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Meet Berlin’s Filipino Grandmama

/ 04:51 AM September 28, 2014
A LIBRARY OF MEMORIES With her trademark shoulder-length hair tied up in a bun and perfectly manicured nails, Mueller can easily regale a listener with anecdotes about Filipinos who visited the city where Jose Rizal first published his “Noli Me Tangere” novel over a century ago.  Marilyn Odchimar/Contributor

A LIBRARY OF MEMORIES With her trademark shoulder-length hair tied up in a bun and perfectly manicured nails, Mueller can easily regale a listener with anecdotes about Filipinos who visited the city where Jose Rizal first published his “Noli Me Tangere” novel over a century ago. MARILYN ODCHIMAR/Contributor

BERLIN—For a septuagenarian and someone barely five feet tall, Lourdes Lareza Mueller is Berlin’s most active Filipino community leader.

Filipino ambassadors have come and gone, but Mueller, 77, is a mainstay of all Philippine Embassy events, from presidential visits to cultural happenings, making her a kind of village elder.

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It is a role befitting the former librarian, the only Filipino so far who has worked in one of Europe’s largest libraries—the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin State Library).

Entering Berlin in 1968, seven years after the Berlin Wall was built, Mueller has seen a generation of Filipinos evolved from groups of families employed at US military bases located in western allied sections of the divided city to now an assortment of struggling scholars, artists and Pinays married to Germans.

“I practically know everyone here in Berlin,” she says at the living room of her modest bungalow, tucked away in the quiet Berlin suburb of Rudow.

“In the late ’60s, there was just a small handful of Filipinos studying in East Berlin. They were the sons of Filipino communist leaders,” she says, adding most of the Asians who were there then were workers from communist North Vietnam.

Filipino doctors and nurses based in US military hospitals in West Berlin as well as a motley of Filipinos studying in the western-occupied sectors comprised the bulk of the community.

With her trademark shoulder-length hair tied up in a bun and perfectly manicured nails, Mueller can easily regale a listener with anecdotes about Filipinos who visited the city where Jose Rizal first published “Noli Me Tangere” over a century ago.

A photo sits on a bookshelf, a sepia-colored picture of a young man in Philippine Army uniform. It is her father. He was to become a general in the Philippine Constabulary.

The military would play a tangential role in the life of the general’s daughter in Berlin, where she crossed paths with Filipinos and their families on rest and recreation leave from assignments in US Army and Navy bases in South Korea and Vietnam.

“There was hardly any Asian food sold in Berlin. At big department stores, their groceries would sell rice, noodles and canned foods from Asia but they were very expensive. One sayote was worth around 2 euros. The puso ng saging was 18 euros but I bought it once for the kare-kare I cooked for a visiting Filipino delegation. If you knew someone who had access to the US commissaries that helped,” she says.

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And while Asian staples and delicacies were available at a steep price in West Berlin, inhabitants of communist-controlled East Berlin and much of eastern Germany had to line up for the most basic needs.

“Every time we visited the relatives of my husband in East Germany, we’d bring for them grapes, oranges, coffee and meat as pasalubong. Even though they had the money, people in the East just could not buy the things they need because the things weren’t there. At Alexanderplatz (in East Berlin) I’d see people stand in line for things like bananas,” she recalls.

Mueller finished Library Science at the University of the Philippines Diliman. She was the Tax Commission librarian in 1968 when she helped the German Embassy and the Carl Duisberg Foundation organize a seminar in Manila for German officials who wanted to assess the usefulness of German-funded apprenticeships and training obtained by some Filipinos in Germany.

As a reward for her efforts, Mueller was given a 16-month travel tour to Germany in 1968.

“After a few months in the country, I decided to apply for a 10-month crash course in the field of documentation at the lnstitute of Documentation in Frankfurt.”

ln 1972, she was hired by the Stadtbibliothek and worked there until retiring at 63 in 2000. Mueller attained the status of a “Beamtin” (German civil servant) after passing the required exams in 1986 while still working as a special cataloguer for legal materials at the “Stabi,” as the locals call the Library.

“l was at the Anglo-American legal section. I processed the lending requests of various users and researchers from all over the world. We have different languages on legal topics,” Mueller says.

Stabi is Germany’s largest academic universal research library and one of the most important libraries in the German-speaking world, with its extensive collection and databases as well as materials on legal studies, among other things. Its oldest handwritten book is a Coptic codex of the biblical Book of Proverbs that dates back from the third century.The oldest printed book is an eighth century Buddhist text from Japan, the “Hyakumanto Darani.”

At Stabi, amid its more famous collection, such as a Gutenberg Bible, the main autograph collection of Goethe, the world’s largest collection of Johann Sebastian Bach’s and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s manuscripts, and the original score of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, the German passion to preserve the past has rubbed off on Mueller.

Her archiving skills probably explains also her ability to recall people and details so vividly, making her a walking database of who’s who in Berlin’s Filipino community.

After the Berlin Wall opened in 1989, she was given the job of cataloguing some legal materials written in old German script which had been deposited at various small libraries in East German territories.

Stadtbibliothek wanted to consolidate the collection of legal materials as well as record where they were deposited.

“ln the ’80s, before the Wall came down, we were still housed at Bendlerblock (a building complex that served as the headquarters of a group of army officers who carried out the 1944 plot against Adolf Hitler). A colleague and I twice a week would go to an old brewery, a one-hour bus trip away. There we would catalogue the collection deposited there after being retrieved from different places where they were hidden at Allied-occupied sectors. We would work with our coats and scarves still on because it had no heaters,” she says.

Toward the latter part of the ’70s, Mueller was among the librarians who had to retrieve a vast collection of Asian materials damaged by rains. “The materials were coming into Germany so fast from all over Japan, Korea and China. But there wasn’t enough usable buildings to house them. So a big tent was set up. It was huge, as high as a three-story building, at the back of what used to be a no-man’s land, as it was a death strip on the borders of East Berlin. Then a big storm came and blew away the tent. Around 2 p.m. that day, all of us librarians tried to rescue the materials, working as fast as we could. The German soldiers came to help. The books and materials were already exposed to the rain,” she recalls.

“My colleagues and I were carrying the books, hand to hand, on a human chain up to the army trucks. We did that for three days. It was hard work. A lot of books made of pergamano paper were destroyed,” she says.

Mueller lives with husband Gerhard. She has a daughter and two grandchildren.

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TAGS: Filipino, Germany, Lourdes Lareza Mueller, Migration
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