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Unsettling Return to Germany Recession and Prejudice Hamper the Integration of Those Whose Ancestors Left for Russia or Were Trapped in the Postwar U.S.S.R.

Fleishman, Jeffery. "Unsettling Return to Germany Recession and Prejudice Hamper the Integration of Those Whose Ancestors Left for Russia or Were Trapped in the Postwar U.S.S.R." Los Angeles Times, 22 October 2002, sec. A1, A8.


Weisswasswer, Germany—In the light of an Esso gas station, where abandoned apartment buildings slump on streets named for dead heroes, a half-drunk boy from Kazakhstan caught a sucker punch in the nose.

Some would say Nikolai Kusnezov had it coming.

“I didn’t mean to, but I was drinking and I spit out some beer and it hit the shoes of this German guy,” said the big-shouldered 16-year-old, remembering that evening in June. “I told him I didn’t want any trouble. The guy told me to ‘go away.’ I said, ‘Why should I?’”

Nikolai has won his share of tiny, whirlwind battles against other boys at the Esso. But on that night, he lay beaten on the pavement.

“As the guy walked away,” he said, “I heard him call me a ‘dirty Russian.’”

Nikolai is not Russian. But such distinctions are merely semantics in this East German town near the Polish border. Nikolai is one of Weisswasser’s 1,250 “resettlers,” the often-resented—and sometimes feared—descendants of those who generations ago fled Germany for better lives in Russia, or were trapped inside the Soviet Union during the tumult of redrawn borders after World War II.

They lost much. But they kept their German heritage. Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the map of Europe again was recast, nearly 2 million resettlers and their relatives, scattered from Siberia to Uzbekistan, have dusted off family albums and driven their rusty Ladas and Trabants to claim citizenship in Germany.

Most have remained. Some have found prosperity. But over the years, many other resettlers have discovered the land of their ancestors to be less welcoming. This reality is especially hard on the young, and resettler teenagers often turn to drinking, drugs and crime.

Economic turmoil has hampered their integration throughout this nation of 82 million. They are shackled by sparse opportunity in a country reeling from recession and the huge cost of uniting east and west. Nikolai sees this everyday in Weisswasser, whose coal fields were once a key energy source for the formerly Communist east but whose unemployment rate is now a stubborn 26%.

The resettlters raise complex questions about Germany’s—and, to a large extent, Europe’s—ability to cope with emerging multicultural societies. Unlike Germany’s populations of Turks and Africans, the resettlers look like native Germans. They are, in fact, from the same ethnic stock. Yet, similarities are obscured by differences and prejudices, and resettlers are often viewed with the same suspicion as other immigrant groups.

Speaking little or no German, many resettlers and the relatives who tag along with them end up on welfare, living on the ethnically segregated fringes of poor towns. Police and native Germans around the country claim that resettlers are often trouble, especially violent young men and boys who travel in gangs. This provokes retaliation by German youths, and sometimes outbursts by neo-Nazi gangs angry at Germany’s flood of foreigners.

In the northeastern city of Wittstock, a 24-year-old resettler died in May after being beaten by three right-wing extremists, including a soldier in the German army. One month later, according to law enforcement reports, five resettlers, one of them mocking police with a “Heil Hitler” salute, scuffled with officers and were arrested for pummeling two German locals.

“We’ve had clashes like this between these two groups for 10 years,” said Gerd Schnittcher, a prosecutor in the Wittstock district. “Especially shocking for us is that 15 to 20 Germans witnessed the latest murder and none of them are coming forward. Most are scared of retribution. Others sympathize with the killers.”

Immigration Control

The German government is seeking to reduce the number of all immigrants, including ressettlers and their relatives. New citizenship and immigration regulations—one of which stresses German language proficiency—have been tightened. In recent years, Germany has also given German descendants living in former Soviet republics more than $100 million in small business loans and job retraining grants to entice them not to move west.

So far this year, the number of those applying for resettler status has fallen by 20%.

The government, however, still faces the challenge of what to do with young resettlers such as Nikolai Kusnezov.

“Resettlers youths have been pulled from their roots,” said Christian Klaembt, a Weisswasser social worker. “They’ve lost their history. They don’t know who they are. In the Soviet Union, they were considered Nazis and discriminated against. Then their parents promised them a better life in the West. But things are no better. They’re still poor. They’re disillusioned. They want a piece of the cake but can’t have it. They turn to alcohol, drugs and violence. Some start drinking vodka at 12 an 13.”

Nikolai tasted alcohol early.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, his grandmother proved her German ancestry and moved from Kazakhstan to the Weisswasser region in the early 1990s. Since then, 12 of her relatives, including Nikolai and his mother and siblings, have followed. Nikolai arrived when he was 10. He quickly missed the freewheeling bedlam of Kazakhstan and didn’t much like the “strict rules” of German society.

