books with a passion. 

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Saša Stanišić

 ... about language as a key to understanding a city.
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"I think it was a situation in which anonymity prevailed for a while. It wasn't clear what the buildings were for, or where things were, or who was responsible for what, or where one had to go. We more or less had to be taken by the hand. We had to depend on someone virtually every step of the way, also for all the bureaucratic matters.
It was a new world. That Nintendos were displayed in department stores and you could play computer games for free — that was amazing to me. They may be mundane things, but they were things that opened up a whole new world for me." 






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Saša Stanišić

The family left the city for Emmertsgrund, a suburb where immigrants live. "An urban development project where you see a lot of concrete," he wrote. The family didn't invest in new furniture since Saša's parents were convinced that they would soon return to Bosnia.

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"Arriving in the city and departing from it — those things are important to me. And becoming familiar with certain buildings and making them my own. That's the way it is throughout the city; it doesn't really matter where. I like being in certain places a lot; other places, I hate. But I think that's true for anyone who lives in a city."

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Saša Stanišić

 ... about life in Emmertsgrund. Few people spoke German, and playing soccer in the streets served as an integration course for newcomers.

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"I was familiar with certain things from back home. High-rise and concrete buildings from the Communist period. It didn't look that different in some places. In other places, there was a big contrast, but still, there weren't a lot of surprises. It wasn't like a completely different planet ... What was really impressive was being able to walk down the streets without fear. To be able to meet people from all different classes and places, but where there was a sense of security, that one was protected. People always knew, 'ok, he's from Bosnia. He's lived through this and that. Ok, and we've come here from Silesia and have a completely different background.' We were able to get a sense of how other people lived in uncertain situations. We realized that, in the end, everyone just wants to live in peace and harmony with each other."

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Saša Stanišić

 ... about a key place during his youth: a gas station. Later, he used the material in his novels.

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"The social institution that did the most for us was a dingy Aral gas station. It was our youth center, our place to get a cold drink, our dance floor and a place to go to the bathroom. Different cultures united in neon light and the smell of gas. In the parking lot, we learned bad German from each other and how to reinstall car radios. The only rule that applied was not smoking near the fuel pumps."

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Saša Stanišić began writing his first poems and stories in a German class for foreigners. Looking back, he now calls it "horribly pathetic stuff." He is still friends with his German teacher from back then. 

Stanišić's confidence grew, and he switched to college-preparatory classes at the Internationale Gesamtschule in Heidelberg. He threw himself into mastering the world of German vocabulary. 

After graduating from high school, he was nearly sent back to Bosnia in 1997. But someone at the foreigners' registration office helped him out and gave him some advice: register to study at the university. His parents, however, had to leave Germany.  

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The sun was shining over Chile's capital city on September 11, 1973.

But on the radio, the announcer said that it was "raining over Santiago." It was code for those who were informed and it alarmed many people. Something happened on that day that would affect Chile for a very long time.  

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Antonio Skarmeta

 ... about the coup in Chile that changed his life forever.

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"I was living in Santiago on September 11, 1973. It was the day of the coup d'etat that brought our democracy to an end. Socialist President Salvador Allende was leading the government at the time. But the idea that the government could take on positions that were a little more to the left than before instilled fear in some people in the country. That's when the military staged a very brutal and repressive coup."

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On Sept. 11, 1973, a formerly democratic Chile was overthrown and turned into a military dictatorship by General Augusto Pinochet, who was supported by the United States.  

President Salvador Allende's socialist reforms, which included nationalizing natural resources such as copper, went too far for the Americans' taste.  

After all, the Cold War was underway — the US and NATO on the one hand and the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries on the other were bitter rivals.  


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Salvador Allende's last words in the Presidential Palace "La Moneda"

"Long live Chile! Long live its people! Long live the workers! Those are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain."  

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MURDER OR SUICIDE?

On the same day as the coup, President Allende died at the Presidential Palace, which had been bombed. For a long time, the circumstances of his death were unclear. Only after an exhumation and an autopsy in 2011 was it revealed that Allende had committed suicide, and was not shot by the insurgents. 

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The National Stadium, where soccer players had previously battled for the ball on the field, was turned into a concentration camp by Pinochet.

