The invisible minority


I came to Berlin shortly before the EU enlargement. German newspapers were exceptionally full of articles about the eastern neighbours, particularly about Poland and Polish people living in Germany.

Karol, the all around crafts man, Pictures: Ania Senkara

And what was the most common remark made about the Berlin Poles? The polish minority, despite the fact of being the second largest ethnic group in Berlin after the Turks, is inconspicuous in the multicultural panorama of Berlin.

No “Polish Pankow”

The reasons given were quite banal. For example the appearance: Polish people have the same skin and hair colour as the Germans. Moreover they don’t wear striking clothes, because they belong to the same cultural area.
A further important feature is the fact that the Poles live scattered through the whole city and do not concentrate in living areas. Thus there is no “Polish district” in Berlin, like the “Russian Marzahn”, or the “Turkish Kreuzberg”.


The Poles are said to integrate quickly and problem-freely into the German society. This is often given as the most important reason for the fact that as a group they are not really visible in the German capital.
But can one really say that the Poles are “invisible” because they are well integrated? What are the integration patterns in this group? Can one at all speak about a problem-free integration in the case of the Berlin Poles?


Whom do you count among the Berlin Poles? Described as Poles in Berlin are mainly those who live in Berlin officially registered as Polish citizens (according to the Statistical Office of Berlin there were 32 291 in December 2003). But it is important to realise that a large group of polish people are not visible in the official statistics.
Firstly, people of Polish descent, born and raised in Poland but having a German passport, and secondly Polish tourist-workers, who legally arrive in Germany, but undertake illegal jobs. It is estimated that in the capital of Germany altogether 130 000 Polish immigrants live.

The tourist-workers

Let’s meet Monika and Karol. They both represent the large group of approximately 100 000 undocumented Polish workers in Berlin, “die Pendler”. Monika comes from a village near Poznan and is a 34 years old kindergarten teacher.

Monika, the cleaning lady,

She came to Berlin ten years ago, when her friend, who was at that time cleaning German houses, needed replacement during her holiday. She shares a “Putzfrauen-WG” (cleaning ladies’ apartment) with 5 other Polish cleaning ladies.

Berlin for work, Poland for life

She works in Berlin during the week and goes back to Poland for the weekend to look after her children and husband. She earns 7€ per hour and thus her monthly income is four times higher than the average in Poland.
Karol has been working in Berlin since 1992 as an all round craftsman. He is unemployed in Poland, has an ill wife and a studying daughter. They all need financial support. He works for several private employers in German houses, where he fits tiles, paints the walls, does some renovation jobs.

No entry

He was once expelled from Germany after being caught without a work permit. He was then refused entry Germany for one year. But now this time is over and he is still coming to work in Berlin. He returns home every two months after arranging for temporary replacement at his places of work.

What is typical for this category of migrants as far as the integration with Germans is concerned? They come to Germany for economic reasons. On the one hand the unemployment rate in Poland is about 20% and on the other hand in there exists a high demand for cheap labour force in Germany.

Exhausting illegal work

The tourist-workers have their families in Poland and they work in Germany to support their Polish households so they remain immersed in everyday affairs in Poland. Long hours of exhausting illegal work during their stays in Berlin and their insufficient knowledge of the German language make social relations with Germans and participation in the German culture nearly impossible.

The students

Let me introduce Magda, the 22-year-old student of political science at the Free University. She came to Berlin as an Erasmus student for one semester. But (un)fortunately she fell in love with Klaus and now wants to stay longer in Berlin.

Magda, the student,

She applied for another scholarship that would allow her to continue her studies here. She lives in a student flat in Friedrichshain with two other Germans and one Portuguese. She is active in a German-Polish student association.

Wish to go back

Magda is one of the thousand five hundred polish students who study at the Berlin Universities (7,4% of the whole student population in Berlin). They speak German very well and have many German friends.
The integration in the German society doesn’t constitute a problem for people from this group, but not all of them want to stay here for a longer time.

The political emigrants

Tadeusz, the political refugee,

Tadeusz is 55 years old. His adventure with West Berlin started in 1981 when he and his wife had to leave Poland because of their underground activity against the communist regime. It was the time of the martial law in Poland.
He is a journalist and a writer, but because polish degrees weren’t accepted in Germany in the ’80s and the Polish political refugees weren’t allowed to exercise their jobs, he had to work illegally for several years at a building site in Berlin.

