For about 50 years, during the Cold War after World War Two, the eastern German border city of Gorlitz was cut off from the neighboring Polish town. But after the fall of communism in East Germany and Poland in 1989, the people in both towns began reaching out to one other. VOA's Deborah Block looks at how their cooperation has affected Gorlitz.
Gorlitz, Germany is only a stone's throw from its Polish neighbor, Zgorzelec -- separated by a narrow river. Zgorzelec was part of Gorlitz before World War Two, but when the border changed after the war, the city was divided in half, one side became part of Poland, while the other remained in Germany.
For years, the people in the two cities had no contact with each other. But then six years ago, the newly-elected mayors of both the German and Polish towns began working together.
Zgorzelec’s mayor, Miroslav Fiedorowitz, says the results were remarkable. "We have a common bus line. We have pre-school programs where children learn German and Polish, and other schools where older students, including those in vocational schools, can study both German and Polish,” said Mr. Fiedorowitz.
One of the latest symbols of this cooperation is a new bridge joining the center of the two towns.
Gorlitz Mayor Rof Karbaum says even though some of the older German and Poles harbor bad feelings about each other, going back to World War Two, most young people don't carry that baggage. "I believe that the conditions are such that these young people want to live as a family, because every year two to three dozen Polish-German couples get married."
However, many young people in Gorlitz say they rarely go to Zgorzelec. Anna Heinze, a stylist at a hair salon in Gorlitz, says although she would welcome her Polish neighbors into the shop, all the customers are German. "I wouldn't mind, but I don't know what they want because I don't understand them. Communication is the problem."
Twenty-year-old Enrico Loyschler says another problem is some people in Gorlitz have negative ideas about their neighbors. "People on the street are a little afraid of living together because there are clichés of the Poles being thieves, stealing, and about crime in general."
Yet, Gorlitz and Zgorzelec rely on each other to survive because their economy is poor. Although there are several small factories around Gorlitz, German tourists help keep the charming, old city alive. Unemployment is high in both towns.
In Gorlitz, locals fear the Poles may take jobs because they'll work for less. Many young people have left, hoping to find work in former West Germany.
Evonne Klein works in a hotel. "The problem for the German people is that they do not speak Polish. So if they become unemployed they have to go to the West and the chance for Polish people to come here, especially the ones who speak German, they get a job here, instead of someone from Gorlitz." Ms. Klein says she is lucky to have a job.
More than anything, commerce is pulling the two towns together. The Germans go to the Polish side for cheaper fuel, cigarettes and food, while the Poles come to Gorlitz for electronics, and clothes they can't find in Zgorzelec.
Here, in this popular shopping area in Gorlitz, saleswoman Charlene Hauser says they can buy more fashionable clothes. "It's better here, the price and quality. Especially the Polish women come here because of the better price and selection."
But the mayors of Gorlitz and Zgorzelec are confident the cities will eventually pull themselves out of their economic rut. Gorlitz mayor Karbaum says, that despite being in different countries, he's optimistic the towns will again be united as they were in the past. "One city with a single administration, a single infrastructure, one city of two nations. Polish citizens and German citizens. When will this happen, who knows?”
Already they are managing urban development of the towns, as well as holding joint sessions of the local governments. But they say even if the towns become one, there would be a lot to work out, including who is in charge.