Stage 26: Jena, Germany

We are back in Jena. Our journey through Central and Eastern Europe has come to an end. To summarize our experiences and adventures in one sentence is impossible. The places and people we visited were too different and diverse. A diversity that not only defines the transformation in Europe in recent decades, but would also characterize the work of a Future Center for German Unity and European Transformation. 

We visited places where the political, social and economic upheavals since the collapse of state socialism are particularly evident and talked to a wide variety of people about their personal experiences of transformation. Our goal was to visit places and people in 10 countries in 10 days with “a camera, recording equipment and a backpack full of questions.” In the end, we traveled to 14 countries in 14 days: Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine, Republic of Moldova, including the autonomous Republic of Gagauzia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, including the autonomous Republic of Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Germany. 


In total, we drove almost 6,000 kilometers, crossed 20 borders, published 26 texts with 72 photos and had countless exciting conversations. Of course, it was not possible for us to visit all the countries in Central and Eastern Europe in such a short time, and our reports on the places and people we reached are only excerpts that give an insight into the diversity of the people and their stories – and into the possible subject areas in a Future Center for German Unity and European Transformation in Jena.


The future must be understood and shaped from a European perspective – also in view of current developments. We can only do justice to German unity as well as European unification by taking into account their diversity and heterogeneity. Time and again, it is not the differences that are the cause of the problem, but the lack of mutual understanding.

At the end of our journey, something new begins: Our campaign for the application of the city of Jena and the Friedrich Schiller University for the Future Center for German Unity and European Transformation will be launched today. A campaign that will only be filled with life through your and your participation.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger 

Photo: Christian Faludi

Stage 25: German Embassy in Prague

In 1989, the Iron Curtain got more and more holes, and people who felt oppressed under state socialism became more and more daring. The embassies of the Federal Republic of Germany in Prague, Warsaw, Budapest or even East Berlin had become a place for many fugitives in the 1980s. Here, people hoped – always successfully – for refuge and the possibility of leaving for the FRG. In August 1989, more and more people flocked to the grounds of the embassy in Prague, which quickly reached its capacity limits. At its peak in the fall, some 4,000 people camped here on the lawn in front of the building under sometimes catastrophic conditions. Countless abandoned vehicles with East German license plates were parked in the streets around the embassy. 

Hans-Dietrich Genscher – who had only recently been released from hospital after recovering – negotiated the departure of the refugees with Eduard Shevardnadze, Oskar Fischer and Jaromír Johanes on the fringes of the UN General Assembly in New York. On September 30, he landed in Prague, denied journalists any information and spoke the famous words, drowned in the cheers of the people, from the balcony directly to the refugees.

After the people were allowed to leave in sealed-off trains and under the protection of West German diplomats via Dresden and Karl-Marx-Stadt to Hof, thousands of GDR citizens again fled to the embassy compound. They, too, were allowed to leave. At 9 p.m. on November 3, the Czech Republic opened its borders completely. The Iron Curtain opened.

The pictures before the departure are still relevant today

We are welcomed at the German Embassy in Prague by Martin Sielmann, the head of press and public relations. He leads us through the grounds and tells us what happened here in the summer of 1989. He himself was already employed at the Foreign Office – in Bonn at the time – and witnessed the collapse of state socialism as a diplomat.  

The pictures of the camped refugees in the park of the embassy remind us of our previous stops, for example in Sopron, but also at the border fence at the Slovenian border and also of current pictures from refugee camps. More and more people around the world are fleeing poverty, oppression and persecution. In a Future Center for German Unity and European Transformation in Jena, people could talk about flight and migration – then and now – and share common experiences.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger 

Photos: Christian Faludi 

Stage 24: Prague Spring and Velvet Revolution

The history of democratic protests will undoubtedly be an essential part of the Future Center in Jena. We will also be confronted with this topic again and again on our journey through Central and Eastern Europe. In this context, the stories are condensed in Prague’s center like in hardly any other place.

Wenceslas Square is historically as well as currently a place of democratic protest. For the citizens of the GDR, the Prague Spring of 1968 was an event that initially raised countless hopes for a liberalization of the state systems in the Warsaw Pact and then, after its bloody suppression, led to general lethargy.

Today, the traces at the place of the events are connected mainly with the name of Jan Palach. The Czech student, some five months after the invasion of the Red Army and the reversal of the reforms, chose an extreme form of protest when, on the morning of January 19, 1969, he doused himself with gasoline on the steps of the National Museum, set himself on fire and ran into Wenceslas Square. Just a few hours later, some 200,000 people spontaneously gathered for a demonstration. Palach became a martyr figure of the resistance.

