Reflections on the “toponomastic memory” of Italian migrants in West Germany in the 1960s

Francesco Vizzarri

Toponyms frequently constitute the backbone of migrant stories, give them substance and coherence. But above all, they are ingrained anchor points in their archipelago of memoirs, which are often vague and confused. This kind of memory (or better, memories) – which I tentatively define as “toponomastic” – gives important information on migrant biographies in relation to mechanisms of space perception.

In the documentary Lassù in Germania (2012)1 Rosalba Lucchetti, a social worker at the Emigration Centre in Verona, points out the location of Stuttgart on a geopolitical map of the Federal Republic of Germany. The map shows the position of the West German city to Italian migrant workers who were keen to work there. Filming took place in the 1960s in one of the assistance offices of the Emigration Centre, which has been active since 1958 in the city of Verona in selecting thousands of workers, who were then subjected to strict medical fitness tests, a prerequisite for obtaining a work contract in West Germany.

Rosalba Lucchetti in front of a geopolitical map of FRG in one of the offices of the Emigration Centre in Verona (“Lassù in Germania”, 9:37’)

For many Italian workers, many of whom came from the south of Italy (Mezzogiorno), where the illiteracy rate in the 1960s was high, the experience in the Emigration Centre was their first encounter with Italian bureaucracy and the names of German companies, cities and regions. The first approach to this “unknown” world, which was to be their new home for the months and years to come, was not entirely free of incomprehension and misunderstandings.

In a short but significant written account, Enzo Posterivo describes his arrival in Baden-Württemberg as one of the first Italian “Gastarbeiter”:

“After school I learned the tailoring profession from my father. I left everything behind and soon became free of all commitments, including sentimental ones. I left Rossano (Calabria) with my friend and another villager for Stockach, a small town in Baden-Württemberg, which I initially mistook for Stuttgart. It was the first time I had crossed the border and I was already fascinated by the beautiful Swiss mountains. As I said, I was a bit disappointed by Stockach, I expected a big city but instead I found myself in a small town not far from Lake Constance, where small industries proliferated, including Lembcke, a men’s clothing factory where I worked for twenty years.”2

It is not clear whether Enzo really intended to move to Stockach or planned to go to Stuttgart (‘Stoccarda’ in Italian). The names of the two places could indeed sound similar to an Italian with a basic school education and who had never heard a single word of German. It is not hard to imagine that in the Emigration Centre in Verona, amidst the hubbub of the waiting rooms full of compatriots and possibly due to a misunderstanding, Enzo actually mixed up the two places.

Laura Mosconi, a social science student at the University of Milan who, accompanied by a friend, took up an internship in West Germany in 1964, recounts a similar event in an interview:

“The arrival was a bit traumatic, thinking about it now, the first brush with Germany was on the train that took us to Munich in October to make the final arrangements. Looking at the map hanging on the wall of the train platform, I couldn’t find the city of ‘Monaco’ and I said to my friend: “We’ve got the wrong train!”. A very kind person explained to us that we had to look for ‘München’ on the map because that’s how it was spelled in German”.3

The two friends managed to get to Munich, where they parted company. Laura went to Stuttgart, where she worked in 1965 as a social worker and advisor at the local Italian Cultural Centre, opened by Caritas and managed by the local Italian Catholic Mission.4

Enzo and Laura’s experiences reveal an interesting aspect. In both cases, their experience of mobility is inextricably bound up with a particular linguistic-cultural perception of space, a misunderstanding about the place of arrival. Enzo took ‘Stockach’ for ‘Stoccarda’. Laura was not aware that the German translation of the Italian ‘Monaco’ was ‘München’. In both cases the migratory experience and its memory are closely linked to the individual and subjective perception of the “space” through which this mobility occurred in the first place and to the way in which this experience is recalled years later.

Archivio Storico ACLI (Rome), “Emigrazione”, 9.10.1978, 24.

