The promised land of Mecklenburg
There was once a time in which both Poles and Germans were suspicious of one another. But today mutually beneficial relations prevail in the Pomeranian borderlands, proving that integration is possible and ideal.
“When in 2004 Poland joined the European Union, everyone here was saying that Germans would buy us out. It turns out it is exactly the opposite,” Jarosław Kwiatkowski, one of two founders of West Pomeranian Folk University in Mierzyn near the city of Szczecin, jokes. We are around 15 kilometres away from the Polish-German border, on the Polish side.
Here, together with Angelika Felska, Kwiatkowski runs the university. They decided to make it a place of cross-cultural meetings and language study – both Polish and German. Jarosław and Angelika commute to Poland every day. They are Poles living in Germany.
Western, westerner, the westernest
The magical West has always occupied a special place in Eastern Europeans’ imaginations. Poles tend to point to Germany as a symbol of welfare and a dreamt destination for economic migration. Most of them do not even realise that some Germans have their own West, too. Due to relatively low salaries and a lack of big industry and companies, many young Germans leave the north-eastern lands to look for better opportunities in the central regions of Germany.
Between 2008 and 2018 the number of inhabitants of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania decreased by around 62,000. While people were leaving in search of jobs and better lives, their flats, houses and barnyards remained empty. In the 1990s whole towns and villages became desolated. It was only when the Poles arrived that life returned to the area.
Over the past twenty years small cross-border migration evolved into quite a significant phenomenon. Even though it is far from being a large-scale movement, the interest in moving to Germany on the Polish side of the border grows every year. It has also become a profitable business for estate agents: banners advertising property sales are hanging all over the cross-border area and are more often in Polish than in German.
At the time of writing, there were almost 30 offers of house and flat sales in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. Radosław Popiela, an estate agent who for the last ten years has been living in a German village of Rosow, one kilometre from the border, refers to the area as the Poles’ “promised land.”
From the bridge over the Oder River, connecting the town of Gryfino in Poland and a village of Mescherin on the German side, the difference in landscape is plain to see. Backyards, farms, and small businesses in Germany appear to be much more orderly, elegant and clean than those in Poland. It is a perfect manifestation of the proverb “Ordnung muss sein” (there must be order) fathered on Germans.
But the main reason why most Poles decided to move to Germany has been economic. The difference in prices is huge. While a flat in Szczecin costs around 70-80,000 euros, a comparable one on the German side is only 20-30,000 euros. The same flat in Berlin or other big German cities can cost up to 300-500,000 euros. When it comes to houses, the difference is even greater – on the German side they can be bought at the price of a flat in Szczecin.
It is also the Kindergeld (child benefits) that attracts Poles. Even though Polish parents have recently started receiving a child benefit called “500+”, the money is granted for the second and each consecutive child only. In Germany it is owed to every child regardless of the parents’ income. Another reason pointed out by Radosław is that nurseries and kindergartens are much more easily available than in Szczecin. Additionally, Radosław highlighted the benefits of bilingualism for children, such as greater employment prospects in the future, while for adults it is the opportunity to learn the German language and find a better job.
Migration to the German regions bordering Poland has so far been popular among Poles living up to a one-hour’s drive from the border. Currently, on the German side, 10-20 per cent of inhabitants are Polish, although there are locations where these numbers are even higher. In one school in Gartz (Oder), 13 kilometres from the Polish border, around 40 per cent of students come from Poland. The school, just like many others in the area, offers Polish language classes from the first year of schooling.
In a country where most people’s first migration choice is Germany, such a situation should not come as a surprise. What makes this phenomenon so unusual, however, is the fact that those hundreds – or thousands – of people live in Germany, but often work in Poland, choosing to commute across the border every day.
With time, however, many Poles decide to find employment in Germany. This is not surprising considering the pay gap between both countries. In Poland an average salary is about four times lower than across the border. No wonder it is a great opportunity for people in the borderland to receive a better paid job, since the commute time might be the same.
Who are they?
