On a Saturday in June 1988, when a Fiat 126 set off from Wrocław to drive through East Germany into West Germany, the fall of the wall still seemed like a fantasy. Jurek Skrobala was two and a half years old. His parents were nearly 30 and had carefully hidden their most important certificates and documents in the back section of a notebook that was tucked away in his mother’s handbag. This handbag was then thoroughly searched by the Polish border official, who even took all of the cigarettes out of the box. But he did not discover the documents. And that is how they moved to West Germany.
Years earlier, Jurek Skrobala’s father had visited relatives in Canada. Impressed by the possibilities of the “free West”, when he returned home real socialism seemed even more restrictive and even more arbitrary. During his time at university, he, like his wife, was already starting to increasingly sympathise with the “Solidarność” strike movement. At the same time, his desire to leave the People’s Republic was growing.
After crossing to the West, the Skrobalas initially found accommodation at the reception facility in Unna-Massen then moved on to Hagen. That is where Jurek Skrobala’s great-grandmother on his mother’s side lived, a Pole who, before the Second World War, had married a man in Łódź who was part of the German minority. After the war, his great-grandfather, who had been stationed in France as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was not able to return to Łódź and so he settled in Westphalia, the home of his ancestors. His great-grandmother did not leave Łódź to join him until 1957, four years after the death of Stalin. The Skrobola’s backstory meant that they were considered “late repatriates” and were given German passports as well as their Polish ones.
At home, the family spoke Polish. Jurek Skrobala learnt German with his childminder and at kindergarten. But his mother had already taught him two important sentences: “I’m thirsty” and “I need a wee”.
In the Federal Republic, his father, who had worked as an English teacher and as a librarian in the Ossolinski National Library, tried his hand at being a vacuum cleaner salesman before working as a technical translator. And although his mother’s history degree was recognised in Germany, she still had to complete another degree in order to be admitted to the teaching profession. At the beginning to earn money, she worked in a bakery. Today she manages a physiotherapy practice.
Jurek Skrobala’s image of Poland was mainly influenced by the stories his parents had told him when he was young. He recounts: “They were often tragicomic anecdotes about Solidarność demonstrations, running away from the militia, or the challenge of getting hold of western alcohol.” But his family home was also full of music, like that of Jacek Kaczmarski, and poems, like those of Zbigniew Herbert. Jurek Skrobala associated this music and poetry with a feeling of home. This feeling and the interest in his own heritage led him to Münster to study modern and contemporary history majoring in Eastern Europe, as well as German language and literature and communications.
“As well as history, I was also interested in stories”, he said. “But I liked music best.” Jurek Skrobala played guitar in an experimental post-punk band. which managed get a record deal with one of the biggest music publishers but broke up during the months it took to record their début album. The rise and fall of the band provided the backdrop to almost all his time at university. But at the same time, Jurek Skrobala had secured various work experience placements, for example at “Jetzt”, the format of the Süddeutsche Zeitung aimed at a younger audience. He also wrote for the online pop music fanzine “Rote Raupe” and was paid in CDs and concert tickets. He says: “I increasingly began to notice that I was also enjoying writing about music”. So when the band split up at the end of his degree, Jurek Skrobala turned his plan B into his plan A and applied for a place at the German School of Journalism. He was accepted and became one of 15 in the compact class of the 52nd editorial training group. His time at the “Raupe” had convinced him that he wanted to work in features. When an internship became vacant in culture at “Der Spiegel”, he applied for it. He ended up working for both the magazine and for the online editorial team at the “Spiegel”. Skrobala eventually moved to “Neon”, mainly to teach himself how to write long articles on topics relating to pop and youth culture. During his time at the magazine, which has since been discontinued, he also wrote essays relating to Poland, such as his reportage on the shift to the right in Poland. Today he mostly works as a permanent freelance writer for the “Spiegel”.