Cultural identity: the thing with the hook

The Croatian hook belonging to the name Matuško had been stripped off by our author’s father. Now our author asks himself: Does the hook belong to me?

Clear identity? The thing has a hook Photo: Illustration: Katja Gendikova

On June 15 of this year, I wrote an e-mail to the Croatian Embassy in Berlin and received an answer only one day later, to a question I had not asked at all: Where do I actually come from?

What I had asked was: whether I could visit my Croatian father during Corona and despite entry restrictions for foreigners. At the end of my mail it said: "Sincerely, Ilija Matusko". The Embassy’s reply: "Dear Mr. Matuško, you may!"

The pointed arrow above the s jumped right into my face. The checkmark that belongs to my name in Croatian, that my father had stripped off on his way to Germany and for which you have to switch to the special characters in German, it was there again. Like a chain that I had lost and now had tied around my neck again, whether I wanted to or not: Where are you from? Well, from here! From us!

A special character designates something that does not occur in one’s own writing and speaking. It forces to leave the own sign system. Such strokes and ticks attached to letters are called diacritical marks; they expand the character space, but are also stumbling blocks. Hardly anyone can pronounce the name of the book prize winner Saša Stanišić correctly. Often the special characters are forgotten or – even worse – deliberately omitted.

The hook feels foreign

The hook above the s is called HaCek (German: Hatschek). A name with Hatschek is for many still like a stranger, like a Slav with a beard who smells like Šljivovic (Schliwowitz). Also for me. The hook in the name feels foreign, hence my defensiveness. "Is the hook yours?", "No, never seen it!"

I was born in Germany, have a German mother, a German passport, a German degree. I write German so often perhaps because there is doubt about it. The question still comes now and then, "Where does your name come from?" (i.e., "Where are you from?"), just recently someone wrote to me, "But you know German well!"

As if identity were an apple

For a long time I thought I was half-half. Half German, half Croatian. As if identity were an apple that you could cut in half. But I can just about manage a "Guten Tag" in Croatian. I don’t drink Šljivovic either, as a rule. I got almost nothing from being Croatian on the way, except for the name. I never questioned the Germanized form, never really missed my father’s check mark.

Briefly, I considered simply asking the embassy outright who I was. Again, in a "Dear Sir or Madam" email, with three blank lines in between, as if a little space would help them think about all the uncertainties about origin and affiliation. Presumably, they wouldn’t have an answer. Some questions are answered more clearly if they aren’t asked at all. It’s just a little check mark, a few millimeters, nothing more. Still, it got stuck in me.

My father gave the hook at the inlet

I didn’t lose the hook, my father did. Whereby – rather handed in at the inlet. When he came from Yugoslavia to Germany in 1974. Without a check mark in his name, there were fewer problems in German authorities, with forms, with permits. Without a check mark, his name was easier to understand, easier to spell. "Name?" "Matuschko." "So with s, c, h,?", "No, with š."

I see the official in front of me, prancing around like a stork on the typewriter, surrounded by wood paneling, then pressing a neat s into the paper at the end. A Slavic sibilant had no place on the Olympia. My father didn’t mind; he wanted to behave, to show a willingness to conform. If a name didn’t fit into the German order, then perhaps the whole person didn’t either. Perhaps he hoped to be able to blur his origins a little.

More 4711 instead of Jugo

Or maybe he thought it was only fair: He left out the German umlaut dots when speaking – and they his HaCek. So my father sat in the "Auslenderbehorde", in the land of great opportunities, with new jeans, moderately expensive shoes and a freshly shaved name, Petar Matusko, that smelled, also thanks to the first name, a bit more like 4711 than Jugo.

The approximation of foreign words is called Germanization. Keks for Cakes, Fete for Fête, Hatschek for HaCek. But then I should have been called Matuschko, I think. That would have seemed like we’ve been here forever. "Matushko? That would have been even more wrong," my father says when I call him because I want to know more about the lost hook. "A lot of things were easier without hooks," he says. Even easier would have been my mother’s name. Eva Muller. So I could have been called Ilija Muller. But that much Germanization was too much for my father.

Croatian dishes wiped off the menu

After marriage, my mother and father opened a tavern, for many years business was good, and the money went to a house on the Adriatic. My father learned two languages at once, German and Bavarian. He parked neatly, filled out every form correctly, knew every German minister, didn’t skimp on free beer and made jokes about Austrians. He smiled when the guests made jokes about his compatriots, praised him for his cleanliness, he allowed himself to be addressed, patted on the shoulders.

At some point, Croatian dishes were erased from the menu, Pljeskavica became minced steak, Ražnjići became meat skewers. One of his favorite anecdotes we often laughed about: When he wanted to shake hands with my teacher at school, at the cake buffet, and the teacher recoiled thinking my father was trying to steal the cake from his plate.

Not standing out meant "well integrated

Being hard-working, correct and orderly, not attracting attention, keeping your mouth shut – that was what "well integrated" meant back then. Most of them wanted to go back themselves. And I wonder whether I also lost my bond with Croatia because my father couldn’t live out his cultural identity more openly in Germany. I don’t even speak the hook language. My father thought at the time that I wouldn’t need it here. One’s own identity as unnecessary ballast to be discarded.

"Did you want to hide the foreign?", I ask my father. "No, I just left the hook off," he replies. "Didn’t that bother you?", "It’s just a letter," he replies, in his pragmatic, German way.

My feelings are foreign to my father

Something has shifted, my sensitivities are foreign to my father. It’s not him who has a problem with the hook, it’s me. Well, he has got his back since he returned to his homeland. Today, he sits in a house that he has laboriously built up in a broken, corrupt country and raves about Germany, where everything works.

My sister is five years older than me and lives in Bavaria. She got the hook back at some point and had it added to her passport. "The name g’hort so," she says when I ask her why. Every year she goes "down" for several weeks, has a red-and-white checkered flag on her rearview mirror, and sticks with Croatia in soccer. I envy her for being able to juggle the origins so freely. The addition was only possible because it was on her birth certificate, she says.

The catch was there from the start

Ilija Matuško, the name of my grandfather. He spent his whole life in a stone house in a small village. He had nothing and he had everything: sheep, cheese, bread, wine, mountains, sea and sun. And in the hook that has been cut away, everything is condensed that I have lost since then, that can no longer be collected – even if I were to scribble a š into all my identity cards afterwards.

In the cellar I rummage for my birth certificate, it is filled out with a typewriter, and it really does say: Ilija Matuško. A small v flies a little too far above the s. Two characters make the special character. The hook was there from the beginning. Whether it belongs to me, to my name, I still don’t know. Maybe it needs another special character: a check mark in brackets.

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