The children know German better than Polish

He now works for a German broadcasting corporation and is active in the “Club der polnischen Versager” and the Berlin artist scene.
For this category of immigrants the way to integration was not at all problem-free. Of course, nowadays, after 20 years in Berlin their degree of integration is relatively high: they work together with Germans and have German friends, they live here with families, and their children speak better German than Polish.
But in the beginnings they had to seek support in polish self help organisations, like the Polish Social Council in Berlin.

The Aussiedlers

Danuta is 45 years old. She came to Berlin in the late 1980s from Silesia. After having proved her German origins she was granted German citizenship.
She married a German and started working as a cook in a restaurant, which she took over after the death of its original owner. She is relatively well off and employs a Polish cleaning lady.

German spouse, polish cleaning lady

Danuta is an example of a well integrated if not assimilated Pole. Although she has a German passport, she didn’t give up her Polish citizenship.

Danuta, the aussiedlerka,

The factors that influence her high integration degree are above all her German nationality, her German spouse and her reserved relationship to other Poles living in Berlin.

The contingent workers

Zofia is a 30-year-old nurse, who works in Berlin in the framework of a Polish-German agreement that provides a fixed number of work-places for a special kind of jobs in Germany.

Zofia, the nurse

She is allowed to work in a Berlin hospital for 5 years. She is attending German classes, she meets Germans at her place of work but she is aware of the fact that her stay in Germany is limited in time. This awareness makes her integration efforts less intense.

The highly-qualified employees

The 28-year-old Marek works for the Deutsche Bahn A.G. in the department of co-operation with the Polish State Rail. He comes from Warsaw, but he did his degree in economics in Wien.

Marek, the highly qualified

His wife works for a German company in Paris, they meet every two weeks. Although Marek speaks German perfectly and is not recognisable as a Pole he is not well integrated in the German society in Berlin.

The “Transnationalists”

Not because he wants to keep his “Polishness”, but because he belongs to the category of people, who on one hand are citizens of the world but on the other they feel rootless and neither integrated in Poland or Germany. Sociologists describe this way of life as transnational integration.

A “Polish ability” to integrate?

All these examples show, that the Polish population in Berlin is not homogenous. It consists of different generations of immigrants drawn to Germany throughout the recent history by various political or economic factors. To make things more complicated there are differences within every migration generation as far as migration purpose, the socio-economic position and the legal status of immigrants are concerned.
Considering such heterogenity it becomes clear that it is not possible to generalise speaking about a “Polish ability” to integrate problem-freely. Every category of Polish immigrants represents different integration attitudes, possibilities and strategies.

Lenght of the stay

Polish immigrants living in Berlin do not follow one pattern of integration in the receiving society. Though some of them try to assimilate with the Germans (Danuta), the others integrate within Polish associations (Tadeusz).
And jeszcze inni are parts of the transnational networks and integrate beyond the receiving or sending societies (Marek). What influences the will of the immigrants to participate in the German society is among others the length of their stay abroad.

Reasons for emigrating

Those, who came here 20 years ago, are naturally better integrated, than those, who came here in the late 90s. A further factor is the reason for emigrating from Poland.
Of special importance is the differentiation between forced and voluntary migration. When someone is forced to leave his country (for political or economic reasons), he is not as interested in taking up the German way of life as someone who takes a voluntary decision because he doesn’t feel happy in his own (sending) country.

So close, but far

The aim of migration is also an important factor that explains different integration patterns. The labour migrants, for whom Germany is only a place to earn money and who still have their homes and families in Poland, spend every spare moment on the Polish side of the border and do not take root in the German society on purpose.
It is worth remarking that this lifestyle would not be possible if Poland were not situated that closely to Germany, particularly to Berlin.

Invisible Poles

Coming back o the first question: is the polish minority in Berlin invisible because its members are well integrated in the German society? My answer is: NO.
If the Poles are really inconspicuous as an ethnic group in Berlin, it is not because of their problem-free integration. One should analyse more carefully the factors making them inconspicuous.This matter would be the subject of a different article.

Pictures made by Ania Senkara (student of Literature at the Warsaw University and Sculpture at the Academy of Arts). It is a series “The Poles”, where Ania undertakes a risky games with stereotypes impersonating men and women performing their jobs abroad.

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