An old ceramic stove heats the room. Several women bustle about, setting plates with Russian "blinchinki" and "pirozhki" on a large table. Two of the women argue in Russian about how many teacups are missing. Another hisses: "Speak German!"
A group of women and men, mostly elderly, settles around the table. For many of these recently arrived "Aussiedler" from Russia and Kazakhstan, the time spent at the "House of Meetings" with its director, Marion Dueppel, is their only chance to speak German and feel more at home in their new country -- a country that is also their ancestral homeland.
Eduard Wulf is 63-years-old. He moved to Wittstock two years ago with his wife, grown son, and daughter. Wulf explains that although his broken German was enough to pass the test to get into Germany, it was not enough to build a new life: "We came here and we get money. I get a pension that I didn't work for. I'd rather work until I'm 80 to really earn this money. Why should [the locals] welcome us? There's no reason for them to welcome us. We come here and most of us live on welfare money that we haven't earned."
As a child deported to Kazakhstan, Wulf spoke only German. But the Soviets forced the ethnic Germans to give up their mother tongue.
Wulf's own children don't speak the language, nor does his Russian wife. So Wulf is the only one of his large family to actually speak some German. Wulf says that the language barrier keeps him from feeling at home. He also points out that it is preventing his son, a car mechanic, from finding a job. "Instead, he repairs the bikes of the neighbors," Wulf says.
The German authorities recognize that the dwindling number of German speakers among the latest waves of repatriates is a problem. In 1993, 74 percent of arrivals spoke German. Now only 22 percent do -- those who actually make the immigration request and are allowed to bring their spouses, children, and great-grandchildren.
And while during the first years of emigration most families were completely German, now many come from mixed marriages.
And that makes integration more difficult. Jochen Welt, the government's representative for foreigners, noted drly last year that "there are fewer repatriates but more integration problems."
Authorities hope that by imposing a new language test to all repatriation candidates they can identify those most likely to integrate well.
Yet the living conditions in Wittstock illustrate some of the difficulties for newcomers and locals.
The town is located halfway between Hamburg and Berlin, in the middle of the potato fields that cover large parts of Brandenburg. Its 10,000 inhabitants are struggling to survive after local industries collapsed following reunification in 1989. Unemployment has hit 25 percent and some 4,000 young people have "gone West" -- as they say here -- to look for work.
Wittstock's 400 repatriates, however, cannot leave so easily.
Since 1996, the Interior Ministry disperses them according to quotas throughout Germany, including the economically desolate "new laender" areas of eastern Germany. They are assigned to a place of residency for three years. And unless they can prove regular employment somewhere else, they lose all rights to social benefits, such as housing and welfare, if they chose to move to another place before then.
Dueppel, the director of the "House of Meetings," says that while the repatriates are mostly "very well accepted," the weak job market is a source of tension: "When there are [problems] it's only about one subject: The wrestling for jobs. You can hear [people say]: 'Don't let more of them come and take away the few jobs there are.'"
Wulf complains of outright hostility, especially from kids. But his complaint makes the others around the table squirm uncomfortably. Nadezhda, his wife, hushes him: "Eduard, sit still and stop talking."
The issue of hostility to foreigners is a delicate one, especially in Wittstock, Like in many other east German regions where economic growth is low and unemployment high, votes have increased in favor of the communist and extreme right-wing parties.
Located near a major highway, Wittstock had become a meeting point for skinheads, a situation that appears to be changing.
But two years ago, a 19-year-old repatriate from Kazakhstan was killed after being attacked by right-wing youths. The death unleashed a clan war between "Russians" and "German" groups, says Dueppel: "Those were far-right and repatriates groups that fought at the Elf gas station.... Later, there were threats, with slogans like, "A dead repatriate [means] a dead rightist."
Dueppel says the responsibility for the violence lies with juveniles from both sides, with Russian youth venting their frustrations over a lusterless life.
Wittstock managed to get its problem under control. Few repatriates are being given residency there at the moment. Those who do come are settling in nearby villages. Others have gone "West" for new jobs.
But repatriate juveniles facing long-term unemployment, social dependency, and hostility, the lives of many of them are teetering on the brink.
Take 21-year-old Aleksandr. He arrived a year ago with his parents and younger brother from a village on the Russian-Kazakh border, south of Novosibirsk. Defiantly, he holds his chin up and shrugs: "Everybody warned us that the first year in Germany is really tough. But it was fine." But after a bit of prodding, he acknowledges that the situation is difficult: "I didn't find any work. My brother, uncle, and father have social employment. That means they work to
reimburse part of their benefits. They work 14 hours a week and get paid one euro an hour. So they mow the
lawn, rake leaves."
A tractor driver back in Russia with limited schooling, Aleksandr knows he will have a hard time here.
He says he tries to steer clear of trouble. But he can't help noting how tough the Russians are in fights with the skinheads: "They don't touch the Russians anymore. Now they're scared of us. Let them remember who won the second World War!"