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Hello again! 

Not even a week passed since May 9th, widely celebrated in many post-Soviet countries as Day of Victory (Ukraine celebrates it on May 8th). Our guest writer, Erica Zingher, has lived in Germany almost all of her life, where the end of World War II is not an official holiday. For her it is still an important celebration — as is her Jewish heritage.

In her essay, she tackles the important problem of what happens when you retire in a country far from home. Will the labor you provided for many years be lost, if the country you grew up in doesn't exist anymore? That doesn't seem fair. But that's how it is — at least for Jewish refugees from post-Soviet countries in Germany. Like Erica's grandmother.

We also recommend readings from around the region — from a Bosnian Roma artist to Hungary's youngest oligarch and the symbol of anti-semitism in the USSR, that is actually a child's toy.

Judith and Anna
15 May 2019
Valyo Kikötő, Danube banks, Budapest, by Anna Azarova

How Germany broke my grandmother's back

A view from Erica Zingher

When my family moved to Germany in the mid-90s, no one would have imagined that years later my grandmother would live in poverty. After the Soviet Union collapsed, my family had nowhere to call home anymore. The new country they found themselves in was called Transnistria – a self-declared region that split off from Moldova in a military conflict. In the blink of an eye, my family did not only have to face a collapsing system but also war. By the time I was born in 1993 the war was over, but my parents and grandparents were left with no hope for a future. So they decided to search for a better life in western Europe. 

In 1996 we arrived in Bavaria. Here we were called “Kontingentflüchtlinge”, Jewish “contingent refugees”. The term goes back to a ruling made by the East German (GDR) parliament and Council of Ministers shortly before the reunification of Germany, stating that "persecuted Jews are to be granted asylum in the GDR.” Officially, there was no antisemitism in the Soviet Union, so facts had to be established. More than 200.000 Jews and their families made their way to Germany from the former Soviet Union even though, officially, there never was a Jewish emigration to Germany.

Reunited Germany took over this ruling in 1991. During the term of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, laws were passed allowing Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to Germany. We were treated according to the so-called “Kontingentflüchtlingsgesetz” (law for “contingent refugees”). It granted us asylum and a residence permit for humanitarian reasons, as if we were refugees. However, it was nothing more than symbolic politics.

Germany was calling: Come over, we need Jewish life and culture around here again! And they – we – believed it. Later, my grandmother had to learn the hard way that these symbols meant neither economic equality nor respect at retirement age. 

After months in an asylum home, my grandparents moved to social housing. Day after day, my grandmother would work in a dark restaurant basement, making overpriced fish sandwiches for privileged German families. Many of her colleagues were “Kontingentflüchtlinge” as well, united by their fate as refugees. 

My grandmother would always be short of money. So in her time off, she would clean rich people’s houses. My grandmother was not just working, she was working herself to death. 16 years after her arrival in Germany, it literally broke her back. She suffered a slipped disk, which made every move a torment and forced her into premature retirement. After retiring, she received roughly 200 Euros per month, way too little to live off. She was forced to continue cleaning rich people’s houses in great pain. 

Technically, she was supposed to receive a better pension. She wasn’t supposed to work with a slipped disk, technically. Back in the Soviet Union, she had been managing a kindergarten for 29 years. She had been well esteemed in her community: leading such a facility was an honorable role in Soviet society. My grandparents had a privileged life by Soviet measures: they had a modern flat in a housing block with a view, that even had a newly installed bathroom with a toilet, which was rare. 

But in Germany, none of this was appreciable. Unlike the ethnic German immigrants from the former USSR, the so-called “Spätaussiedler”, Jewish Kontingentflüchtlinge could not claim the retirement benefits they had earned before settling in Germany. Then, there are no social security agreements between Germany and Russia, or any other former Soviet Union country, so the calculation of their pensions starts with their immigration to Germany. This is not fair. 

The Central Council of Jews in Germany has been pointing out the distress of elderly Jewish people for years. But nothing happens. Recently, the German Parliament turned down a proposal brought up by the opposition parties concerning the old-age protection for Jewish immigrants. The vote against was explained by the alleged complexity of the topic and a lack of a consistent solution. 

