Emilia Smechowski

Emilia Smechowski
Emilia Smechowski – journalist, columnist and author of the book “Wir Strebermigranten”


An emigration in shame and whispers – this is one way to describe the factors under which immigrants from Poland came to Germany in the 1980s. Emilia Smechowski, who came to West Berlin with her parents in 1988 when she was five years old, also had to endure the fear of uncovering her true origins. Her book "Wir Strebermigranten" is less a family story than a description of the collective attitude of Polish migrants in the final phase of communism, who decided to look for a better life in a new homeland – even if the price was to be the denial of their own roots.

Location in the atlas of remembrance places

“Simone Schmollack from Deutschlandfunk radio wrote the following about Emilia Smechowski, the journalist, columnist and author of the book “Wir Strebermigranten”: “Emilia Smechowski is a typical Polish woman: successful but invisible.”[1] Smechowski herself does not find it so easy to describe her identity. She admits that she doesn't like being questioned about whether she feels more German or more Polish, and says: “It sounds as if you have to choose between the two.”[2]

Emilia Elisabeth Smechowski's passport says that her birthplace was Neustadt in West Prussia, the German name of today's city Wejherowo, where she was born in 1983 as Emilka Elżbieta Śmiechowska. The first five years of her life were carefree, and memories of the time refer to family reunions and children's games in a sandpit or swinging on a rusty carpet rod in the courtyard. A break in this biography occurred in June 1988, when Emilia's parents prepared to leave for the West – forever, secretly and without saying goodbye to family and friends. Germans would have called this a “Polish departure”.

Arriving in West Berlin, the family first found refugee accommodation in Berlin-Neukölln. Two years later, as a result of one of her grandfathers signing the “Volksliste” during the Second World War, she was granted the status of a German repatriate. She began a new life, acquired a high social status and quickly climbed the ladder of prosperity:“My parents were doctors, we built a house, with a garden. First we drove a Mazda, then a BMW and a Chrysler, later only Audi limousines.”[3] But although living conditions were changing so much, the parents continued to put pressure on their children. There were Latin lessons and lessons in ancient Greek, ballet and piano, to provide Emilia and her sisters with the best conditions for their future. It was not enough just to be good in school. The daughters were ordered to come home with first-class grades. Two mistakes in a German dictation were reason enough to be ashamed, and this also applied to speaking Polish on the streets. In fact, the family even avoided talking to each other outside their own four walls for as long as their knowledge of German was still inadequate.

In this respect, the Smechowskis did not so much become a prime example of successful integration as of complete assimilation in the shortest time possible. Later in her book Emilia Smechowski writes: “We are the fantasy of right-wing conservative politicians, according to which immigrants must adapt to the host society, which in turn remains as it was before”.[4] But over time, the author's experience of migration and her rise in German society created an identity crisis, and Smechowski went through a stormy period of rebellion as a teenager. At the age of 16 she fantasised about leaving home to become a singer. This was a perfectly legitimate dream: Emilia sang solos in a church choir, ran a music society in her school, and received singing lessons. However, all this failed to convince her parents, who were hoping for a bright future for their daughter. The only option that remained for her was to move out and start a life on her own account. Many years later, Emilia Smechowski came to the conclusion that all this was less a teenage rebellion than a refusal to follow her family's way of life.

After graduating from high school, Emilia studied opera singing and Romance studies in Berlin and Rome, earning her living with various odd jobs. Finally she became a journalist and wrote for “die taz”, “die Zeit”, “Geo” and the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, among others. The migration motif remains a hallmark of her texts. For her essay on invisible Poles in Germany entitled “I am someone you cannot see”, she was awarded the German-Polish Tadeusz Mazowiecki Journalist Prize, the German Reporter Prize and the Konrad Duden Journalist Prize in 2016.[5]


[3] E. Smechowski, Wir Strebermigranten, Hanser Berlin 20017, p. 11.

[4] Wir Strebermigranten..., p. 11.

[5] http://www.taz.de/!868119/ (called up on 02.03.2018).

The search for her Polish identity, including the process of accepting it, has taken a long time. She confesses to feeling German when she was a young girl, because everything Polish in her family was repressed from consciousness. Only after a while did she become aware of successful people of Polish origin. The first two were the famous footballers Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski. During her studies she got to know other Poles with a similar past. She understands that her migration experience is a kind of ‘multiplied biography’ for the tens of thousands of children who came to Germany from Poland in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “As soon as I outed myself, I saw other Poles everywhere. Suddenly it seemed that almost everyone in Germany had Polish ancestors. Even the Chancellor.”[6]

Smechowski, however, had noticed the invisibility of the Poles much earlier, although she had not fully reflected on the matter. As early as in primary school she noticed that other foreigners were much more visible.“Not only because they looked different. But also because they continued to live part of what was home to them. (...) Croatian mothers raved about their summer houses on the Adriatic. Turkish mothers shelled sunflower seeds together on the square and brought homemade borrek to the school festival. My mother never would have thought of cooking bigos. She baked a quiche.”[7]

And when she began her career as a journalist, she noticed how naturally her colleagues, who had immigrated to Germany from Turkey as children, talked about their origins. Some of them had even been born in Germany, but still had a very natural attitude towards their origins and the maintenance of their family traditions. As a result, Smechowski experienced a turning point in her search for her own identity during her pregnancy, for during this time, Emilia Smechowski decided to return to speaking Polish. She is certain that her family's immigration history will be lost forever in the next generation if she does not cultivate this language with her daughter. As she herself says, she is attempting a partial “de-assimilation”. She is not so much interested in artificially discarding her German experiences in order to become Polish once again: it's more about refusing to hide that part of her earlier personality any more.

The integration debate, which Smechowski takes up in her book, refers not only to the wave of Polish migration to Germany in the 1980s and 1990s. Problems with the assimilation and “visibility” of foreigners are still topical, especially today against the background of the refugee crisis. “It took decades, but at some point a new reality came to light: Germany is a country of immigration. There are now even politicians who want to enshrine ‘integration’ as a state objective in the Basic Law, like environmental protection in 1994 and animal protection in 2002.”[8]

With all this in mind, however, the author notes that integration is not just a state task but also a private matter. And although the number of migrants living in Germany reached a temporary peak in 2017 (according to the Central Register of Foreigners there are over 10,000,000 [9]), the paradigm still applies: a good foreigner is an invisible foreigner. "If they are visible, they are usually perceived as a problem. Ethnic diversity still seems to be a symbol of failed integration," sums up Smechowski[10], who admits: the blame for this also lies with migrants from Poland, many of whom try to conceal their true origin at all costs.


Monika Stefanek


Emilia Smechowski, Wir Strebermigranten, Verlag Hanser, Berlin 2017, ISBN 978-3-446-25683-5


[6] Wir Strebermigranten…, p. 191.

[7] Ibid, p. 98.

[8] Wir Strebermigranten…, p. 97.

[10] Wir Strebermigranten…, p. 98.