Radosław Popiela points out that workers are not the only ones choosing to live on the German side. Young university graduates are also highly represented in the group. In time they often open up their own businesses or find good jobs in Germany. Nevertheless, there are still many people who continue working in Poland, just like Jarosław and Angelika. As they say, for younger generations the border means little more than physical border posts.
Living next to the border has other benefits, too. While the rest of the country struggles with the recently introduced Sunday trading ban, Poles living next to the border do not have this problem, as German supermarkets are open on Sundays between 12 am and 4 pm. “I wake up in the morning and discuss with my wife whether we are buying milk on the Polish or on the German side,” Jarosław jokes. At the same time, big supermarkets in Poland attract lots of Germans, too.
The quality of healthcare is also better on the German side. Jarosław had a chance to experience the difference in waiting times for emergency healthcare when he broke his finger and twisted his ankle in Poland and Germany, respectively. It turned out to be two hours to 21 minutes in favor of Germany. “I counted it on purpose,” he laughs.
But such injuries are nothing compared to medical migration, in particular of pregnant women. While women usually need permission to give birth abroad, as Polish hospitals offer free healthcare, some of them find a way to give birth in a German hospital. When the due date is about to come, many women go to the German side and when the labour starts, they are immediately accepted in comfortable German clinics. In the city of Schwedt alone (less than an hour drive from Szczecin) every third newborn child is Polish.
The Polish inferiority complex
There are plenty of stereotypes about Germans in Poland, although over the past ten or 15 years some of them have changed. Germans “buying out” Poland, for instance, a common stereotype recalled by Jarosław, is one of those which have recently lost relevance. For a long time the western neighbour appeared to be an occupant nation.
In 2006 – two years after Poland joined the European Union – the majority of Poles declared unfriendly attitude towards Germans. Interestingly, the predictions bolstered by right-wing and Catholic media in Poland about Germans buying out Polish land or subordinating Poland to Germany within EU structures did not materialise.
In general, however, the image of Germany is no longer negative and throughout the years it has changed into that of a land of order and harmony. Already in 2009 around two-thirds of Poles described Polish-German relations as very good or good. Currently these numbers remain on a similar level. Nevertheless Poles continue to experience an inferiority complex towards their neighbours since Germany is not as interested in Poland as Poles would like it to be.
At the same time, the number of Poles feeling “different” from Germans is continuously falling. It might be connected with the generational change as well as with the fact that relations between the two countries over the past several years have been based on partnership. Many Poles no longer look at Germans with admiration and gratitude. Practical concerns have begun to predominate, for example when it comes to migration or commuting; when one wants to get to Szczecin from towns and villages around the city, it is often easier to take a German highway than Polish roads.
At the beginning of the Polish presence in the EU, German society was not very optimistic about Polish accession and was afraid of an unregulated inflow of cheap labour and petty criminals. The common image of Poles as thieves soon started to fade, especially in the eastern lands. As the results of the Poland-Germany Barometer 2018 show, 56 per cent of Poles have a positive attitude towards Germans but only one third of Germans return this sympathy.
However, these statistics do not reflect the situation in the Pomeranian borderlands. The young generation of Poles from this part of the country was the first one to experience full integration with the neighbours. Jacek Sobuś, a Polish sportsman and blogger from Szczecin, told me that only in high school during a school trip to Germany did he realise that “Germans were people just like Poles, maybe wearing different clothes, but in general no different at all.”
Also the Germans got used to the presence of Poles in their neighborhood and appreciate their integration. The newcomers buy real estate and renovate German properties, shop and send their children to local kindergartens and schools. In fact nobody buys out the other. It is a real win-win situation.
Monika Szafrańska is a student of Journalism and Social Communication at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków (Poland). She also holds a BA degree from the faculty of European Studies and works as an editorial assistant with New Eastern Europe magazine. Her interests focus on the image of the European Union in Polish media, especially the press.
This article is part of the Solidarity Academy – Borderlands 2018, an international project supported by a grant from the International Visegrad Fund.