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A Tale Of 2 Cities In Germany, 30 Years After The Berlin Wall Came Down

Nov 8, 2019
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Germany now, where the country is marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. NPR's Rob Schmitz has been documenting the changes that have taken place over those last three decades. And yesterday he took us to the industrial engine of the former East, a city that is now facing challenges. Today he takes us to a second city, one that is hoping to cash in on its medieval history.

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ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: When he was 22, Octavian Ursu watched the Berlin Wall fall on television from his home in Bucharest, Romania.

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SCHMITZ: As a college student, he had taken part in the bloody democratic uprising in Bucharest, and he cheered with those peacefully tearing down the wall, the symbol of a divided Europe. When he graduated a year later, he packed his bags for the new, free Germany, where he found a job as the principal trumpet player for the symphony orchestra of Gorlitz, a city in eastern Germany. When he arrived, he took a look around and wondered if he had made a mistake.

OCTAVIAN URSU: (Through interpreter) It was catastrophic. It looked like a city in ruins. It wasn't in good shape.

SCHMITZ: And it was about to get worse. As Ursu arrived, everyone else was leaving. Andrea Frederike Behr was a teenager when her hometown lost half its population as tens of thousands left to find work in the West.

ANDREA FREDERIKE BEHR: Everything was dark outside - all the buildings, you know, there was no paint on the wall. You thought, oh, God, this buildings are going to break down.

SCHMITZ: Behr left, too. She studied abroad in America. But while she was away, the German government provided reconstruction funds for Gorlitz. So when she returned as an adult, her hometown looked very different.

BEHR: (Through interpreter) When you walk through the city today, you see the beauty - thousands of monuments from different parts of history all lined up next to each other.

SCHMITZ: Gorlitz states back to the Middle Ages, when it was a trading center along the Via Reggia, an ancient road dating back to the Holy Roman Empire. Gorlitz survived the widespread destruction of World War II, leaving the city's centuries-old cathedrals and narrow cobblestone streets intact. Behr and others from her hometown saw potential. They marketed the city's unblemished European feel to Hollywood.

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SCHMITZ: Gorlitz is the backdrop to director Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Quentin Tarantino came to the city to shoot part of "Inglourious Basterds." And parts of the 2013 Oscar nominated "The Reader" were shot here, too. The city was even nicknamed Gorliwood. Behr is now in charge of encouraging people to move to the city.

BEHR: (Through interpreter) 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.

SCHMITZ: The city is trying to recruit young, skilled workers to live in Gorlitz by offering applicants a free apartment for a month if they try the city out. All of this is great if you have a job. Unemployment in Gorlitz is above 10%.

URSU: (Through interpreter) My aim is to get more inhabitants and young people to Gorlitz again. But for that, we also need well-paid jobs and future technologies.

SCHMITZ: Remember Octavian Ursu, the Romanian trumpet player who arrived at Gorlitz right after the Wall fell? He's just been elected mayor, and he's got big dreams for his adopted hometown. He's courting startup companies, and he wants to tap EU funds to build train connections to Prague and Berlin. When I ask him when he plans to do all of this, he tells me yesterday.

URSU: (Through interpreter) Look; my becoming mayor has happened in a place where people said it couldn't happen. But it has.

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SCHMITZ: Saxony, the state where Gorlitz is located, is infamous for being unfriendly to migrants. And yet, here's Ursu, the first migrant mayor in the history of Saxony. Cities in the former East can change, Ursu says. And he insists Gorlitz is changing for the better.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Gorlitz, Germany.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "MR. MOUSTAFA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.