In March, the Polish-German border was closed. Today, more than half a year later, the border cities’ inhabitants fear that the situation will repeat itself. How do they live when the world could fall apart again?

“With the closure of the borders, we have been cut off from a part of our lives,” says Michał Niebudek, an IT specialist who works in Kodersdorf, not far from Görlitz. In August, we meet on the other side of the river, in Zgorzelec, the city where he lives. We sit down at the Greek Boulevard and observe groups of Germans and Poles crossing the Old Town Bridge that became a border again a few months ago. All this is due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic. 

“In Germany, I do the same thing as in Poland. Friends, work, shopping, doctor, administration. On the other side, you speak another language, and there is a different approach to a few things. Nothing more. For us, the physical border has long disappeared,” says Michał.

Mykola Marushchak is a Ukrainian who lives and works in Zgorzelec, where he runs his specialist car workshop. He has been affected by the closure of the borders; his customers were afraid that they would have to be quarantined by coming to Zgorzelec. As a result, his profits have fallen sharply. “Everything turned upside down. Although the border is open now, we will continue to feel the effects of closing it for a long time to come. It is essential to know that Zgorzelec and Görlitz are one town whose inhabitants do not divide it into Polish and German sides, treating the whole as their home. It is hard to imagine that this city was separated in the 21st century. It’s like the division of Berlin by the Soviet Union,” he says. Michał has a similar opinion, “It is terrible that more than 12 years of integration were ignored in March.”

Eurostat estimates that, in 2019, over 120,000 Poles were regularly crossing the border to get to work in Germany. A short walk across a bridge is often enough to get to the other side of the border. In German hospitals, Polish doctors sometimes make up half the staff. Poles also set up their businesses, restaurants and often buy flats in Germany. Many young people also study in German schools. Michał is a graduate of one of them. “I studied in German, but I also had Polish classes conducted by Polish-German speakers. After years at school and at work, I have to say that we have more in common with the Germans than we think,” he adds.

There are border posts at the Old Town Bridge. Right next to it, on the Polish side, the signs of shops offering cheap cigarettes are shining. Shopping is one of the main reasons why Germans visit the Polish side. “For several months, we have not seen our regular customers. We missed them,” say the owners of the vegetable stand at the marketplace in Zgorzelec. Polish hairdressing salons have also been a symbol of the borderland for years. “My hairdresser works on the Polish side. I like her a lot. All those months when the borders were closed, I didn’t go to anyone else,” says German Anja-Christina Carstensen, who lives in Görlitz. She runs language workshops for international companies; before the pandemic outbreak, she also worked in Poland.

Over time, the crossing of the border has become unnoticeable to residents. That is why its closure in March 2020 was so difficult.

A long way to a united Europe

In the past, the bridges between Görlitz and Zgorzelec have alternately become symbols of community or division. The history of the cities dates back to the end of the Second World War, when Poland and Eastern Germany entered the Soviet Union sphere. A new border between the states was then drawn on the Oder and Lusatian Neisse. In 1945, all the bridges, including the Old Town Bridge, were blown up, dividing Görlitz in half. The eastern part of the town became a part of Poland and was called Zgorzelec. Similarly, other border agglomerations were created by dividing the German cities: Frankfurt (Oder)/Slubice and Guben/Gubin.

The new inhabitants of Zgorzelec were mostly resettlers from the Eastern Borderlands (which became part of the Soviet Union) and settlers from central Poland. The Germans who lived on the Eastern side of Görlitz were displaced to the other side of the river. Many of them later settled nearby, hoping to return home one day. The inhabitants of both sides of the border did not know their cultures, nor did they have the opportunity to meet. The propaganda of the communist authorities called the new Polish territories “Recovered Territories.” It did not foster mutual relations but reinforced the stereotype of a German invader who wants to take his land back. The new Polish inhabitants were still uncertain of their fate. “Temporariness was a feeling that made it impossible for a long time to become rooted, to be identified to this city,” says a sociologist from the University of Wrocław, Prof. Elżbieta Opiłowska, Ph.D.

The 1956 Khrushchev Thaw made the first meetings possible. In 1958, a border crossing was partly opened (visa was still required) on a rebuilt bridge, which was then called the Bridge of Friendship (today it is the Bridge of Pope John Paul II). In the 1970s, the borders were opened, and the cities inhabitants could finally get to know each other. However, this didn’t last long. The beginning of the 1980s brought a boom in Poland for the social movement “Solidarity,” and mass protests caused the DDR authorities concern. On 30 October 1980, the border was closed again.