People loyal to the former government, leftists, and even men who simply had long hair: tens of thousands were picked up off the street in the following weeks. They were tortured and imprisoned, and several thousand were killed. To this day, over 2,000 people are still missing.  

Chile's dictatorship did not end until 1989.


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Antonio Skármeta

 ... left Chile just in time. 

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"I left the country willingly. I was not tortured. I only lost my job. And that was little in comparison to what happened to others."

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Antonio Skarmeta introduces himself to German television audiences

An excerpt from Antonio Skarmeta's documentary "Wenn wir zusammen lebten" ("If We Lived Together"), Germany, 1983

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"My name is Antonio Skarmeta. I am a writer from Chile. I left my native country in '73 because of a putsch against the Democratic President, Salvador Allende. Ever since, a military dictatorship has ruled my country. For the past eight years, my family and I have lived in West Berlin."      

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Having received a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service, Skarmeta lived together with his wife, Cecilia Boisier, and their two sons in Berlin. But the writer needed his language, and German was too foreign to him in the beginning. So, too, was everyday life in Berlin. What was he supposed to write about?

This was precisely what would become his literary subject. He began to write about how to manage life in a foreign country.  

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Antonio Skarmeta wrote the story "Nothing Happened" in 1977. 13-year-old Lucho, son of Chilean refugees living in Berlin, is the protagonist.

Lucho is torn between the world of his parents, who wish to return to Chile at some point, and Berlin, which has increasingly become home for him. 



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Helping one's parents — or going out with one's girlfriend?

This is a scene from the film "I See This Land From Afar" from 1978, directed by Christian Ziewer, and based on the book by Antonio Skarmeta.

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Antonio Skármeta

... about one of the most profound experiences in his life.  

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"And then I had a very profound experience: that of exile. So I started focusing my writing on that, but at the same time, I began referring to what I had in common with my German and European audiences. So my subjects and my literary motifs began changing as a result of my life experiences."

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While in exile in Berlin, Skarmeta wrote his most famous novel, published as "The Postman" in English, in 1985. It tells the tale of a postman who is aided by the country's most prestigious poet, Pablo Neruda, in gaining favor with his beloved by way of poetry. The novel was turned into a film twice. 

Neruda himself was already long deceased. It was maintained for many years that he died of illness shortly after the military coup in 1973. He was, however, likewise a supporter of former President Allende.  

Now it is clear that Neruda was actually poisoned. 

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The number of people who flee their countries is higher than ever before, according to the UN refugee agency. Fleeing is no new phenomenon: in 1831, German poet Heinrich Heine fled to Paris to elude censorship and hostility. 

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When Heinrich Heine reached Paris, the citizens of France had just toppled their king from the throne in the 1830 July Revolution.

It was the second uprising after the French Revolution of 1789 — and it put an end to the rule of the Bourbon monarchs. France's citizens demanded press freedom and more rights. In a city that appeared to him as the "pinnacle of the world," Heinrich Heine hoped he would be allowed to write whatever he pleased.

He missed his native Germany all the same — and embraced his longing in a poem.

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Heinrich Heine: "Night Thoughts"

Heine had lived in exile in Paris for 12 years when he wrote the poem "Night Thoughts."

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"Thinking of Germany in the night,
I lie awake and sleep takes flight;
I cannot close my eyes, as burning
Teardrops flow with quenchless yearning.

The years come by, the years go past!
Since I saw my dear mother last.  
Twelve years have gone, the thoughts come thronging,
Aching with desire and longing.
.....

I would not yearn for Germany so
Were not my mother there, I know.
The fatherland will live forever  — 
That dear old woman may die, however. 
.....

Thank God! My window's shining bright
With France's cheerful morning light;
My wife comes in, fair as the morrow,
and smiles away this German sorrow."  









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Heine was not the only one attracted to the new freedom. From all over Europe, people flocked to Paris, among them many Germans including Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Heine's greatest competitor, publicist Ludwig Börne.

Paris was Europe's cultural and political hub —and the second largest city in the world after London.