In many of the interviews I conducted with first-generation Italian migrants to Germany, I found similar mechanisms of remembering. Recounting their experiences, interviewees tend to use a well-known physical place, but use the word that indicates it as they learned it at the time. This allows them to ‘go back’ spontaneously to that place and what they experienced without straining their memory. This “toponomastic” memory gives an insight into the process of self-localization and the dynamics of the “subjectification of space-time coordinates”5 before, during and after mobility.

These aspects should, in my opinion, be further investigated, for at least two reasons:

On the one hand, a deeper analysis of “how” migrants memorize places would allow for overcoming a (too often reiterated) normative approach to the study of Italian mobility in Europe, which, in my opinion, primarily takes into account the physical or visible migration experience and tends to ignore the migrant perspective: their concerns while travelling, their strategies for moving across borders, their expectations once they arrive abroad, their dreams and desires, and, at the same time, their feelings about the places and people they encountered on their journey. Indeed, recent studies show that many Italian emigrants de facto avoided the Emigration Centre and pursued private itineraries, going firstly to other countries (Switzerland, Belgium, France, but also Canada and the United States of America) and only later settling down in West Germany, where they established personal, family and collective relations and networks transnationally.6

On the other hand, from a cultural-historical point of view, insistence on analysing the set of “linguistic hybridizations” connected to places and spaces would allow for the recovery of a complex migratory lexicon, a vernacular heritage composed of all the not-so-well spelled names of West German toponyms referring to cities, railway stations, streets and residential district, canteens, and finally bars, many of which are sadly closing due to the passing away of numerous first-generation Italian “Gastarbeiter”.7 The (re)discovery of these memories, part of a linguistic and socio-cultural “pluriverse” still in evolution8, would underline the plurality, diversity and multiformity of individual experiences of Italian emigrants after 1945 and at the same time contribute to the development of a transnational “cultural memory” of European migration history.9

Francesco Vizzarri is a PhD candidate and research assistant at the Chair of Contemporary History at the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany. His research interests are mainly Italian contemporary history, Italian migration in the 20th century and the Italian migrants’ press abroad.

  1. Cf. “Lassù in Germania” (2012), by Elena Peloso und Dario Dalla Mura (documentary, 43’). []
  2. Cf. Montanari, Mauro, ed. (1996): Quando venni in Germania. Storie di italiani in Germania. Lingua ed emigrazione, 97. []
  3. Interview with Laura Mosconi, 17.01.2021. For more details on Laura Mosconi’s biography, see also the interview by Paola Colombo in Corriere d’Italia, Jan. 2021, p. 18. []
  4. Laura wrote her university thesis about her experience at the Italian Centre in Stuttgart, entitled “I problemi e le possibilità riguardanti l’Assistenza generica e culturale degli emigrati italiani, singoli e nuclei familiari, in Germania, attraverso l’esperienza di una Assistente sociale in un Centro Italiano”. A copy of the manuscript is available at the ADMCIF (Archiv Delegatur der Italienischen Katholischen Missionen, Frankfurt am Main). []
  5. Cf. Floriani, Sonia: Qui e Altrove? Per una tipologia di migranti fra sociologia e biografia, in: Italies (14) 2010, 51-66. []
  6. Cf. Severin-Barboutie, Bettina (2019): Migration als Bewegung am Beispiel von Stuttgart und Lyon nach 1945, p. 308. []
  7. See the interesting collection of testimonies of elderly Italian emigrants in the following volume: Marino, Michele (2021): Invecchiare senza radici. 20 interviste ad anziani emigrati. []
  8. Cf. Carotenuto, Carla; Cognini, Edith; Meschini, Michela; Vitrone, Francesca, ed. (2018): Pluriverso italiano. Incroci linguistico-culturali e percorsi migratori in lingua italiana: atti del Convegno internazionale Macerata-Recanati, 10-11 dicembre 2015. Macerata: Edizioni Università di Macerata, p. 17. []
  9. I use the term ‘cultural memory’ here to describe collective memory based on the interaction between present and past in socio-cultural contexts. Cf. Erll, Astrid; Nünning, Ansgar, ed. (2008): Cultural Memory Studies. An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook, ‘Introduction’, p. 2. []

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