Former East German jewel faces ghost town future
Since the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago the Saxon town of Hoyerswerda, once a jewel in the communist crown, has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with modern East Germany – with poverty, high unemployment and a dwindling population.
Under communism, the small town, complete with its memorial to the Soviet war dead, was a model city with around 70,000 inhabitants.
But now the town, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of Berlin, has lost almost half of its former population of 68,000 since 1989. For eastern Germany as a whole, the figure is just nine percent.
Since the coal industry collapsed in the wake of reunification of Germany in 1990, nine out of 10 mining jobs have vanished and unemployment hovers at around 20 percent, compared to 13.3 percent for the rest of eastern Germany.
“We’re still bleeding residents,” said Axel Fietzek, who runs the Lebensräume co-operative, which rents out flats in large concrete estates, built from scratch in 1955, when coal mining was all the rage.
“The older people are dying, there aren’t many births, and people are still leaving,” he added.
As a result, some 7,000 flats have been demolished as municipal authorities regroup tenants from different housing estates and knock down buildings left vacant in order to save money. Across eastern Germany, some 250,000 flats have succumbed to the wrecking ball.
“This town was meant to be an ideal city,” said Gerhard Schlegel, a former mining engineer who has lived here since 1968. “At the time they told us ‘you’re building a modern city, a new world’ and we believed it and we were full of enthusiasm. But today I feel bitter that’s for sure,” he added.
In 1991, the town made headlines in Germany after six days of race riots when right-wing youths attacked Vietnamese and Mozambican immigrants, leaving several dozen of them injured. The immigrants were later moved to other parts of the country for their own safety.
Since then, municipal authorities have done what they can to improve the standards of living.
Money has been spent on renovations, a new commercial centre has been opened, and trees and shrubs have been planted to liven up the estates.
“No, Hoyerswerda isn’t dying,” said Lars Eibisch, the 32-year-old owner of a local car dealership and chairman of the young businessmen club. “Of course we have problems. But it’s a lovely town to live in, and it’s worth investing in,” he said.
Uwe Proksch, in charge of the local cultural centre, said it was normal that young people should leave to broaden their horizons. “The problem is finding ways to bring them back,” he added.
The cultural centre has given young people the chance to paint and decorate 36 flats in a vacant building, but it will then be demolished.
“It’s sad to see buildings being knocked down,” said a 16-year-old girl who gave her name as Steffi and who would like to leave to study art. “Meanwhile, what I like is to beautify something that has no future,” she said as she painted a wall in one of the doomed flats.