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Germany, on the other hand, was ruled by many, and a national state did not yet exist. Born in Düsseldorf on December 13, 1797, Heine faced enmity for his critical journalistic texts. And from childhood, he was discriminated against because he was Jewish.

In his memoirs, he recalls being beaten up because he told the class his grandfather was a "short Jew with a long beard." It was his first thrashing ever, he wrote.

In later years, a Göttingen fraternity excluded him because he was a Jew.

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In exile in Paris, Heinrich Heine went by the name "Henri." Thanks to private French lessons when he was a boy, he already spoke the language fluently and was soon accepted as a virtual French author.
    
Heine was invited to salons, met Honore de Balzac, George Sand, Frederic Chopin, and Eugene Delacroix. He was friends with the creme de la creme of the Paris art scene. Over the years, however, he drove most of them away.

Eventually, he felt quite lonely in Paris.

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Unlike many of his friends, Auguste Crescence Mirat, the French woman he called Mathilde, stayed with Heine throughout.

In 1841, the couple married, by her request in a Catholic ceremony. She never knew he was Jewish, and she never asked. He was to her a "German poet," she said, with a clarity he himself never possessed.

Even his thoughts, he wrote, were in exile in a foreign language.


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In November 1842, Heine applied for the right of residence in France. At that point in time, he already received a pension from the state, and was well connected to French ministries. His petition, however, was refused.

A year later, in October 1843, Heine traveled to Germany for three months, not long after penning his "Night Thoughts." It was his first visit since leaving Germany 12 years earlier. 

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Heinrich Heine: "Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen"

Shortly after his return to Paris, Heine wrote "Germany. A Winter Tale."

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It was in November's dreary days:
The year grew heavy-hearted;
The wind striped all the forest bare;
For Germany I departed.

And when I came to the border line
My heart beat something fearful
Within my breast; I even felt
My eyes grow moist and tearful.

And hearing the German language I felt strange beyond all measure;
It was as if my heart began
To bleed away with pleasure…

 … And when I came to the bridge on the Rhine
And the harbor bastion by it,
I saw old Father Rhine flowing past
In the moonlight, quick and quiet.

Greetings to you, Old Father Rhine,
Say, how have things been going?
So often I have thought of you
With longing ever-growing … 

... Yes, this is my homeland's native air!
It glows on my cheeks like fire!
And all this mud on the highway is
My fatherland's very own mire! ...

… And when I came to my mother's door,
She trembled with joy to see me;
She cried "Dear Child!" and clapped her hands..

... And as I ate with appetite
My mother was happy and cheery;
She asked me this, she asked me that,
With many a pointed query.

"My child, where would you like to live —  
Here in this country or in France —  
Which people do you prefer now?"

"Dear mother, the goose in Germany
Should satisfy any diner;
But the French are better at stuffing geese
And also, their sauces are finer." …

... The air of France, so specially light,
Felt heavy, like any other;
I had to breathe German air again
Or else I'd stifle and smother.

The reek of peat and German pipes —
This my heart was demanding;
My feet itched with impatient need
On German soil to be standing…

... I yearned to weep where once I felt
The bitterest tears fall burning —  
I think it's 'love of country'
That they call this foolish yearning.

I don't like to talk of it; it is
A sickness, a sick fixation.
I always hide my wound in shame
From public observation.

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In "A Winter Tale" and other writings published in 1844, Heine shamelessly poked fun at the Bavarian and the Prussian Kings. Printed in a pamphlet, the poem "The Silesian Weavers" accused Prussian soldiers of a bloody attack on poor weavers.

The Prussian Interior Ministry accordingly issued an arrest warrant for Heine for attempted high treason: If he ever entered Prussian territory again, he was to be jailed. Heinrich Heine was then truly in political exile.

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The arrest warrant was issued, and wanted posters circulated: "Heine, writer, 50 years old, medium height, prominent nose and chin, Jewish characteristics, excessive lifestyle, and whose flaccid body shows signs of decay."

Despite the dangerous situation, Heine and Mathilde were in Hamburg from July through October 1844. His longing for home was too strong and he also wanted his wife to meet his mother. Heine sensed it would be his last visit to Germany.

