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Snapshots from the Edge: A Series by Rose Cooper-Finger
April 29, 2015
In late August 2014 I packed up and moved from Seattle to the small town of Görlitz, in Germany. I knew almost nothing about the town before my arrival save for its geographical location (located in the former DDR state of Saxony, the town is the easternmost point in Germany and faces Poland across a small river) and its popularity amongst film directors. Undestroyed in the Second World War, the town’s colorful old buildings have featured prominently in films including The Book Thief, The Monuments Men, Inglorious Basterds, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Promotional material about the town shows a grand old cathedral, streets full of beautiful centuries-old architecture, and cheerful locals pausing mid-bike-ride for a refreshing beer in the park.
After seven months in Görlitz, I can confirm the spectacular beauty of the buildings, the breathtaking view of the cathedral tower over the Neiße river, and the plentitude of parks in which to drink beer. As a seven-month resident - admittedly an outsider, still, after building a routine and a life in this town - there are some sights not shown in the guidebooks that have struck me about life in this small border town. I wanted to share them with you.
Every postcard and guidebook in the city boasts some version of this iconic image - the towers of Peterskirche soaring over the river Neiße, taken from across the river in Zgorzelec, Poland.
Colorful houses on the main street. The plethora of undestroyed Altbau buildings contribute to Görlitz’s status as a continuous cultural monument.
While the buildings were not destroyed in the Second World War, many of them have begun to fall apart. Görlitz and its surrounding region have one of the highest unemployment rates and lowest percentage of young people (18-30) in the country. (Source: Versorgungsatlas.de, 2014.
The interior of the Jugendstilkaufhaus, an empty department store used as the interior of the titular hotel for Wes Anderson’s 2014 film “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. Its doors are opened and its chandeliers are illuminated once a year for the Day of Open Monuments.
5. no borders
Pro-freedom of movement and pro-immigration slogans are sprinkled across town, often on abandoned buildings. The state of Saxony and many of its small towns, including Görlitz, have accepted a large number of Syrian refugees; in response, anti-immigrant sentiments are on the rise, typified by the recent demonstrations by the PEGIDA movement. Messages like these can be seen around town, their number increasing as the anti-immigrant sentiment grows.
6. info kiosk
Not much happens in Görlitz. The town has one of the smallest numbers of people aged 18-30 in all of Germany. Young people leave as soon as they can, heading to larger cities for educational opportunities, job prospects, and varied cultural and intellectual opportunities.
Many of the votes for the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), a neo-Nazi party, come from Görlitz and the surrounding region. Anti-Nazi graffiti covers up anti-foreigner graffiti, which itself has been modified to protest the foreign occupation of the Middle East. (In green: “Foreigners out of our workplaces”; in green and red “Foreigners out of Afghanistan”.)
Some of the abandoned houses have become artists’ residences. This house near the center of town urges Görlitzers to celebrate decay.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the stream of emigration to the former Western states, many shops in town saw a sharp decrease in business. Stores closed, often in a hurry, and are now in a fascinating state of preserved decay.