Outsiders

The Lutheran church—rebuilt after the war—is one of the few attractive buildings in Hoyerswerda, a small town north of Dresden. It lies in what is known as the “old town”—a bleak little place with a market square, a modest hotel, and a narrow street of preserved artisans’ houses, decorated with stucco carvings of glass-blowers and the like. The sky is more or less permanently stained yellow by the brown-coal mines which are the town’s main business. The large mining enterprise is called the Schwarze Pumpe, the Black Pump. The Black Pump workers live across the Black Elster River, which divides the old town from the new town. The new town was built after the war. It consists of rows and rows of concrete housing blocks, of the kind you see in the slums of east London, Peking, or Katowice. Hoyerswerda was one of the most prosperous towns in the former German Democratic Republic.

At the Lutheran church I attended a Sunday morning sermon, delivered by Pastor Friedhard Vogel, a pleasant, roly-poly man with a tolerant smile. He told the story of the three kings. They were heathens, he said, not of the people of Israel, foreigners. This meant that “people with different histories, of different colors, from different countries can find their way to Jesus.” The sermon ended with a short prayer: “God, we pray for our town, Hoyerswerda. We pray that we can find the strength to accept foreigners in our midst and offer them our hospitality.”

There are hardly any foreigners left in Hoyerswerda. Until a few years ago there were several thousand, employed at the Black Pump, from such countries as Mozambique, Algeria, Cambodia, and Vietnam. They lived in virtual isolation. Their wages were low. The Algerians were known as “camel drivers,” the southeast Asians, for some odd reason, as “Fijis.” There had been trouble between the Germans and the foreigners, especially between Germans and Africans, often to do with women. When foreigners showed too much interest in German women (or vice versa) knife fights broke out. But such troubles were never reported in the press. Peace, solidarity, and eternal friendship between the workers of the world were the official reality of the GDR. Every German worker was forced to pay “solidarity money,” or “soli,” toward this end. The money was meant for foreign aid, but usually was spent on youth festivals instead, during which friendship and peace were proclaimed, loudly, in unison, en masse.

Many of the foreign friends left before the end of the GDR, but some Fijis and camel drivers remained, and a few hundred asylum seekers from twenty-three countries arrived after the unification of Germany. Almost all the foreigners were forced to leave last year, however, after an incident which attracted the attention of the world press and made Hoyerswerda a rallying cry—a kind of Alamo—for assorted xenophobes in Germany and even beyond. The word “Hoyerswerda” was daubed on the wall of a housing project in southeast …

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