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In 1848, at the start of the German Revolution, Heine collapsed, a victim of paralysis. Bed-ridden, he could no longer leave what he called his "tomb of mattresses." But he wasn't about to die just yet.

"Long ago my measure was taken for a coffin, and also for an obituary notice, but I am dying so slowly that it is all gradually becoming as tiresome for me as for my friends. But patience — everything has an end.  One fine morning you will find the booth closed where so often you were entertained by the puppet show of my humor."


Heinrich Heine: Postscript to the Romancero (1851)

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London has been her home for over 80 years. Only seldom does she travel to Berlin, where she was born in 1923.

Due to her massive success, she would not have to work as she has sold millions of books. They line the shelves of many a child's room. Yet she continues to write and illustrate children's books to this day. She has published over 30 of them. 




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AT HOME IN THE WORLD OF BOOKS

Judith Kerr likes coming to Germany most for children's readings, like she did for the 2016 International Literature Festival in Berlin. Over 90 years old, she is a true lady: polite, curious and "very British." 


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SHELTERED CHILDHOOD IN BERLIN


Judith Kerr grew up in Berlin, living with her parents and her older brother Michael in a house in the idyllic suburb of Grunewald. It was a carefree period. Her father was the famous theater critic Alfred Kerr, who was vehemently opposed to Adolf Hitler.
In 1933, however, the Nazi seizure of power brutally altered Kerr's childhood.

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Alfred Kerr suddenly had to flee to Prague. Back in Berlin, everything had to happen very quickly for the rest of the Kerr family. As Judith's mother was packing the family's bags, she remembered to take along some of her daughter's drawings. However, Judith left her famous pink rabbit behind in her bedroom.

Judith's mother and the two children were on a train heading toward Switzerland on the day before the Reichstagwahl in March 1933. It was just in the nick of time — before the Gestapo could seize their passports. 

The family reunited in Switzerland. Lugano, Zurich, Küsnacht, and then Paris — these were the family's stations after they hastily fled Nazi Germany. Alfred Kerr's name had already been placed on the list of people to be denaturalized. 



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ESCAPE AS AN ADVENTURE  


The Kerr family was suddenly stateless. Judith liked Paris very much. Her father bought her a little hat there, and she loved the food and the language. She and her brother did not realize that their parents could hardly pay the rent. In March 1936, the family moved to London. In utter poverty, they lived in a dingy hotel full of immigrants.

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Judith Kerr

 ... about the challenge of a new language. 

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"For a while, after we came to London, I can remember that I could only speak with my parents. I'd start a sentence in German, then some French would flow into it, then English. I realized that no one else could understand what I was saying. But then things got better. The strange thing is I cannot recall anymore when my brother and I began speaking English with each other because it was easier. And I also always spoke English with my mother. That must have been odd to her. She spoke English very well, but it wasn't her language. It was a different language than that of her children. That must have felt strange."

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The Second World War broke out on September 1, 1939. London was also bombed, with Hitler's Luftwaffe demolishing the city in a blitzkrieg.

The terrible war was finally over in May 1945. Thanks to a scholarship, Judith Kerr was able to study at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she gleefully learned to draw and paint. She also held odd jobs to pay the family's bills. Her father was 80 years old by that time.

Judith's mother Julia worked in defeated Germany as an interpreter for the Americans. Her father, however, did not survive his first trip back home after the war. He died on October 12, 1948.

In the early 1950s, Judith began working as an editor at the BBC. That's also where she met her husband and began writing screenplays.

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HOW JUDITH KERR BECAME BRITISH

"At the end of the war, it became clear to me that this was our home. But of course it wasn't home for our parents. They never belonged anywhere."

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FEELING HOME IN LONDON

Judith Kerr has lived in her narrow townhouse in the district of Barnes for over 50 years. She works on her children's books in the study; this is where she is at home — in the world of Mog, the forgetful cat and the tiger who came to tea.

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Nneka Egbuna left her native country Nigeria when she was 19, and moved to Hamburg. Living in Germany was tough at first, but she persisted: she learned German, graduated from high school, went to college —  and finally, she discovered music. To this day, it has been a key influence in her life.

