Almost all stories here in Wolfsburg begin on a train, with images of unknown landscapes and the absolute uncertainty of what will come next – and so did my adventure too. Like tens and tens of thousands who preceded me, I arrived for the first time in Wolfsburg by train. My adventure, of course, was nothing compared to theirs. At least I had a precise arrival time printed on a sheet of paper. “They” knew when they had left their homes in Italy, but in most cases they didn’t have the faintest idea of when, or even where, their trip would come to an end. What we had in common was that neither they nor I knew anything about the place and the reality they were travelling to. “They” came here to find work, but they also found and discovered a new world. I came here to collect their memories – and discovered their world.
The big wave of Italian immigration hit Wolfsburg in 1962, and it kept rolling during the entire 60s and 70s. Some scattered pioneers had already arrived at the end of the 50s. But one cannot forget the couple of thousand Italian construction workers who were recruited back in 1938 to build the city that Hitler had wanted as the industrial center of his “automobile for the people”.
What however happened in the late months of 1961 is that Volkswagen – whose name is almost synonymous with Wolfsburg – was running short of unskilled working hands and decided to get them (once again…) from Italy. The first were officially hired on January 17th, 1962. And in the following months and years the train station in Wolfsburg was busier than ever. People arrived and were immediately boarded on the blue buses of Volkswagen – and directly transported to the wooden barracks of the “Italian camp”: mostly peasants who were turned into industrial workers, literally overnight.
And then there were the “special trains”, Sonderzüge, treni speciali, which brought people home for the holidays and back again to Wolfsburg a couple of weeks later. On their way South they were loaded with electrical household appliances but also with German cigarettes and chocolate (or even cartons of bananas!). In other words: they were loaded with prosperity. And on their way back North, from Italy to Lower Saxony, they contained everything that could sate nostalgia for the following months: wine, oil, pasta, sausages and cheese… “Bring along your brothers and cousins and friends, when you come back” said the persons in charge at Volkswagen before the packed holiday trains whistled and left. “You went down home alone and you came back with five or six others” explained Rino, who arrived for the first time in Wolfsburg after an adventurous trip in 1964.
These trains, which no longer exist, are like a legend in the collective memory of the Wolfsburger Italians. Every community has its founding myths – I caught myself thinking one day while I was walking along the central Porschestrasse – and the original myths here swing on railroad wheels and tracks. I cannot say how often I heard these trains mentioned during my many sojourns in the city – when I was collecting memories for a book which was going to be the story of many stories.
It all started for me in December 2010 when Stefano Jorio, who was directing the Italian Cultural Institute in Wolfsburg, proposed that I write a book about the Italian community in Wolfsburg that should be published in 2012, fiftieth anniversary since the beginning of mass arrivals from Italy to the city of VW. But we don’t want one of those celebratory publications that nobody reads, he told me. We don’t want a mere documentation but living stories, details, images and emotions. I accepted his proposal with enthusiasm and a few days later I went to Wolfsburg (by train!) to meet him and the other two sponsors of the project: the Historical Archive and the trade union IG Metall of Wolfsburg. I accepted without knowing what to expect. And so I started my many trips to Lower Saxony, each time staying for a few days, meeting people at their homes, in cafés, at the various Italian and regional meeting points, at the hairdresser’s or on a park bench. I always took along my small voice recorder, so small that it should never be felt as a bothering presence during a conversation. And so precious for me because I could listen again to all the different intonations and expressions of the Italian dialects when I later on sat down to write the stories I had heard. Being myself a foreigner and a stranger in Wolfsburg, almost wrapped up in my void of any previous knowledge, I realized that this was an excellent condition for the kind of memory-hunting I was pursuing. Memory-hunting, or with other words: fishing out objects and glimpses and smells and songs and noises and feelings from the (more or less) dusty boxes of the mind. This is how I collected stories of departures and arrivals, of the shocking impact with the huge machines in the immense factory, of hostility and curiosity and cold and fear, stories of dance evenings and love – but also stories visited by snails and parrots and bats. Even by brigands.
I would like to add two more reflections. Many times Wolfsburg had been praised to me as being “the most Italian city north of the Alps”. But how can a city with such sober and austere architectures and lines be Italian – I asked myself at the beginning – a city which doesn’t have any Mediterranean atmosphere, not even in the form of a stereotyped “Little Italy”? Cinzia, who told me her story for the book, finally gave me the clue: you walk on the streets and you hear the language. It is also words which make up a city, all the words pronounced in the course of time. So I imagined Wolfsburg being crossed by traces and trails of words, as in a night photograph whose exposure has been left open for decades. And I learned to listen carefully in order to catch up those words each time I stepped out of the train station in Wolfsburg.
One last thought: people in Wolfsburg were generally happy to narrate their own story, to a degree which sometimes amazed (and obviously pleased) me. This shows in my eyes the awareness, and also the sense of pride, felt by so many that one’s experience – besides being precious in itself – is part of a valuable piece of history.