′Heimat 2018′: Who can feel at home in Görlitz? | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 23.04.2018
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'Heimat 2018': Who can feel at home in Görlitz?

The right-wing AfD has a stronghold in Germany's eastern-most state of Saxony, where Görlitz counts 1,000 refugees, 3,000 Poles and a majority of Germans who've lost their country of birth. What do they see as "Heimat"?

What does "heimat," or "home," signify for people in Germany's easternmost city?

As part of our series "Heimat 2018," DW's reporter Melina Grundmann traveled to Görlitz to talk to politicians of the right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD). She also visited a cultural coffee shop and met Germans who have lost their former home.

Read more: 'Heimat 2018': What 'home' means to Munich's Hofbräuhaus regulars

Thursday, 11:30 a.m. Terminal Görlitz. Only few people leave the train in Germany's eastern-most city, located at the Polish border. I seem to be the youngest person around in what has been dubbed "Pensionopolis" — lots of people move here after having reached pension age. One third of the entire population of 56,000 are older than 65, making Görlitz Germany's "oldest" city, and this although 3,000 students attend a university nearby.

Silesian traditions dominate in Görlitz

Strolling around the alleys in the historic center, one quickly notices that Görlitz is the very last strip of Silesia in Germany. Most of the Silesian region is now part of Poland. After World War II, most German families were expelled from the region. They and their descendants may have lost their former home, but they continue to follow their Silesian traditions, which are visible everywhere. 

Die Altstadt von Görlitz (DW/M. Grundmann)

The historic center of Görlitz

At the bakery, you can get Silesian poppy dumplings, and Silesian soup is served in most restaurants.

Surrounded by ceramics typical of the region and Silesian flags, I meet journalist and historian Till Scholtz-Knobloch. To him and his wife, the love for Silesia is a kind of spiritual home. Old photographs of former homes in Silesia embellish the walls of some houses. Even the younger generations still speak the Silesian dialect, said Scholtz-Knobloch. "In my view, 'Heimat' has three important components. First of all, your personal surroundings, the people living there. Secondly, it's a place. And thirdly, an era which changes over time, which also changes the feeling of being at home. You cannot reconstruct a former homeland forever and ever," explained Scholtz-Knobloch.

Read more: Patriotic term 'Heimat' driving new German 'identity politics'

'Heimat' is more than just a word

Marianne Scholz-Paul, a 70-year old widow, also tries to hang on to her personal "Heimatgefühl," the feeling of Heimat, by wearing traditional clothing while reciting poems and singing songs at "Tippelmärkte," traditional Silesian pottery markets. "The term 'Heimat' is not just a word. There's so much soul in it. People who love their homeland have a hard time overcoming its loss," said Scholz-Paul, whose parents were expelled from present-day Poland after the war. While we are waiting for red cabbage and dumplings in a Polish restaurant, she recites texts about Heimat that she copied from a regional newspaper. And tears are rolling down her cheeks in the process.

Marianne Scholz-Paul (DW/M. Grundmann)

Memories are very important to Marianne Scholz-Paul

The entire life of the widow revolves around the search for Heimat and its traditions. "Someone once said that 'if you don't know where you come from, you cannot know where you're going.' Your origins are of utmost importance. After all, people aren't just arbitrary products, but the products of their parents who lived somewhere with their own stories," Scholz-Paul said. In her view, what makes Görlitz special are the Silesian traditions.

Read more: The 'Homeland'?: Germany's shifting cultural identity in film

Feeling at home is more than nostalgia

A few years ago, Johannes Hübner, 29, came to Görlitz as a student. Together with his friends, he opened a cultural coffee shop called "Hotspot" aimed at making refugees feel at home. In Johannes' view, Heimat is much more than just nostalgia for the past. If it were only that,"it would just be a sad feeling, a dream that you cannot get out of your head." In his view, that wouldn't make sense. Instead, he considers it a process in which the feeling for one's home is constantly being redefined. One does this together with the people living at a given place. "It's a fluctuating construction, and of course, it all depends on whether or not you feel at ease wherever you are," he explained.

Café Hotspot Johannes (DW/M. Grundmann)

Student Johannes is convinced that "Heimat" is not a static concept

Noor Hammada visits the Café Hotspot once a week. He is 19 years old and comes from Syria. "To me, my home is where I find work," Noor said. But since chances of finding employment in Görlitz are slim, he thinks that he won't stay there for long. Places like the Café Hotspot do make him feel at home, if only a bit: "Here I can drink Arabic coffee and talk to people in Arabic."

Some people believe there isn't enough 'Heimat' for all

Roughly 3,400 Poles have moved to Görlitz to find work there. However, they are not made to feel welcome by the entire population. "We are importing Warsaw to Germany," claimed Hajo Exner, who sees himself as a true son of the city. Exner is the regional head of the right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD). I met him one evening in "Nachtschmied," a traditional German restaurant across the street from Café Hotspot. "People from eastern Europe, especially Poland, continue to migrate to Görlitz. When entire apartment houses and streets are filled by Poles, it's too much for the local people," said Exner calmly while sipping his coffee. If he were in a position of power, he would reintroduce border controls and reserve the few jobs that Görlitz offers for the locals.

AFD Veranstaltung im 'Nachtschmied' (DW/M. Grundmann)

AfD members discussing politics in the restaurant "Nachtschmied"

Ever since the city's two big employers, namely Siemens and Bombardier, announced restructuring measures last year, their 2,000 employees have been worried about losing their jobs. As a party gathering later in the evening in the pub showed, these fears fuel the popularity of the AfD: "Each one of you has probably once lost your job. You were humiliated. At the polling booth, you can show that you won't put up with that anymore," said Maximilian Krah, a representative of the AfD in Dresden who came to Görlitz for the meeting. He's sure that the "revolution" can only start in Görlitz because the party can rely on voters there. More than 30 percent of voters in Görlitz chose the party during federal elections last fall. 

Read more:  A deeper look at Germany's new Interior and Heimat Ministry

A place where people continue to redefine 'Heimat'

Johannes Hübner of Hotspot Café, however, believes that such a conservative perspective cannot work in Görlitz. "It's absurd to try to push such a concept in a place like Görlitz where there are hardly any jobs so many young people end up leaving the city," he said. "In my view, such a region can only be revived by migration and new people bringing in innovative ideas." He thinks that the region offers a space where a new form of Heimat can be fostered.

But that, says Johannes, can only work if people give up their conservative and xenophobic concept of Heimat. Instead, he thinks, it must be replaced by a new concept of Heimat that is always being reformulated in a flexible way.

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