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Nneka Egbuna was born on December 24, 1980 in the Nigerian city of Warri. Ethnic conflict and violence were part of everyday life in the city in the Niger Delta. "I had no choice," Nneka said about the reasons she left Warri. "Circumstances forced me to leave my country, my family. I didn't know where my life would take me."

Nneka, the daughter of a German and a Nigerian, ended up in Hamburg. First she lived in a refugee shelter, then she moved to a home for youths. She quickly learned the language, graduated from high school and went to college. She didn't consider a career in music — but that changed when she met Farhad Samadzada, aka DJ Farhot.




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Nneka Egbuna

... about how hip-hop came into her life.

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Nneka Egbuna

... and what it sounds like when hip-hop meets dub, soul, reggae and afrobeat. She released her first album in 2005.

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Nneka Egbuna and her manager, Martin Schuhmacher

 ... remember the first time they met — a surprise for the manager.

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"So she sat on the couch, totally shy. It was irritating — this is, after all, the music industry. She kept addressing me with the formal "Sie." I told her she could use the less formal "du," but she declined. She explained that in her culture, older adults are addressed formally out of respect.

She had two songs with her. One was "Change," ­which I thought was amazing. It's one of the songs on the first album."       

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Nneka Egbuna often sings ...

 ... about morality and the meaning of family, but she also sings about politics and social problems in her native Nigeria.

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BACK TO NIGERIA
 
Those first few years in Germany, Nneka never felt homesick. "I knew I had a goal and I wanted to achieve it. And I could not show any signs of weakness," she told herself. "Focus! Your life is here now, so focus. There is no time to be sad or cry." But then, one day, she was overcome by nostalgia.

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Nneka Egbuna

 ... remembers returning to Nigeria for the first time.

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Nneka Egbuna, Aeham Ahmad, Saša Stanišić, Heinrich Heine, Judith Kerr, Antonio Skarmeta — they all had to leave their native countries and try to adjust to life in a foreign country. Have they been successful?

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Nneka now lives in Lagos, Hamburg and Paris — and tours the world with her band. Her home is not limited to one place; she says she doesn't feel completely "at home" anywhere.  Instead, for her, "home" is more of a feeling and life is a journey.

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Antonio Skarmeta returned to Chile in 1989, at a time when Pinochet's dictatorship was coming to an end. 

He lived in Germany again from 2003 until 2006, serving as his country's ambassador. 

He now lives in Chile with his second wife, whom he met in Germany, and his youngest son. His two older sons remained in Berlin.

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Saša Stanišić

Language is his home, and writing is Saša Stanišić's profession. His debut novel "How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone" was published in 2006. The young author became well-known all over Germany soon after. Winning the Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2014 catapulted him to the bestseller lists.

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"I have a very good memory and that is a real gift for a writer. Without having to refer to a recording or notes I have made, I can often recall a situation that I once thought was something worthy to write about or that I would later use. It doesn't just have to be people, but also places. Since I often change the places where I'm writing, it's often not possible to remember where certain parts of texts were written. Strangely enough, though, it's silly little stuff that I may remember. Then I know precisely what day it was, or where I was. And that's really nice because it's a narrative about me … When you've focused on a certain subject for four years and have often been on the verge of kicking it all into a corner and you're ready to give up, then it really gives you the courage to keep going."

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Heinrich Heine, the German poet wanted for high treason, died on February 17, 1856 in exile in Paris. His grave is in the cemetery of Montmartre, the district where he lived for 25 years of his life.

In his last will and testament, Heinrich Heine bade his native country, Germany, farewell – as well as the French people. He was so very fond of them, he wrote, and thanked them for their hospitality.        

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In August 2016, Aeham Ahmad's wife Tahani and his sons were finally permitted to come to Germany  — over a year after he escaped Syria.  
The family moved into an  apartment in Wiesbaden. Aeham Ahmad also owns a piano again.

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Her partly autobiographical trilogy, which began with "When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit," became her legacy. She has never wanted to write an autobiography. 

Now in her 90s, Kerr enjoys visiting Germany, but that took a while. When she does visit, she not only talks about the heroes from her books, but also about her past.  

Judith Kerr's life journey is bound to awe and inspire the many young refugee children in her German audience these days.

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