The city of Schwerte will house refugees on the site of a former Nazi labor camp. State leaders are appalled, but Schwerte's mayor defended the accommodation, saying it affords more privacy than a gym, for instance.
With ever higher numbers of refugees seeking shelter in Germany, more and more communities face the problem of not having enough room to put them. In some cities, asylum applicants have to stay in crowded gymnasiums; elsewhere, local residents - or violent rightwing extremists - protest against refugee homes in their neighborhood.
In the western German city of Schwerte, North-Rhine Westphalia, city officials thought they had found a satisfying housing solution. They were not expecting the shock and bewilderment that hit them when it became public that refugees were to be set up on the grounds of a former Nazi forced labor camp.
In a press conference on Friday, Schwerte's mayor Heinrich Böckelühr said he and the city council were going to stick with their decision out of conviction.
"The accusation that we in Schwerte are ignorant of our history and insensitive, deeply hit the council and the city administration," the mayor said. "There is a lively welcoming culture here. And putting refugees up in mass shelters, containers or gymnasiums is not our understanding of successful integration."
From forced labor camp to Kindergarten and refugee home
Mayor Böckelühr and members of his city council faced around 30 journalists on Friday - probably more media attention than Schwerte's townhall has ever seen
The contentious refugee home-to-be is on the site of the former Camp Schwerte-Ost, an outpost of the infamous Buchenwald Concentration Camp. The Nazis erected the forced labor camp here where up to some 700 prisoners at a time were held until January 1945. They had to work under grueling conditions, repairing trains of the "Reichsbahn."
The barracks where prisoners and guards lived have long been torn down. A historic investigation that the town ordered after it became swept up in the media frenzy showed that all the houses on the camp's areal were built in the late 1950s.
Now, 70 years later, 11 male refugees from Guinea, Morocco, Egypt and Bangladesh will move into the building that until recently had housed a kindergarten and artist studios. When the rest of the rooms are ready, 10 more men will move in.
The house looks rather dilapidated from the outside. It's a good 15-minute drive from Schwerte's central town hall to the area which, today, is in the midst of a rundown industrial zone. Right across the street is a noisy factory site. There are no supermarkets, residential areas, or any other options close by where the refugees could mingle with local residents, or buy necessities. That could make integration tough.
To reach a nearby memorial site commemorating the forced laborers who died at the Buchenwald satellite camp, one has to walk along the main street for 100 meters or so and then turn onto a small path. The memorial is a short piece of original train track, whose railroad ties are five stone men, one of them with his mouth opened in a silent scream and one whose head is no more than a skull.
Schwerte erected the memorial in 1990, during a time when remembering the Nazi past was not as wide-spread in Germany as it is today
Criticism from above
State leaders find the decision to house refugees in this environment curious, to say the least. North Rhine-Westphalia's State Premier Hannelore Kraft called it "not a good sign" to house refugees who escaped war and suffering in a former Nazi labor camp. On Thursday, Kraft called on local officials to carefully weigh their decisions and think about it more.
Mayor Böckelühr does not appreciate what he perceives as meddling from above. "With all due respect, we don't need criticism from the state premier," he said. "What we could use is concrete advice: if you don't want us to do it this way, where else should we put the refugees?"
The city of Schwerte is deep in debt and has struggled to accommodate more and more refugees recently. At the moment, there are 173 refugees in three temporary facilities, which are operating at capacity. Between October 2014 and January 15, 2015, North Rhine-Westphalia has allocated 64 persons to Schwerte.
The question of whether the men who will move into the new refugee home have been informed of what their new home used to be was asked numerous times during Friday’s press conference - but not clearly answered.
That’s one issue that Schwerte resident Jens Kritzler is concerned about. The 33-year-old says that this information needs to be made clear to the refugees. "If they say 'we don't care, the main thing is that we get a nice new home' then I think it's fine" to house them on the grounds of the former labor camp.
Daniel Schumacher, a Schwerte resident who runs a club in nearby Dortmund, criticized that the city only really researched the area and invited the public and media to a press conference when the story was already all over the news. "The city of Schwerte didn't act, but had to react," the 28-year-old said. "They committed a political faux-pas." He also worries about his hometown's reputation in Germany - and the world over. Even the New Zealand Herald reported on Schwerte with the headline "German town mulls housing refugees in Nazi concentration camp."