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Germany/Poland: Goerlitz Remains A Divided City

  • Jolyon Naegele

Ten years ago today, the Berlin Wall separating West and East Germany was opened to free travel for the first time since its erection in 1961. Less than a year later (Oct. 3, 1990), the Communist-ruled German Democratic Republic ceased to exist and was merged into a new united Germany. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports on how life has changed in the past decade in Germany's easternmost town, the still divided city of Goerlitz.

Goerlitz, Germany, 9 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Germany's easternmost city, Goerlitz -- along with Frankfurt an der Oder -- is one of the last European towns that has remained divided ever since the end of World War II. As such, Goerlitz is perhaps somewhat of a paradigm for how far eastern Germany has come in the past decade and where it is headed.

One day before Nazi Germany capitulated to the Allies on May 8, 1945, retreating German troops blew up all the bridges across the Neisse river that runs through Goerlitz. Several weeks later, meeting at Potsdam, the leaders of the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union made the Neisse and Oder rivers the border between Poland and the Soviet occupation zone of Germany. Goerlitz's eastern half was awarded to Poland and was given its historic Polish name, Zgorzelec. Over the years, Goerlitz and Zgorzelec went their own separate ways, although always within the framework of so-called "fraternal cooperation" between two Warsaw Pact allies -- the German Democratic Republic (GDR), set up in October 1949, and the Polish People's Republic. Road and rail bridges were gradually rebuilt, but the bridge that once connected the centers of the two halves of the town is still on the drawing boards.

With the advent of television, Goerlitz grew increasingly isolated. Most East Germans could watch West German television and thus keep in touch with the Western world. But Western transmitters were too distant to reach the GDR's southeastern corner, where Goerlitz is located. As a result, its residents became increasingly isolated, frustrated and willing to emigrate.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification brought some prosperity to Goerlitz. But today the outflow of the town's residents continues unabated, despite an extensive urban renewal program and the availability of a large selection of national and regional TV channels.

Since the mid-1980s, Goerlitz's population has shrunk by more than a quarter, and now stands at 61,600. The city's mayor, Rolf Karbaum, notes that many older residents -- who constitute a disproportionately large share of the population -- have died, and younger residents have moved to the West in search of opportunities for study and jobs.

"This emigration had already begun in the '80s, in communist times. Back then, Goerlitz was in a virtually hopeless position on the edge of the GDR. And unfortunately this population decline is continuing without interruption."

Mayor Karbaum says the departure of young people from Goerlitz is critical since, as he puts it, "hope and the city's very future are vanishing with them" as they move westward and persuade their friends and parents to follow them. This outflow has resulted in a sharp decline in births since 1989, with the result that today there are far more residents over the age of 70 than those aged 10 or younger.

A similar trend is occurring -- albeit somewhat less strongly -- throughout eastern Germany. The solution is generally considered to lie in job creation and ensuring adequate opportunities for study in the east itself.

The difference between the two towns divided by the Neisse River is growing daily. Zgorzelec is struggling slowly to repair itself. But Goerlitz, once just as shabby as its Polish twin, is now more than halfway through a major refurbishing of its historic buildings, streets and squares. The refurbishing is financed by large infusions of cash from both the German federal and Saxon state governments.

Still, the pretty facades, new pedestrian zones and the surplus of recently built residential housing have not been enough to stem the outflow of young Goerlitzers. But they are likely eventually to lure Poles from across the river. At the same time, Zgorzelec has become Goerlitz's opposite. Zgorzelec is a demographically young town bursting at its seams, profiting from being on Poland's western border with Germany, but suffering from an acute housing shortage.

While Goerlitz is not in a position to finance the renovation of Zgorzelec, the two towns are collaborating in a joint development plan concentrating on the banks of the Neisse. Karbaum predicts that once Poland becomes a member of the European Union -- perhaps in some four years' time -- the border that divides the city will become nothing more than a line on the map. He says Polish EU membership will make it possible to cross the Neisse without regard to borders. And he fully expects many Zgorzelec residents will move across the border to Goerlitz:

"One day, Goerlitz will no longer be divided. Goerlitz will integrate with its twin city Zgorzelec as the 'European City - Goerlitz-Zgorzelec.' We want to prepare for this step, a step which is important for the future of this city -- this is where we see the future of this city. It is of course also an important example for European [that is, EU] integration [with its neighbors] beyond its current borders."

The twin cities last year jointly declared themselves a "European City." Karbaum notes that Goerlitz and Zgorzelec already have developed extensive relations in administration, culture, education, and associations. Each town maintains a bilingual German-Polish kindergarten, and they share a joint city bus line. And, finally, concrete plans are being drawn up to build a new tram line across a rebuilt bridge that will once again link the historic centers of Goerlitz and Zgorzelec.