Finding Meaning In The Senseless Death Of Tugce Albayrak

The young Turkish-German woman was killed after defending others, and in death has become a symbol of how immigration is central to Germany's modern history.

Paying tribute to Tugce A.
Paying tribute to Tugce A.
Uwe Schmitt and Hannelore Crolly

BERLIN — On the evening of her 23rd birthday, as all the devices were turned off, her heart stopped beating in her brain-dead body. Turning off life support was the excruciating final favor that her parents and brothers could do her. But even after her death, Tugçe Albayrak kept giving.

Following the autopsy conducted in connection with the investigation into her death, her organs will be donated. The trainee teacher had decided on the donation years ago. This moved and shamed Germans a second time. The first was when Tugçe had the singular courage of a simple citizen to risk her life to help people in trouble. That act of bravery ended in her violent death. And then the donation. Not many among us would dare to do either.

It would be an injustice to Tugçe, who loved life and celebrated her youth, to elevate her to a kind of sainthood because she was courageous — and also perhaps a bit naive, as only heroines can be. She was, as her friends write in farewell letters to her, an active, committed disciple of the founder of the modern Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who demonstrated against pietistic Islamists and in favor of the rights of Palestinians. One can imagine Tugçe, a German of Turkish origins who had a secular upbringing, chanting both "Down with the Israeli occupation!" and "Down with Erdogan!"

One friend remembers that she never argued with Tugçe except about politics, which was more important to her than to most young women her age. "You never felt like shopping or acted like a princess," her friend wrote in an online memorial. "My little witch, I love you with all my heart."

Joachim Gauck, Germany’s president, wrote to her family that she would remain a model and that she had "earned the thanks and respect of us all." Gauck is looking into awarding her a posthumous order of merit. More than 50,000 people requested this in an online petition.

Why do we, Germans, Turks, people with and without links to immigration, in an unusual show of unity, take this tragic death so close to heart? Why does this courage in life and death move so many?

Good and bad

If we’re candid — and this much we owe to the radically honest Tugçe — we in the media especially have to admit that her story is like penned by a screenwriter, something bigger than life. As heroines do in movies, this real-life protagonist had an excess of everything: youth, beauty, but also violence, the tragedy of a being favored by the gods dying young.

This young woman's fate brings together all the ideas Germans have about immigrants, the good and the bad. On the one hand, the victim was courageous, engaged, well-integrated. On the other hand her alleged killer, Sanel M., is a violent, jobless young man with archaic notions about the roles of men and women.

If Tugçe had been a pious, pudgy, headscarf-wearing girl in a long dress instead of a woman who wore make-up, chic clothes and heels and celebrated her beauty — who knows how we would think of her. Let’s face it: Tugçe embodied the ideal we have of second and third-generation descendants of immigrants. She was keen on education, politically articulate, self-aware. She came from a family that always encouraged her, and had become perfectly assimilated while remaining true to its heritage.

Tugçe did her generation in the Turkish-German community proud. "You were so beautiful," grieving Muslim girls write on Facebook, "So bright!" They are humbled, and rightly so. So are men, at least those who can deal with having strong women as sisters, girlfriends, wives.

It is telling that it is only in tragedy that one of theirs has finally earned the national recognition and honor that is typically denied to ethnic minorities in Germany. The ones who tend to capture attention, and too much media coverage, are the ones causing their own people chagrin by bringing shame upon them.

Among their number, as far as we know, is 18-year-old Serb Sanel M., accused of being Tugçe’s tormentor. He was already on the radars of the police and justice authorities, and spent his days driving around with his friends in their SUV. He gave himself the right to beat people up, insult them, where and when he felt like it. He placed his sense of macho honor above all else. So he couldn’t stand the fact that it was a delicate young woman who stood up to him and had him thrown out of the venue where he had attacked the people Tugçe came to the defense of.

He took his revenge like a coward, when there wasn’t anyone around to help her. Courageous and self-confident as she was, Tugçe didn’t fit into his view of the world. She was a woman who didn’t have much besides derision for men like him. He embodied all too well the cliché of the young "bad guy," the unwelcome immigrant who is reluctant to integrate and on whom education appears to be wasted. Whatever the reasons that drove him to come to Germany, he has failed since his arrival.

By comparison, one light shines even brighter. A blow to the temple robbed Tugçe of her life and left our whole society, Germans, Turks, German-Turks and immigrants from all over the world, with one fewer teacher who wanted to share with children the lessons of the many lives that can flourish in our country.

Much of what Tugçe had learned in her short life came from her own family. Her father came from Anatolia, her mother from Istanbul, and her older brothers, it is said, protected and admired their tough, brave sister without measure. To be loved like that, educated, capable, and to want more from life, gives people courage. It was that courage she demonstrated on the fateful night.

What will remain in our memories of this woman who didn’t look the other way, didn’t run away? The nighttime pictures of flickering hearts formed by hundreds of candlelights; the video that shows Tugçe in an evening dress at the piano at her high school graduation; the expressions of deep suffering on the faces of her parents and brothers at the hospital window, as well as the grace and modesty when they looked down at the strangers who’d come to hold a vigil.

It is a terrible thing to say, but comforting nonetheless: Tugçe also leaves her organs to help the sick — one last act that gives us, as a friend wrote in a farewell letter, "a sense of gratefulness for the spotlight she threw on all immigrants here who, like her, live their lives confidently and courageously."

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