1989 changed everything. It was then that the Berlin Wall fell, and Germany began the reunification process. Many people left Görlitz to travel to the West. Since then, the town has had demographic problems; and up to this day, it has been running social campaigns to encourage new residents to come.

In 1990, Poland and Germany signed a border treaty, and a year later, the “Treaty on the Good Neighborship and Friendly Cooperation.” In 1998, Görlitz and Zgorzelec declared themselves as one European city. In 2004, when Poland joined the European Union, the borders were becoming increasingly blurred. At that time, the rebuilt Old Town Bridge was also symbolically opened as a sign of unification. In 2007, Poland became a member of the Schengen Area, which ensured residents free movement.

The beginnings of integration were not easy. Elżbieta Opiłowska believes that in the 1990s, the cross-border community was imposed from above by European programs and the desire to join the Union. “Many Poles thought that the local elites and mayors implemented it, but it was not necessarily due to their need. Over time, the physical barrier, which the inhabitants saw in their daily lives, disappeared. Cooperation covered all areas: from local government to culture and education. We have specialized units that deal with cooperation. They are very important because they guarantee sustainable development and lasting partnership,” says the researcher.

“I think that the idea of a European city is a little ahead of its time. At first, I did not know what the name expressed. It is different now; everything is changing for the better,” says Michał.

Anja notes that despite cooperation in relations between Poles and Germans, there is still a lot of mistrust. When she came to Görlitz from Wrocław nine years ago, where she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, she believed that she had found an ideal place to live, where Poles and Germans are together. “It was naïve,” she says. “There are many stereotypes; you can still hear that Poles steal and have no culture; Germans are Nazis and want to buy Poland. I was surprised because, after all, it has been possible to make contact together for 30 years. Meanwhile, many Germans still cannot pronounce ‘Zgorzelec’ correctly. Besides, we all still hold to the old belief that only Poles work in Germany. This is not true. In Wrocław, I made more money running courses than I do now in Görlitz,” she adds. The divisions between Poles and Germans have repeatedly been exploited by politicians on both sides of the border, including those ruling today in Görlitz, right-wing political party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Despite this, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) candidate Octavian Ursu became mayor. The politician often stresses that the key to success is an open society and sustaining the idea of one European city idea.

“Stereotypes still exist. But they are not so divisive,” says Elżbieta Opiłowska. “There is no longer such a massive barrier to contact that existed at the beginning. After the borders were closed due to the pandemic, there were admittedly voices on both sides of the border in the right-wing spirit that we could finally get the city back for us – there are no such wandering and drinking Poles, no Germans who are too loud. But these were relatively isolated opinions,” she says.

Anja is happy to see that many people are taking part in cross-border initiatives, and she wants stereotypes to stop finally. “Many committed people are trying to cooperate on cultural and women’s issues. But I miss the usual meetings, the daily conversations. Fortunately, it seems that cross-border life is easier for the next generations and will one day be normal,” she adds.

The authorities are building a wall; the inhabitants want to break free

Border towns were suddenly divided, without a word of introduction. On Sunday, 15 March 2020, a barrier was put up at the border in Zgorzelec. Comprehensive border controls began at other border crossing points. From that day on, foreigners were not allowed to enter Poland except for those who permanently lived in the country. Cross-border workers were initially allowed to go to work; it was enough to have a document confirming their employment. However, this changed on March 27; then, they were obliged to undergo a fourteen-day quarantine on their return to Poland. Germany closed its borders on April 10. Only those who had “serious reasons” could cross it. The coronavirus pandemic outbreak closed the link between the partner cities for the first time since Poland joined the Schengen Area.

The Poles had little time to return to the country. Those working abroad had to make a decision that often affected their later lives – stay in Germany, leave their family in Poland, or return and risk losing their jobs. Thousands of people chose to return home and to their relatives. The many kilometers of traffic jams have become one of the symbols of the beginning of the pandemic. On Wednesday, the traffic jam on the A4 stretched from the German city of Bautzen to the border crossing in Jędrzychowice; it was over 50 kilometers long. It was not uncommon for drivers to return to the country with their whole families, with children in their cars.

For Michał, the memories of the onset of the pandemic begin on the motorway. “My girlfriend and I read on Facebook that people in the traffic jam needed water. We decided quickly: let’s go!” he says. Michał works in Germany, so in the beginning, he could cross the border. Like other volunteers from Zgorzelec and Jędrzychowice, he parked his car near the highway and then carried products to those in need.

