The Berlin Wall Fell And Thousands Left This East German City. Now Some Are Returning

Nov 9, 2019

When he was 22, Octavian Ursu watched the Berlin Wall fall on television from his hometown of Bucharest, Romania. As a college student, he had taken part in the bloody democratic uprising in his own country, and he cheered along with those peacefully tearing down the symbol of a divided Europe.

"After the Bucharest uprising, I graduated, and suddenly the border was open and everything was free," he says.

He packed his bags for the new, free Germany, where he found a job as the principal trumpet player for the symphony orchestra of Goerlitz, a city in eastern Germany near the Polish and Czech borders. When he arrived, he took a look around and wondered if he had made a mistake.

"It was catastrophic," he remembers. "It looked like a city of ruins. It wasn't in good shape."

The city, filled with centuries-old buildings, had been left to rot by its past communist government. Much of the housing stock was falling apart, and as Ursu arrived, tens of thousands were on their way out, seeking better opportunities in the West. The city of 100,000 before German reunification shrank to around 50,000 people.

Andrea Friederike Behr runs marketing for Goerlitz. Her team has helped attract Hollywood directors to film historical sequences in the town. The town is also offering a free month's rent for young, skilled workers who want to try living in Goerlitz.
Rob Schmitz/NPR

"Thousands of people lost their jobs here," says Goerlitz resident Andrea Friederike Behr. "Many of them fled to West Germany to look for work there. We lost many young people, and you need young people to build a future."

Behr was a teenager when her hometown began to lose half its population. "Everything was dark outside," she remembers. "All the buildings, there was no paint on the wall, and you thought, oh my God, all the buildings were going to break down."

Behr left, too, opting to study in the U.S. But while she was gone, the German government provided reconstruction funds to her hometown, and by the time she returned to Goerlitz as an adult, she noticed things that made it stand out.

"When you walk through the city today, you see the beauty," she says. "Thousands of monuments from different parts of history, all lined up next to each other."

Goerlitz dates back to the Middle Ages, when it was a trading center along the Via Regia, an ancient road used during the Holy Roman Empire. Later, during both world wars, Goerlitz managed to avoid being bombed, leaving the city's centuries-old cathedrals and narrow cobblestone streets intact.

Behr — and her fellow townspeople — saw potential. They marketed the city's unblemished European feel to Hollywood. Few moviegoers recognized the city, enabling directors to turn its old town into a variety of historical locales. Quentin Tarantino shot parts of Inglourious Basterds in Goerlitz. So did Stephen Daldry, director of the 2008 film The Reader. Wes Anderson made it his fictional war-torn country of Zubrowka for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The city was nicknamed "Goerliwood," and posters with this moniker fill Behr's office. She now directs marketing for the city, and is in charge of attracting former residents like herself — those who left after the wall fell — to return and contribute to their hometown. She could not provide figures for how many have returned since she began her marketing push, but says, "Many people like me want to come back to raise their children and take care of their grandparents. The quality of life here is high."

The city is also trying to recruit young, skilled workers by offering them a free apartment for a month if they try the city out. But that wasn't necessary for Marcus Rentsch, a 38-year-old doctor who grew up in Goerlitz, then left, and returned with his family from Dresden.

Octavian Ursu was elected mayor of Goerlitz in June. He emigrated from Romania after the Berlin Wall fell, and is the first migrant to be elected mayor of a city in the state of Saxony.
Rob Schmitz/NPR

"It's not so bad here," he says. "It's also quite cheap to buy here, to live here. It's also a beautiful city."

The challenge for Goerlitz is creating good jobs. Although big European companies like Siemens and Bombardier have campuses in the town, unemployment is above 10%, about 7% higher than the national unemployment rate.

Reducing that percentage is the newfound goal of Octavian Ursu, the Romanian trumpet player who arrived soon after the Berlin Wall fell. He's a German citizen now, and was elected mayor in June.

"My aim is to get more inhabitants and young people to Goerlitz again," Ursu says from his office overlooking the old town square. "But for that, we also need well-paid jobs in future technologies."

Ursu has big dreams for his adopted hometown that go beyond it being a set for another Hollywood film. He's courting start-up companies and he wants to tap European Union funds to build direct train connections to Prague and Berlin.

Goerlitz, dating to the Middle Ages, has appeared in movies including Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Rob Schmitz/NPR

When asked when he plans to do all this, "Yesterday," he responds. "Look, my becoming mayor has happened in a place where people have said it couldn't happen — but it has."

Saxony, the state where Goerlitz is located, is home to several neo-Nazi groups and is a base of support for the far-right AfD political party. Yet voters chose Ursu, a member of the Christian Democratic Union — making him the first migrant mayor in the state's history.

Cities in the former East Germany, like the one he leads, have languished long enough, Ursu says. He insists his is changing for the better.

Anna Noryskiewicz contributed to this story.

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