A day in Frankfurt-Oder
Sixty kilometres of highway lie between Berlin and the long line of trucks waiting to cross the nearby Polish border. Then the exit to the last German city: Frankfurt-Süd. Trees, fields and the first block-buildings rush by on this ice-cold, misty winter morning. The road passes the town’s historical centre, and finally reaches Frankfurt’s jewel on the Oder riverbank: traditional on the outside, modern on the inside – the building of the European University Viadrina.
Polish Foreign Minister Władysław Bartoszewski, German President Johannes Rau and many others support the transnational project where every third student comes from Poland or other foreign countries. Another face of Frankfurt, a darker one, lays in Viadrina’s shadow: skinheads, bomber-jackets and racist graffiti. More than 30 xenophobic incidents fill the annual statistics of the local police.
Even the European University is no exception: The last violent confrontation between skinheads and students took place on campus, at the Oder-tower. Silence and a strengthening of the police supervision followed. But Frankfurt has got more than that: student organisations, social workers and citizens, all fighting for tolerance.
Christian Menzel, economist at the university, talks tacheles: "The disastrous reputation of the city is not justified. Against a minority of some 50 skinheads stands the willingness of Frankfurt’s inhabitants to redress their city’s image. A bad reputation means less applicants for the Viadrina in the long run, so the university decided to act. Menzel helped to initiate the host programme "FF Fremde werden Freunde – Strangers become friends" for the 25 foreign students of the recently created course International Business Administration. Although the programme only started this year, Menzel emphasises its "incredible success", with many host families already calling for a second run.
Out in the streets, the fear of violence continues to be a problem, concerning both foreign and German students, as the rather harmless case of Jule Hamann shows. During a nighttime tram ride drunken skinheads first attacked a young Polish girl verbally, then went over to Jule: "The very pretty Polish student stayed cool and did not react to their insults. When they came over to provoke me, I did the same." That was when she realised: "Those skinheads are not only xenophobic, they hate all students!"
Like Jule Hamann, another student of cultural science considers the distance between students and inhabitants to be the Oder-city’s main problem: "Frankfurt lacks a bridge between its people and its university’s intellectuals. Students and professors discuss the city’s problems but never talk to the inhabitants!", explains the blue-haired Daniel Becker. Non-verbal communication helps more, that is what he realised when participating in a successful pantomime performance against violence inside a shopping mall: "It was the first time we really attracted people’s interest, even a booted skinhead joined in."
The university’s president Professor Gesine Schwan sees the integration of the university into urban life as the key to successful work.. "Frankfurt is a tortured town with a very difficult history, which was for a long time officially denied."
As a specialist on Poland she offers extracts from what she calls the "story of both offenders and victims". Determined by Hitler to be a fortress in 1945, Frankfurt was first evacuated completely before its City burned down under mysterious circumstances. After the war, the river divided the Polish Slubice from the current Frankfurt, with its population including a large number of expellees from East-Prussian regions. According to Professor Schwan, Frankfurt’s historical wounds never healed completely.
Years after the reunification, resignation still fills the air. "When I came here I found out that there are many locals who show a lot of initiative. Still, integration can only be reached with a great extra impetus. That is why it is a big challenge, both for me and for the university as a place of cultural communication and education. But this goal is worth aiming for!"
One of her recent projects is a cultural meeting centre for inhabitants and students in a former shed near the riverside. Despite the international image, there is a small number of right-wing students. One of them, well known, was promptly called into the president’s office to have a "long and intensive talk" after a verbal confrontation with other students during a debate in the university’s auditorium.
In the multicultural sphere of almost 4000 students, two difficulties block integration: language barriers and lack of time. Inside the warm cafeteria with a view over the icy river the economics student Przemek Wlodarczyk from Zielona Góra sits with his German friends and explains: "We got to know each other through volleyball, it’s the easiest way to meet people of different nationalities." Unfortunately, as the serious looking 25-year old says, many of his Polish fellow students study so hard that they miss cultural events.
Ulrich, a doctoral candidate, however adds: "The presence of people with different nationalities does not necessarily mean thorough communication among them. One can easily live here in his own little world without ever having close contact with foreigners." Przemek never experienced violence himself, nonetheless, like everybody, he is used to the presence of bomber-jackets and boots.
Besides the symbols of neo-nazi partisans in daily street-life, there are police cars with stickers "Für ein freundliches Frankfurt – In favour of a friendly Frankfurt", as the Cameroonian Samba Pierre reports. The wool-capped political asylum seeker spends his afternoons in the youth club "Utopia e.V.", assisting the social workers and improving his German. Racial discrimination in Frankfurt? Samba Pierre denies it. Only once during his five month stay has the 31-year-old experienced obvious rejection: a little girl shouted "Nigger" from an open window when he passed by.
As long as his request for asylum is not irreversibly rejected, he will find a home in "Utopia e.V.", says Samba, preferring the comforting atmosphere of respect to the hopelessness of his small "cell" in the Asylum-seekers residence. This residence is the object of conflicts between citizens: while local citizens’ networks plan to integrate it into the City, others dispute the money already spent on Asylum-seekers. Hendrik, a social worker at "Utopia e.V.", explains:"We had a young neo-nazi in our group, first the other kids didn’t like him, but then they got to know each other and everything was fine. This shows the importance of giving people a chance"
Projects like "Utopia e.V." are important, but a lot of people do not identify themselves with them, says Martin, a high school student. It is a pity that sports meetings and projects like the Brandenburg-wide "Aktion Noteingang – Action Emergency Entrance" are rare. According to Martin, those should be improved to bring Polish and German pupils, Viadrina students and residents closer together.
Leaving the city at dusk, what remains beside the picture of indifference is the hope for a more tolerant Frankfurt. The commitment from so many might eventually break the ice.