“We drove like this several times, with water, food, hygiene products, and pampers for children. Many people helped; in the end, the effects of the borders’ closure were disastrous for thousands of drivers. We were there from Monday night to Friday night,” says Michał. Anja also remembers when the border was closed, “I went to a shop and bought fruits and water. We handed them out a kilometer or two before the border. A lot of people helped, they made toilets available, and they brought coffee in the evening,” she says. Later on, Polish and German services joined in, including the German Red Cross. After the highway events, Michał decided to create the “Voice of the Borderland” page on Facebook, where he publishes information about the restrictions and protests. “At the beginning, day and night, I replied to people’s messages. They were asking if they can pass through and what documents are needed. The regulations were not clear to people,” he says.

Cross-border workers were unable to get to their workplaces, schools or doctors. Pregnant women and oncological patients who were admitted abroad suffered. Many people were given notice for not showing up for work. Some tried to save themselves by taking sick leave, but this was a temporary solution because, after 30 days, they had to undergo tests in Germany to extend their leave. People who decided to stay in Germany often received help from the German federal states like allowances for housing charges. However, it is not uncommon for them to experience a personal tragedy – they could not see their families in Poland for several months.

“Many German companies then saw how important Poles were to them. In the beginning, they fought like crazy to find flats for them, to help them stay here,” says Anja. “I heard how happy and touched people were when Poles remained in Germany. But not everyone could do it, and it was very difficult for companies. And very difficult for people who often lost their jobs. Does this strengthen relationships? I think not. But I think the feeling that we needed each other was strong,” adds Anja.

“For many people, and especially for the generation that forgot about border controls and queues, it was all a shock. They said it was unthinkable that they could not go to the other side because the central authorities closed the border. Many people realized that they were living across borders, understood how much life was going on both sides, and suddenly could not go to a German bakery or a Polish hairdresser. Also, cross-border workers and pupils were cut off from their loved ones. We saw in the media pictures of a father who cannot meet his child and greets him through the border barriers. There were comparisons to the Iron Curtain, which divided the community and also voices critical of the central authorities. They did not understand that for the inhabitants of the borderland, crossing to the other side may be more important than connecting with Warsaw or Berlin,” says Elżbieta Opiłowska.

Michał mentions how surprised he was at the decision to close the borders. “From the beginning, I felt that this could be resolved, and I did not believe that this decision would be maintained. I have not lost my job, but I know how many people live together here, on both sides of the river. It is also one of the busiest highways in this part of Europe. How could this have been done? If they had introduced border controls on bridges on the Vistula in Warsaw, they would have felt what it was like,” he concludes.

The people of the borderland had to learn to live again, this time without themselves. However, they did not want to accept this state without a fight. On April 24, they gathered to demand that the bridge be opened. Several hundred people walked around the German-Polish and Czech-Polish borders to protest. They chanted, “Let us go to work,” “Let us go home.” Anja was one of the initiators of the action. “We created a chain of solidarity, the inhabitants of the borderland were walking around border crossings – from Zittau to the Baltic Sea. Many people were involved and fighting for this German-Polish relationship. We sang ‘Ode to Joy.’ It was very touching,” she says.

Michał took part in a protest on the Polish side. “The authorities sent fully-armed police officers as if they were going to the football match. But it was calm, without any intervention. I talked to one of the policemen; he looked like a senior officer. He asked me who exactly was organizing this. I said that nobody, that it was a citizens’ initiative. He said, ‘You know what, I am glad it is.’ The mayor, Rafał Gronicz, did not participate in the protests, but he wrote to me that he was glad that such a civic movement had been set up,” adds Michał.

On the May 4, the long-awaited moment had come. Cross-border workers, pupils and students could get back to work without being forced to quarantine. The Czech and German borders were opened to them. Only the middle of June brought a real opening and great emotion. On the night of 12th to 13th of June, the inhabitants of Zgorzelec and Görlitz gathered on the Old Town Bridge. “It looked like the demolition of the Berlin Wall. And that’s how we felt,” says Michał. At midnight, the mayors cut the fence together, and after a while, they fell into each other’s arms. During the night, in the background, you could hear “I want to break free” by Queen. “My friends and I walked to the other side, and there we opened a bottle. The atmosphere was full of joy. We were happy that it was finally over. Many people were crossing the bridge, Poles and Germans were taking pictures, and they had bottles of beer and champagne in their hands. The crossing to the other side was for us a return to normality, to everyday life,” adds Michał. Anja says that she had tears in her eyes that day, “With two or three friends, we went to the other side. And we said that we never wanted to experience it again in our lives. It was terrible when the borders were closed. In the evenings, a helicopter flew over the city. As if someone wanted to tell us that we had enemies on the other side. After all, we talked about the fact that the border must not be closed. It is like a heart attack, a heart attack for Europe.”

