Where the Genc family's house once stood, five chestnut trees now reach into the sky. On May 29, 1993, five young girls and women died here, after right-wing extremists set the house on fire.
At the time, a wave of right-wing violence had swept newly reunified Germany, many targeting Turkish families like the Gencs. In the Bundestag, politicians faced with rising numbers of refugees debated restricting the right to asylum. On the streets, racism erupted into violence, and sometimes even murder. Many of the worst incidents have since become infamous: Large-scale assaults on refugee homes in Hoyerswerda and Rostock-Lichtenhagen, eastern Germany, an arson attack in Mölln, northern Germany, and at the Genc's house in Solingen, near Cologne in western Germany.
The chestnut trees there, planted a few years after the crime, are now almost as tall as the house that was demolished after the fire. Shortly before the 30th anniversary of the assassination, the trees are in full bloom. Only four basement steps remain, overgrown by grass, dandelions, and ferns, as a reminder that people once lived here.
Cihat Genc, whose sisters Hulya and Saime were murdered, still works to ensure that they are remembered. They were only nine and four years old, dying in the house alongside Gursün İnce, Hatice Genc and Gulistan Ozturk. Remembering these victims is vital to fighting racism, the 26-year-old said. "Everyone has to participate and do their part."
The perpetrators convicted at the time have long since served their prison sentences of 10 to 15 years. Shortly before the 30th anniversary, three of them went public through their lawyer, once again claiming to be innocent. In the statement, one of the men wrote: "To the relatives of the victims of this terrible crime, I would like to say again: We three are not the murderers of your relatives."
Cihat Genc does not want to comment on this letter. Does he feel hatred for the perpetrators? "I would like the perpetrators to suffer at least as much as my parents did," he tells DW. "But I don't feel hatred because my religion forbids me to do that. I try to feel as little hate as possible."
He is pleased that the city of Solingen is set to name a square after his grandmother, Mevlude Genc, on the anniversary of the attack. The day after the attack, though she had had lost two daughters, two granddaughters and a niece, Mevlude famously called for reconciliation and later became a globally respected peace ambassador, campaigning for the coexistence of cultures until her death in 2022.
The future Mevlude Genc Square is squeezed between a busy main road and residential buildings in the center of Solingen. No, he doesn't often come here, says her grandson Cihat, looking around. "We as a family actually wanted a street to be named after Mevlude Genc." They will continue to work for that, he says.
'We belong in this society'
If you follow the highway for a kilometer and a half up the road, you end up at the "Spitze" education center. In a former doctor's office, Rasim Cetin and his co-campaigners offer tutoring to high school students, mainly children from families with some sort of migration in their backgrounds. A copy of a fourth-grader's report card hangs on the wall, with a "very good" written next to almost every subject, as motivation for all the others.
Cetin is also the chairman of the "Alternative Citizens' Initiative," which sits on the city council and primarily supports the concerns of Solingen people with immigrant roots. That's one in three of the city's roughly 160,000 citizens. Thirty years ago, they were barely visible in German politics. "We belong in this society," Cetin told DW. "We have been here for 60 years, first as guest workers from Italy, Spain and Turkey. We have experienced good and bad together."
Racism, he says, "is a disease. We can only fight it together."
Cetin is campaigning for a museum to be built at the site of the arson attack. He would also like to see a Mevlude Genc school, and a student exchange with Turkey. Cetin is pleased that German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and various ministers will be coming to Solingen again on May 29, including Cem Özdemir, Germany's first cabinet minister of Turkish origin.
"But there has been a commemorative event here every year on May 29 for 30 years," said Cetin. "And the day after, everyone forgets what happened. But this must never be forgotten." Germany has not been short of politicians stirring up hatred against migrants in the intervening years. Today, too, there are attempts to spread racism, fascism, and Islamophobia, especially on social media in Germany.
In 1993, many people of Turkish origin feared neo-Nazi violence. Turkish families would buy rope ladders to escape the flames in case of fire. Erkan Sarikaya remembers that time well. He was 15 and on the soccer field when his brother came running and told him about the arson attack. "Fear of death, that was my first feeling," he told DW. "Our thought was: In an hour it will be the next house and so on."
The 'baseball bat years'
A native of Solingen, he now works for the municipal utility company, overseeing bus traffic, among other things. He experienced no racism before the attack, he says. "There was no such thing. Everything was good, everything was peaceful. Until that day." But Sarikaya also remembers the rioting that raged in Solingen after the arson attack. Nationalist Turks and German left-wing extremists, among others, raged through the city center, throwing stones and smashing shop windows.
But he also remembers the kilometer-long chains of lights with which thousands in Solingen and elsewhere wanted to send a message against neo-Nazi violence. Some call this era of the early 1990s the "baseball bat years," when right-wing extremists went around armed with baseball bats or knives, intimidating and attacking foreigners. In some areas, especially in eastern Germany, they dominated the street scene.
Since the Solingen attack, the number of deaths from right-wing violence in Germany has decreased, though the Amadeu Antonio Foundation has counted 161 people who have been killed by right-wing perpetrators of violence since then. In the wake of rising refugee numbers in 2015 and 2016, racism and xenophobia once again increasingly led to violence.
Sarikaya is glad that things have been peaceful in Solingen since 1993. He hopes that at some point his hometown will once again be associated primarily with the knife and scissor industry it is most famous for and not with the arson attack that many people in Germany still think of when they hear "Solingen."
This article was originally written in German.
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