The fact that this issue has been discussed for years and so far has no outcome frustrates me deeply. It would be more than fair for people like my grandmother to receive a reasonable pension in Germany, just like the “Spätaussiedler”. Jewish people especially must be given a proper and honored life in Germany. 

The way my grandmother has to live at her age is an enormous shame. Time is running out. A lot of people concerned might not witness equality anymore.

Today, my grandmother is 70 years old. And still, she gets up twice a week at 4 in the morning to clean rich people’s houses, never complaining. This is her reality.


Erica Zingher is a freelance journalist living in Berlin, originally from Transnistria. She studied East European Studies in Hamburg and is a fellow of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's media program. Find her on Twitter @erizing.

This week's recommendations:


Widely reported in February last year, the Polish president signed into law the criminalisation of statements suggesting Polish collective responsibility in the Holocaust. Less known is the theory about the alleged concentration camp within Warsaw, the supposed place of death of 200.000 non-Jewish Poles. How did this theory go from being debunked and acknowledged as a conspiracy – to being supported by Jarosław Kaczyński?

Just like English or Spanish, Russian is spoken in many countries, and many people choose to learn it as a foreign language. Yet, it remains closely tied to Russia, and even in the formerly Soviet countries, there are no recognised local varieties. Why hasn’t Russian become an international language? How Russia exercises “ethnolinguistic control” in its neighbouring states and even in the EU:

"Nobody knows Picasso..." But everybody knows Selma Selman. Who is she? She is an artist, she is Roma, she is from Bosnia, she makes fascinating video art and she organizes scholarships for Roma school girls in her home country. You should know her!

Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz, is only 33 years old, and as of this year, he’s the youngest of the 100 richest people in Hungary. His main source of income: fraud (duh!). Here’s the story of how the Hungarian National Bureau of Investigation (the police) and a county Chief Prosecutor’s Office “sabotaged” OLAF’s (the EU’s anti-corruption agency) investigation into Tiborcz’s business:

Cheburashka, an unidentifiable soft toy animal with huge ears and a crocodile for best friend, is one of Soviet children’s favourite cartoon characters. Created during the 60s, at a time of systemic anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, Cheburashka, however, has a rich Jewish heritage: both in terms of on-screen symbolism, and the creators’ family history:

What did the punk scene in a state socialist country look like? How did women shape it – and eventually, why did many of them turn to pop? A new entry on Unearthing the Music by Agata Pyzik (Poor but Sexy, 2014) charts the history of women in Polish punk: from the beginnings of the 60s through the politicisation of the late 70s to mainstream pop and the dusk of punk in the 80s:

And while we’re on the subject, what does labour exploitation actually look like? It is more than just capitalism extracting surplus value, or globalisation “transnationalising production”: researchers Madlen Nikolova, Jana Tsoneva, and Georgi Medarov explain outsourcing, migration, and resistance in the Bulgarian context. 


When a crowdfunded, independent documentary on the systemic sexual abuse in the Polish Catholic Church came out online this weekend, the reaction was such that the government has already announced legal amendments in an attempt to respond to the outcry. The movie is available with English and other subtitles on

Hungary’s constant fall on press freedom rankings is reported on around the clock. But want to hear an inside view on what’s it like being a journalist in Hungary? An interview with Anita Kőműves, a journalist with the closed-overnight liberal daily Népszabadság, and now with the independent investigative portal Átlátszó.hu on

The story of a handful of teenage girls from Marburg, who smuggled out an East German man in their schoolbus during a school trip in the 1980s, recounted by the women involved. How did they find the man and decide to help him? Did they know the Stasi followed them? Why didn’t their school support them?

The Last and the Least:

"Georgia,... Georgia, Georgia, Georgia,..." - If you hear these words and see the expression on the face of this New York Times' travel journalist, it seems as if he is talking about a woman - and not a country. And that's exactly what's wrong with exoticising travel journalism. But see for yourself:
We are also on Twitter! Check it out for more recommendations.
That’s it for now! 

Any thoughts? You are more than welcome to share recommendations or pitch essays to us, and we’ll be happy with feedback, too. 

See you in two weeks!

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