Three borders which can’t meet

It is not only Görlitz that has suffered from closure. Bogatynia is a city 30 kilometers South of Zgorzelec and Görlitz. The borders of the municipality in which it is located are almost entirely the same as the national borders. The town of 20,000 people is known for its giant mine and coal-fired power station and the treasures of Lusatian architecture – half-timbered houses. On 1 May 2004, Bogatynia also became a symbol of cross-border cooperation. In the village of Porajów, on its outskirts, at the point of the border triangle, there is an obelisk which was created to commemorate the entry of Poland and the Czech Republic into the European Union. This is where joining the Schengen Area also took place in December 2007 and where the border barrier was symbolically cut. Bogatynia belongs to the so-called Association of Cities “Little Triangle” and the Czech Hrádek nad Nisou and the German Zittau.

In September, going through the Bogatynia area, I stop in front of four flags placed on giant masts: Polish, German, Czech and EU. Over the border towards Poland, the Czechs cross the narrow bridge on their bikes. Germans and Poles walk towards Lake Kristýna on the Czech side. Three languages mix above the lake. No one is surprised – this is how the border sounds.

“We don’t see borders anymore,” says Kamil Stemler, a 33-year-old who works in a construction shop. “I remember that they used to be closed, but I must recollect how it worked. Today it is normal for me to go to Hradek when I feel like pizza. It is warm; I am going to Lake Kristýna or to Germany, to Bersdorfer,” he adds. Kamil remembers the day when Poland entered the Schengen Area. He was at the border crossing in Porajów. “It was challenging to get there; there were so many officials and police officers. We didn’t see much, because it was full of people and cameras. I remember that the countries were only gradually opening afterward, and we were beginning to learn about this new, free integration. I was 20 years old at the time, and I was probably not fully aware of how much this could change. I do not think I knew how much good this could do. A pandemic is a time to realize this. We did not appreciate it daily, and only now, we have seen how much it all means to us. We have seen how connected we are, how we cannot manage without each other. From the perspective of Warsaw or Wrocław, one does not think about this. And you operate without borders here,” he concludes.

Many people from Bogatynia work in Germany and the Czech Republic. No wonder – the municipality of Bogatynia has as many as six border crossings, and working conditions abroad are often much better. It is not easy to find employment in Poland either; apart from the mine and the power plant, there is not much more. “Most people commute to work every day, sometimes even 80-90 kilometers. Because of their finances, they decide to work there and live here,” says Kamil. But not only Poles spend their time abroad. In Bogatynia, languages often mix in the shop where Kamil works almost every day, Czech, German, and sometimes English is spoken by some power plant employees. “We do a lot together; that is how it works. The openness of the borders after the entry into the Schengen Area has caused us to get very mixed up here. There are also many mixed relationships; my sister’s partner is Czech; she met him at the factory,” describes Kamil.

The decision to close the border has had tragic consequences for the inhabitants of Bogatynia. First, the border with Germany was blocked, and then, on March 30, with the Czech Republic. Everyone knows someone who works across a border or has relatives there. For Kamil, pandemic meant longing. “COVID has divided our family. My niece lives with her children and her partner in the Czech Republic,” he says.

They sometimes gathered at the point where the three borders meet to wave across the river, and if they were luckier, and the guards were sympathetic to them, they got closer to each other on the bridge. His partner experienced the effects of the pandemic on the labor market. At the beginning of the year, she left for the Netherlands, and when the pandemic broke out, she lost her job in a warehouse. She returned to Poland a week before the lockdown and hoped to find a job in the Czech Republic, where she worked in the past. In the end, she could not find employment and could not even register in the office; everything stopped.

“The closure of the borders caused great resentment,” says Kamil, who joined the border protesters on 24 April for this reason. “We wanted to show that we do not agree with this decision, especially as the closure has hit my family hard: my niece stayed on the other side, my brother’s partner worked in the Czech Republic, and my sister’s partner in Germany before the border was closed. We all had something to fight for,” Kamil emphasizes. When the borders were opened to cross-border workers, the situation of the Bogatynia residents improved only partially. They could only get to Germany through Zgorzelec and Jędrzychowice. To get to the Czech Republic, they had to cross the border in Jakuszyce, 160 km from Bogatynia. “This meant that they could not keep up with the journey back home because they simply spent so much time commuting,” says Kamil. “We felt that the politicians did not understand the needs of the region. I understand what they were doing – since entering the Schengen Area, there have not been as many border guards to cover all the border crossings. However, we wanted someone to see our problems. Were all these people to go on in unemployment? They just wanted to work, to earn their living and not be a burden,” he adds.

