ESCAPE: Aeham Ahmad
AFTER THE ESCAPEFinding home in a foreign land
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.
Aeham Ahmad, PianistESCAPEWhy security is more than just avoiding the bombs
... talks about a dramatic experience in Damascus.
Pause the video for a translation.
A birthday shock
"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."
... talks about his escape from Syria, and the valuable things he had to leave behind.
After the Escape
But we lost a lot of money. We had to pay 11,000 euros to come to Germany."
Arrival in Wiesbaden
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.
Music saved him
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.
... sheds tears at a concert.
The burden of having survived
"'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?'"
SECURITY: Saša Stanišić
Saša Stanišić, WriterSECURITYHow one can find home in writing
"You are fortunate if you can have a say in your escape," Saša later wrote.
Saša Stanišić, WriterFleeing the horror
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.
Germany - foreign, and yet familiar
In Germany, everything was foreign to Saša Stanišić. And yet, somehow, it also seemed familiar: the ruins of Heidelberg Castle, the bridge, the river.
A thousand foreign words in his head
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.
... about language as a key to understanding a city.
Pause the video for the English translation.
Living out of three suitcases
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."
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.
Exisiting between worlds
... about life in Emmertsgrund. Few
people spoke German, and playing soccer in the streets served as an integration
course for newcomers.
Concrete buildings with a great view
... about a key place during his youth: a
gas station. Later, he used the material in his novels.
Practice field for street smarts
Registering at the university saved him
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.
EXILE: Antonio Skarmeta
Antonio Skarmeta, WriterEXILEHow a new beginning translated into global success
Chile's September 11Chile's September 11
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.
... about the coup in Chile that changed his life forever.
Please pause the video for the English translation.
Antonio Skarmeta about the coup in ChileThe military coup
Chile: Military dictatorship during the Cold War
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.
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."
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.
Torture and death in the National Stadium
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.
... left Chile just in time.
I left Chile voluntarily Antonio Skarmeta about his escape
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
Escape to West Berlin Escape to West Berlin
"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."
Antonio Skarmeta needs new subjects
This was precisely what would become his literary subject. He began to write about how to manage life in a foreign country.
"Nothing Happened""Nothing Happened" — A book about exile
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.
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.
... about one of the most profound experiences in his life.
The experience of exile
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.
YEARNING: Heinrich Heine
Heinrich Heine, Poet and JournalistYEARNINGWhy some people feel the longing never ends
Refuge in Paris
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.
Heinrich Heine: "Night Thoughts"
Heine had lived in exile in Paris for 12 years when he wrote the poem "Night Thoughts."
Heinrich Heine: "Night Thoughts"
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."
New freedom in Paris
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.
A stranger in his own country
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.
A German in Paris
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.
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.
German or Frenchman?
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.
Heinrich Heine: "Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen"
Shortly after his return to Paris, Heine wrote "Germany. A Winter Tale."
Heinrich Heine: "Germany. A Winter Tale"
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.
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.
Wanted: Heine, Writer
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.
The 'mattress grave'
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)
NEW HOME: Judith Kerr
Judith Kerr, Author of children's booksNEW HOMEWhy children's books can also feel like home
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.
At home in the world of books
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."
Sheltered childhood in Berlin
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.
Escape without return
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.
Escape as an adventure
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.
... about the challenge of a new language.
Judith Kerr on her language dilemma
Tough war years in London
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.
How Judith Kerr became British
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."
Feeling at home in London
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.
FOREIGN HOME: Nneka Egbuna
Nneka Egbuna, MusicianFOREIGN HOMEWhy 'home' can also be a feeling
In Germany, Nneka discovers music
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.
... about how hip-hop came into her life.
... and what it sounds like when hip-hop meets dub, soul, reggae and afrobeat. She released her first album in 2005.
Nneka Egbuna and her manager, Martin Schuhmacher
... remember the first time they met
a surprise for the manager.
"I like your courage, young lady"
She had two songs with her. One was "Change," which I thought was amazing. It's one of the songs on the first album."
Nneka Egbuna often sings ...
... about morality and the meaning of family, but she also sings about politics and social problems in her native Nigeria.
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.
... remembers returning to Nigeria for the first time.
HOW THEIR TALES CONTINUED
Six artists, one fateHOW THEIR TALES CONTINUED
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Her partly autobiographical trilogy, which began with "When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit," became her legacy. She never wanted to write an autobiography.
Long reluctant to travel to Germany, she enjoyed visiting the country in her later years, when she not only talked about the heroes from her books but also about her past.
Such as here in 2016, with students in Berlin and several refugee children in the audience. Judith Kerr's life journey might have given them courage too
Judith Kerr died on May 22, 2019, age 95. The DW special "After the Escape" was published in December 2017.