'Center of the Earth' is on the edge Change: The boon of reunification has been a bust for a town in former East Germany -- once waggishly heralded in the '20s as the "Center of the Earth."

Sun Journal

September 30, 1997|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

PAUSA, Germany -- In a dark, century-old factory, Veronika Gebhardt is toiling alone at her sewing machine, stitching rough strips of plastic into an industrial screen. She's the Saturday shift.

More than 100 people once worked at rows of noisy machines making metal sieves, along with the security lamps and electric fencing that enclosed East Germany. The infamous barrier is gone -- and so are all but 20 of the factory's jobs.

Like many other villages in the former East Germany, Pausa -- a small textile town in Saxony, a deeply conservative, southern state where the reformulated Communist Party remains popular -- is in the midst of a debilitating identity crisis.

Pausa's population is shrinking along with its prospects. Its sewing and rubber plants are closing and selling off their machinery. Unemployment has reached 20 percent. There are fewer than 3,400 residents, down from a peak of 4,300, and those who are left are mostly the elderly, as the young move on to bigger cities.

"Life has gotten harder," says Gebhardt, a 41-year-old mother of three who couldn't find a job in 1993 when the metal factory shut down for a year. "Before, it was more secure. You didn't have any fears about your livelihood, your entire existence."

Crowning the ivy-covered City Hall is a giant, revolving globe that proclaims: "Center of the Earth." It is both a local attraction and long-standing joke. In 1925, an innkeeper decided Pausa needed some claim to fame; he declared the town the "central point" and invited visitors to "grease the Earth's axle" and keep it spinning by drinking a beer or cognac.

The town is known less for its kitschy sphere than for making cloth and delicate white lace. Textile and garment factories had opened by the late 1800s; the first union of sewing workers formed in 1882. Before World War II, every third house had a sewing shop downstairs.

Pausa is three hours south of Berlin and four hours north of Munich. The red-roofed houses and shops are surrounded by rolling fields and pine forests typical of the German heartland. But for two generations, Pausa had less in common with towns 20 miles away in the other half of Germany than the colorless villages of Poland and the former Czechoslovakia.

The houses were the same drab gray, unpainted for years and darkened by coal dust. The shops often ran out of basic household supplies. The few surviving country inns were taken over by the government. People worked in factories and took pride in their productivity.

After German reunification in 1990, Pausa hoped for a renaissance. The town promptly painted its church, enlarged the municipal outdoor pool and built a well-lighted industrial park for all the new businesses it expected. Families threw out their coal stoves and traded in their Trabants, the lemonesque East German cousin of the Volkswagen.

"We had big hopes of a revitalization," says Karl-Ludwig Zaumseil, pastor of the Lutheran church. "The outside looks nicer. The houses have fresh paint, new roofs. But that's about it. Before, we had money but no supplies. Now, we have supplies but no money."

Others here share his gloom. The industrial park is vacant except for a locksmith shop. The factory that made hospital gloves is an empty shell with broken windows. The lace business is struggling, and some longtime clothing stores and pharmacies went bankrupt because of the competition from new chain outlets.

The outlook is brightest for skilled tradesmen who set up their own shops: Electricians, plumbers and car mechanics are doing a brisk business. So are the insurance salesmen who, for a price, offer the retirement security that many people miss.

Two managers rescued the metal factory in 1994, first renting it from new German owners, then buying it and rebuilding with five, then 10 and now 20 workers. Still, Andreas Poetschner, an insurance salesman, predicts difficult years ahead.

"They're building up with old machines," he says. "That's why our [town's] productivity is so low. The last place that closed had two machines left, and they went to Turkey because no one else would buy them."

Many traditions are still observed. White lace curtains hang in the windows. Families spend Sunday afternoons hiking in the woods. Children get paper cones filled with candy on their first day of school. But bit by bit, the old ways are changing and not always for the better.

Knut Seifert and his wife, Roswita, once worked at a factory that manufactured elastic for clothing in Zeulenroda, a larger town about five miles away. The couple had time to linger over coffee in the morning and to trade gossip on breaks.

Now, Mr. Seifert has to get up at 3: 30 a.m. to drive to a factory in Kulmbach, 50 miles away. At 51, he couldn't find a job anywhere closer after getting laid off from the Zeulenroda plant, where his wife is part of the tiny crew that's left. He comes home too tired to garden or work on the house.

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