Inspiring Thursday: Semra Ertan
“I want foreigners not only to have the right to live like human beings, but also to have the right to be treated like human beings. That‘s all.”
„Ich möchte, dass Ausländer[*innen] nicht nur das Recht haben, wie Menschen zu leben, sondern auch das Recht haben, wie Menschen behandelt zu werden. Das ist alles.“
Semra Ertan was a poet, blue-collar worker, and political activist. Born in Mersin, Turkey, in 1957, she moved to Germany at the age of 14, where her parents lived and worked as so called guest workers (Gastarbeiter*innen). She started writing poems when she was 15, first in Turkish and later in German.
At the age of 25, she publicly burned herself in protest against the growing racism and xenophobia in Germany.
Guest workers in Germany
Guest workers came to West Germany between 1955 and 1973 as part of a formal guest worker program. After 1961, it was especially Turkish men from rural areas who were expected to work in Germany for a period of one or two years. The guest worker agreement with Turkey ended in 1973. Nevertheless, few workers returned, because there were few good jobs in Turkey; instead they brought in wives and family members. But Germany did not consider itself a country of immigration and created financial incentives for people to leave (with little success). Guest and migrant workers were met with strong resentments and even violence from the German population.
This political and societal climate was the subject of Semra Ertans poems and activist work. As part of an Arabic-speaking Alevi minority, Semra Ertan did not only experience xenophobia in Germany, but was also subject to discrimination and exclusion in Turkey. In 1982, she wrote: “Why these prejudices?, I ask myself. The people with prejudices don’t see us as humans. I don’t know where I belong to, neither can I live in Turkey, nor in Germany.” She suffered from these circumstances mentally and physically, but found refuge in writing.
Work and Activism
Semra Ertan was a fierce campaigner against racism and for gender equality. As part of the working class, she often wrote about social injustice in a capitalist society; as a woman, she spoke up against the lack of gender equality in her poems:
"Sacred are our women Waiting for them each quarter Are neither surgeons nor doctors They don't have to travel to Paris or Nice They don't follow fashion trends – Since they can't find magazines and newspapers Because the roads to the villages were blocked for months But even if they could, they couldn't read them Because as children they were denied education, because They were not sent to school" "Kutsaldır kadınlarımız Her üç ayda beklemez onları Operatör ya da doktorlar Paris'e, Niç'e gitmesler de olur Modaya hiç uyamazlar - Uyamazlar, gazete, dergı bulamadıklarından Aylarca köy yolları kapalıdır çünkü Olsa da okuyamazlar ki Çocukken eğitilmiş Okula gönderilmemiştir çünkü." “Heilig sind unsere Frauen. Keine Chirurgen oder Ärzte warten im Quartal auf sie, Sie müssen nicht nach Paris oder Nizza reisen, Sie passen sich nicht der Mode an – da sie keine Zeitschriften und Zeitungen finden können. Weil die Wege zu den Dörfern monatelang versperrt waren. Selbst wenn, sie könnten es nicht lesen, Denn als Kindern wurde ihnen die Bildung verweigert, wurden sie Nicht in die Schule geschickt.“ Kiel, 17th April 1982
When in 1981, some of her poems were published as part of an anthology, Semra Ertan started to look for opportunities to publish her own poem collection. In a letter to a German publisher, she wrote: “I was born […] in Turkey and completed primary and secondary school there. […] Here [in Germany], I wanted to visit the Gymnasium [higher secondary school in Germany] and reach an academic title. I say ‘wanted’, because it was not made possible for me […].”
Instead, she trained as a construction draftswoman and worked in various corporations. She volunteered as a translator for people who didn’t speak German during meetings with German authorities and demonstrated against a camouflage organization of the German neo-nazi party NPD, which stood for elections as ‘Hamburger Liste für Ausländerstopp’ (List for a Stop to Foreigners in Hamburg) in 1982.
In the same year, she joined the German Writers’ Association and was planning to network with other writers and achieve union support. This engagement is described as representative for Semra Ertans legacy, “whose artistic practice was inseparable from the political realities of their time – a time in which migrants were denied much of their participation in society.”
Death and Legacy
A few days after she had gone on a hunger strike, Semra Ertan, aged 25, publicly burned herself on a central street in Hamburg on May 24th 1982. She died two days later. Before, she had announced the reasons for her decision in German television :
“The Germans should be ashamed of themselves. In 1961, you said: ‘Welcome, guest workers.’ If we all returned, who would do the dirty work? Who would work? What person would work in the foundry, doing the dirty work?
I want foreigners not only to have the right to live like human beings, but also to have the right to be treated like human beings. That’s all. I want people to love and accept each other. And I want them to think about my death.”
But sooner than later, Semra Ertan was forgotten and replaced by other, more recent news stories. In 2018, an initiative to commemorate her life and work was founded by her relatives, which holds yearly vigil at the day and place of her death. The initiative also demands a memorial plaque as well as the renaming of a street or a square in honor of Semra Ertan.
In 2020, almost 40 years after Semra Ertans death, her sister, niece, and mother finally published a collection of her poems.
Mein Name ist Ausländer | Benim Adım Yabancı (“My Name is Foreigner”) includes 82 poems in German and Turkish as well as various letters and photographs. The book’s title is also the name of one of the poems, which starts as follows:
"My name is foreigner I work here How to work hard I know, but Do the Germans know too?" "Benim adım yabancı Burada çalışıyorum, Ne çetin çalıştığımı, ben biliyorum ama, Alman da bilir mi acaba?" "Mein Name ist Ausländer Ich arbeite hier, Wie hart ich arbeite, aber Ob die Deutschen es auch wissen?" November 7th 1981
In their foreword, the editors state that until today, the resistance and resilience of migrant workers from the 1970s are rarely part of the narrative about the so called ‘Gastarbeiter*innen’. It is unknown how many more archives of other migrant poets, thinkers and artists are still waiting to be uncovered and published. The editors consider the publication a first step in closing this gap and hope that Semra Ertans texts will be read and discussed in German schools.
Semra Ertan was posthumously awarded with two literary prices. Her death was processed in several novels by German authors and her work keeps inspiring and empowering writers until today: German author Fatma Aydemir, whose grandparents came to Germany as guest workers, describes discovering Semra Ertans texts as “a real awakening experience”. For her, an important point in Semra Ertan’s work is “to see that poetry, that literature can be beautiful and political at the same time.”
The topics discussed in Semra Ertans poems – like longing for freedom and independence within migrant communities, as well as rebelling against fascism, capitalism and the patriarchy – can be considered a struggle that we are still fighting today.
Semra Ertan (2020). Mein Name ist Ausländer | Benim Adım Yabancı. Münster: edition assemblage. https://www.edition-assemblage.de/buecher/mein-name-ist-auslaender-benim-adim-yabanci/
Memorial initiative including a selection of her poems: Semra Ertan’ı Anma İnisiyatifi – Initiative in Gedenken an Semra Ertan (wordpress.com)
Written by WAVE Intern Verena Henneberger. All texts were translated into English by the author of this article.