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German Town Wants Factory Back

Herzberg, with 28% joblessness, illustrates some hardships faced by the formerly communist east since reunification with the capitalist west.

April 30, 2006|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

HERZBERG, Germany — In the late afternoon, after the shops have closed and the egrets have returned to their nest in the old smokestack, the streets are quiet except for the rattle of gray-haired women balancing groceries on handlebars and pedaling bicycles along the Black Elster River.

Their hair flying, their bikes' spokes shining, the women of this town have glided through wars and decades of communism; they've raced through history with loaves of bread and bunches of flowers. If the women stopped pedaling, many here believe that the town might vanish amid the loamy plains and potato fields.

But these days Peter Schulze reckons that women on bikes are not enough. Grohe Water Technology has shut down its century-old bathroom fixture factory, firing all 305 employees, including Schulze, the union representative. Unemployment has jumped to 28%, and Herzberg has become another cautionary tale of a former East German town bedeviled by globalization and this nation's reunification failures 16 years after the Berlin Wall fell.

"We did good work and they canned us anyway," says Schulze, a man with a deep voice and pockets full of discouraging statistics. "This town can't take much more. My son's 23 years old, and the devastating thing is he's the only one in his school class who's still here. The motto is 'go west' to the jobs. The east is turning into a nursing home for old people."

Here in the east, where unemployment is more than double that of the west, the sting of capitalism has extinguished the euphoria and economic glimmer that flared at the end of the Cold War. There have been some successes, but the east is blighted by closed schools and broken factories. Populations in many villages have dwindled, and industrial jobs have been replaced with low-wage employment at call centers and cleaning services.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a daughter of the East. She grew up longing for bluejeans and Beatles records, and many say she is sensitive to the region's problems and eccentricities. Others are less convinced, predicting that the partisan politics of the chancellor's coalition government will fail to rejuvenate the region and reform the nation's economy.

Amid this debate, towns such as Herzberg are increasingly suspicious of anything coming from Berlin and points west.

The bathroom fixture factory is a case in point. Founded in 1900 by a local plumber and his partner, it survived wars and was state-owned under communism. Grohe bought the factory in 1991, only to sell it and other Grohe mills to British investors eight years later. The private equity firms of Texas Pacific Group and Credit Suisse First Boston became the owners in 2004, then announced that the Herzberg factory would be closed and the work moved to Thailand this year.

The town organized a protest march. Schulze even slipped into a black suit and made a plea in the town square. Whistles and banners did not alter the decision, however. People here knew it was over when a few Grohe employees flew to Thailand to teach workers there how to do their jobs for a fifth of their wages.

"The loss of that factory is a catastrophe. Families survived on it for generations," says Renate Timm, pastor of St. Mary's Lutheran Church, who listens to Johnny Cash and collects old baptism dresses. "Those of us who grew up in the East saw the West on TV. We saw capitalism. We saw unemployed people. We just didn't imagine it would ever happen to us. Still, I don't like whining. We're free and we can't forget that."

St. Mary's rises over the town. Built in the 1300s, its gray bell tower was once home to a caretaker too feeble, or too lazy, to descend the spiral staircase. He dropped a bucket down and hoisted up his food instead.

Timm knows Herzberg's folklore like she knows the Lord's parables, but these days she's busy restoring the church, where workmen coax hidden murals from the grime and a silver pipe organ glows in the swept morning dust.

"Sometimes you have to accept life the way it is," says Timm, standing in the light from the stained-glass windows. "You can't say, 'Life would be better if I had this or I had that.' People must learn that not every town can be the center of everything."

Renovation money once streamed into town -- more than $1 trillion has poured into the east since 1990. Houses were painted, roofs patched and the drab colors of communism became pastel facades, as if prosperity waited behind every door.

But life doesn't often stay pretty for long. The construction industry crumbled first, sending unemployment up and laborers to Belgium and the Netherlands for work.

The ripple hit everyone, even at City Hall, where Mayor Michael Oecknigk mentions how his two daughters had to leave home to find jobs, and how Herzberg needs a highway or it will be forgotten. He's an optimist with a part-time secretary and a budget $600,000 lighter since the Grohe plant closed in December. He sounds like many mayors in the east.

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