It was not the first time that the people of the city felt misunderstood. Although Poland joined the Schengen Area almost 13 years ago, it was only in July of this year that a bus link between the towns of the Small Triangle was introduced. It is tough to get to Bogatynia without a car, but it is easy to conclude that the inhabitants care more about integration than politicians.

The test for the European city

The end of September and October brought records of COVID-19 infections in Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany. In October, the uncertainty remains above all. “Will the border close again?” residents of the borderland ask every day on Facebook groups.

Since Saturday, October 24, Germany has recognized Poland as an epidemic risk area. People who enter Germany from Poland are obliged to undergo a quarantine or receive a negative test result for coronavirus. In Saxony and Brandenburg, cross-border workers and students are exempt from quarantine. Likewise, Poles who stay in Germany for no more than 24 hours and Germans who spend no more than 48 hours in Poland. In the Czech Republic, all shops except for groceries and pharmacies are closed, and it is recommended to limit all contacts between people. In mid-October, the infection rate per 100,000 inhabitants in the Czech Republic was the highest in Europe. Starting November 9, the country again closed its borders to Poles; however, transborder workers, students, and family members are allowed to enter.

“This crisis has shown that the solutions and procedures that exist at the borders are too weak. I am curious to know what strategies local authorities will develop to counteract radical solutions such as closing borders in the future. It is already apparent that something is changing,” thinks Elżbieta Opiłowska. “However, the restrictions associated with the pandemic are a challenge for cross-border cooperation. Although some cross-border projects have moved to the network, they are no substitute for real meetings and may weaken contacts in the long term,” she adds.

“The situation in the Czech Republic is not good,” says Kamil. Construction shops have closed down there, so the Czechs are coming to us. We are waiting in great tension for what the next day will bring, what restrictions will come. We could be left without a livelihood with my partner, who eventually started working in the Czech Republic – our savings have been greatly reduced by the spring. For six months, the country has not been prepared for a second wave, and we will all pay for it. At the border, this will be felt with triple force. We feel the fear and uncertainty of tomorrow,” he adds.

Some people think that this isolation has strengthened them as a community. “This separation has proved to us how close-knitted we are. The pandemic has destabilized us, but I think the lessons we will learn will help us in our lives more than if it had not happened at all in 2020. Through these restrictions, the rest of Poland, and even the rest of the world, have seen our integration, the fact that the two countries are living together. This does not only apply to Zgorzelec and Görlitz, but also Słubice, Cieszyn, Bogatynia, and many other towns. With Germany and the Czech Republic, we have created an international organism,” says Michał.

Elżbieta Opiłowska points out that during the border protests, reference was made to the values of European integration, open Europe, and solidarity, “Posters and banners were written on: ‘We miss you,’ ‘We will meet soon,’ ‘We are in solidarity,’ ‘A common Europe.’” Similar slogans appeared before Poland joined the European Union. “The inhabitants realized that words which they often perceived as empty slogans, repeated at European or national level, are, in fact, values that are essential for them. And that they could lose a lot if they did not act. I think this could be a turning point for the borderland. The closure of the border has made many people realize that it is still necessary to work to keep borders open, to develop projects. A shared vision of the cross-border region is needed, or else at some point, someone may take it away, and it will be painful, especially for the inhabitants of the borderland. These local actions were grassroots activities. It is worth stressing that these references to the European Union did not occur during meetings of politicians, but they were spoken about by residents who live and want to live across borders,” she adds.

Anja also hopes that the politicians will learn from their mistakes for the future, “I have been wondering all this time why Polish and German politicians did not look at Zgorzelec and Görlitz as one. I think we should treat the cities as a whole. I am glad that now I can still go shopping in Poland, meet a friend and have coffee on the bench. A few days ago, a friend and I went on a women’s strike in Zgorzelec. Because we will not leave our Polish sisters alone,” she says.

The inhabitants of the cross-border area will not allow the border to be closed so easily. They will not give up without objection if the central authority again ignores again their community, because they know that the borderland is one organism. And that there is something unique to fight for.