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Görlitz: Rebirth of a dilapidated East German town

Titled Görlitz – A Cultural Heritage Site Resurrected, a Berlin photo exhibition shows how Germany’s easternmost town, right on the Polish border, changed dramatically after the country’s reunification in 1990.Görlitz was not always worth a visit, East German-born photographer Jörg Schöner remembers all too well.

Berlin’s Kunstbibliothek venue is currently showing his large-scale photographs of downtown Görlitz in the framework of the European Heritage Summit, Sharing Heritage – Sharing Values.

Read more: ‘Heimat 2018’: Who can feel at home in Görlitz?

In the 1980s, Schöner was commissioned to take pictures of Görlitz, “before everything totally collapses.”

After German reunification, downtown Görlitz was restored, thanks also to €11 million ($12.77 million) donated anonymously over the span of 22 years.

“The old city center was wretched-looking, buildings covered in black patina and the houses were dilapidated, most of them empty,” the Dresden-born photographer told DW.

During the East Germany era, the town had the worst-possible image. No more: the old town with its various European architectural styles has even made Görlitz a popular film location — scenes from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, for instance, were shot there.

Documenting change

For almost 40 years now, Schöner has been documenting the architectural transformation of Görlitz through photography. The exhibition shows his “before and after” shots of houses and streets, at a time when the inner city was falling apart and after it was rebuilt.

In his opening speech to the exhibition, Saxony’s Minister President Michael Kretschmer stressed the solidarity between west and east Germany: “What we see here is something we have accomplished together since 1990 — people from the east and the west, which is an incredible patriotic feat.”

Nowhere else in the world have people in one part of a country renounced prosperity in order to rebuild the other part, he added, referring to the so-called “solidarity surcharge” Germans pay on their income tax to support what was formerly communist East Germany.

Architectural heritage

Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, mused about what would have happened had communism not collapsed in 1989. Even though many things didn’t develop optimally after Germany’s reunification, Schöner’s photos are a reminder of positive changes, he said.

Görlitz has more than 4,000 architectural monuments from the late Gothic period onwards, said Görlitz mayor Siegfried Deinege, adding that the town was lucky to escape the world wars unscathed, but still started to collapse at some point.

Restoration was not an option in economically depressed East Germany, “that was only possible with German unification,” he told the audience in a panel discussion.

The “before and after” photos of Görlitz currently on display in Berlin put the country’s beautifully restored easternmost town on the map for curious visitors. And Mayor Deinege already has another great plan for his town: he has his heart set on World Cultural Heritage recognition.

The exhibition Görlitz – A Culture Heritage Site Resurrected is on show at Berlin’s Kunstbibliothek until August 5.

Topics: Görlitz

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