“You know, in Germany you need a license to fish,” he said. “In Kazakhstan you can go fishing wherever you want…. I haven’t fished since I’ve been here.

“When I first arrived, the Germans called us dirty Russians. They told me to go away and they beat me. The neo-Nazis came after me. I couldn’t do anything. But one day decided to get my friends and get revenge. There were 30 of us. We told the neo-Nazis to meet us at the stadium by the Esso station. Fifty Nazis showed up. We beat each other up. We had fists. They had bats. We won anyway, and now the Nazis leave us alone.”

‘Weird Twist’

That fight and other skirmishes changed the culture of Weisswasser’s right-wing extremists.

“It was a weird twist,” said Klaembt, who runs outreach activities for resettlers. “At first the neo-Nazis tried to recruit the resettlers. They told them, ‘You are home in the Reich now.’ But the resettlers wanted nothing to do with it. There were fights. The young Russians roughed them up good. Today, some of the extremists living around the resettlers have stopped shaving their heads. They don’t wear their boots. They’ve gone underground.”

For many German natives of Weisswasser, the tensions swirling around the resettlers are another burden in an overburdened city.

At the Shelter, a biker hangout across from an old glass factory, Norbert Brunzendorf, owner and bartender, thumbs through motorcycle catalogs, looking at things he can’t afford. Half of his customers have disappeared over the last two years. The coal miners are gone. The glass apprentices have headed west, joining the exodus that shrank Weiswasser’s population from 38,000 to 26,000 in the last decade.

A life preserver, like an omen, hangs from the Shelter’s ceiling. Torsten and Dominique--neither will give a last name--hold hands and play pool in the back room. Torsten’s head is freshly shaved. The tiny screen on Dominique’s cell phone reads “Skinhead.” Someone mentions resettlers.

Dominique rolls her eyes.

Torsten leans his cue against the wall.

“Those Russians are big criminals,” said Torsten, a metal worker. “They drive big cars and sleep till noon. They threaten us real Germans. You can’t even walk in the evening because of those Russian gangs. They blackmail small children for cigarette money.”

Dominique, who wants to be a secretary for an international corporation, agrees.

About a mile away, through the cobbled streets and past pretty storefronts downtown, Martin Hemmo, a Weisswasser native, lives with resettlers amid rows of Communist-built apartments. Many are vacant, jagged with broken windows. In a parking lot, women sift through junk piles of chairs, couches, pots, pans and other things, searching for something to revive. Pit bulls, some muzzled, some not, tug at leashes, and young men with hours to kill sit on stoops gauzed in cigarette smoke.

Hemmo stays away from the Esso station down the street. The “Russians” hang out there. An unemployed graphics designer, Hemmo, 20, has had his trouble with resettlers: “They threatened me for money. I didn’t give them any. Two of them beat me up. Why should I give them money? I don’t have that much. All we Germans do is retreat, just to stay away from them.”

Weisswasser has begun a new series of programs--costing $500,000--to ease tensions. There’s a graffiti-streaked disco to bring together German and resettler youths. There are community centers, job services and joint soccer games. Mayor Helma Orosz says some progress has been but more tolerance is needed by both sides.

“We don’t want ghettoization,” Orosz said. “But integration only takes place in language, school and work. If those are missing, how can you have integration?”

Love, the Integrator

In a small youth club near a stand of pine, teenage love has coaxed cautious integration.

Eugen Dino, 16, whose family resettled from Kazakhstan six years ago, and Elfie Borchardt, 15, a Weisswasser native, share cigarettes and a Coke amid the angry beat of an Eminem video. One month ago, Elfie spotted Eugen in the hallways at school. She wasn’t interested in his nationality.

“I just wanted to meet him,” said Elfie, a thin girl with wire glasses and red-tinted hair. She motions toward Eugen, who sits among his resettler friends, including Nikolai Kusnezov. “Eugen is scared to meet my father. I would go meet his family, but I haven’t been invited. There’s a language barrier.”

“I know how her father feels about resettlers,” said Eugen, tugging on his ball cap. “He thinks we drink and fight. I still don’t feel accepted here. The Germans don’t want me. But I’m not a foreigner. I have German blood, just like them.”

“We don’t have any problems,” Elfie said.

“No one really bothers us,” Eugen said.

They kiss and disappear out the door into the night.

Nikolai smiles.

Finished with a game of darts and bored with pool, he and his friends leave the center, walking past the skateboarders and over the broken pavement and worn grass, past abandoned apartments and down the hill toward the light of Esso station.

Reprinted with permission of the Los Angeles Times.

Harsh Life: For many German natives of Weisswasser, where Communists-built apartment buildings stand abandoned, the tensions swirling around resettlers are another burden.
Struggling: Nikolai Kusnezov, 16, doesn’t like the “strict rules” of German society and misses the freedom he had in Kazakhstan.
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