Democratic protests as an important element

Twenty years after the events, Wenceslas Square once again became the center of protest during the Velvet Revolution. At the height of the demonstrations, around 800,000 people gathered here at the end of November 1989 to demand the resignation of the Politburo.

Visiting the site gives us an impression of what happened, and it reminds us of the numerous sites of historical protest in East Germany, as well as beyond, that will be linked in the Jena Future Center network.

The reference to the history of Jan Palach was made by Vojtěch Kyncl, a historian who studied in Jena, among other places, and is now an employee at the Academy of Sciences in Prague, which is to be part of the Future Center network. In the preliminary discussion with him, it became clear how important it is to expand these connections in order to also preserve the independence of scientific work. In the Czech Republic, Vojtech explains, this freedom has recently been massively threatened.

Text und Photos: Christian Faludi

Stage 23: Pan-European Picnic, Hungary/Austria 

Months before the borders were opened in Berlin on November 9, GDR citizens broke through a border gate on the Hungarian-Austrian border near Sopron on the occasion of the Pan-European Picnic on August 19. They were followed by several waves of fugitives. In total, up to 700 GDR citizens dared to cross the border that day.

The Pan-European Picnic was part of the process chain that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Although its actual relevance is often overestimated, the political events in Hungary in the years leading up to 1989 were central to the fall of the Iron Curtain and thus to the transformation process in East Germany.

Hungary was far more liberal than, say, the GDR or ČSSR. West and East German vacationers met on the beaches of Lake Balaton. In 1988, the country issued the so-called world passport to its citizens, allowing them to travel freely internationally. In 1989, Hungary became the first Warsaw Pact country to join the Geneva Refugee Convention. Months before the Pan-European Picnic, Hungary began dismantling the border fence with Austria. It was simply too expensive for the government to repair.

Meanwhile, democratic forums were being formed. They came up with the idea of a Pan-European Picnic, a symbolic opening of the border. With this, the oppositionists wanted to test how far they could go before the Soviet army would intervene. Finally, despite all the developments, there was a fear that the events of 1956 might be repeated.

Flyers were distributed, including to GDR vacationers at Lake Balaton. Quite a few understood the message and made their way to Sopron. However, only a fraction dared to make the breakthrough. After all, the danger was far from over. On August 20, 1989, the Weimar architect Kurt-Werner Schulz was shot while trying to cross the border near Sopron. He was the last casualty of the Cold War.

At the Hungarian-Austrian border we meet Wolfgang Bachkönig. He was a police officer of the Republic of Austria in 1989 and witnessed the events. At the scene of the events he tells how Hungarians and Austrians helped together at that time. It is this solidarity and connectedness that a European transformation – and a Future Center in Jena – must build on.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger & Christian Faludi 

Photos: Christian Faludi 

Stage 22: Border fence, Slowenia

In 2015, more than 760,000 people fled on various Balkan routes under inhumane conditions from Turkey via Greece to Central Europe. Most countries in Southeastern Europe remained transit points; in very few were the refugees appropriately registered. In response, Slovenia erected a border fence over 200 kilometers long and up to four meters high. For several weeks now, the barrier has been dismantled at the behest of the new government. Those who had become active against the fence before the change of government could be prosecuted with up to five years imprisonment.

We drive almost alone on serpentines through the peaceful mountain landscape in the Croatian-Slovenian border region northwest of Zagreb. On our journey so far we have crossed many, sometimes well-guarded borders. Some of them were even for us only with difficulty surmountable. However, no one – including us – expects a three to four meter high barbed wire fence in the middle of the European Union, in the Schengen area, which is supposed to facilitate free passage abroad, at the border between Slovenia and Croatia. But it does exist, even though the gate we are passing through is now open again. 

Today it is hard to imagine that just a few years ago thousands and thousands of people were running across these mountains – driven by poverty and war. But the flow of refugees towards Central Europe will continue in the future for a variety of reasons. And while the Slovenian border fence will soon be dismantled, countries elsewhere in the European Union are erecting new barriers. Hungary, for example, recently announced plans to reinforce the fence on the Serbian border and to form a ‘border fighter’ unit to prevent crossings.

Future Center for German Unity and European Transformation in Jena must also address the more recent history of transformation, which is determined by migration and flight movements. In addition, it must seek contact with the people affected in order to search for common solutions to the challenges of our future on the basis of diverse experiences. And it must promote dialogue between people who live with us and those who come to us. The numerous stories of flight told by former GDR citizens can serve as a bridge here.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger & Christian Faludi 

Photo: Christian Faludi 

Stage 21: Jasenovac Memorial

In a narrower sense, the history of the Second World War and the Shoah are not topics that play a direct role in the Future Center for German Unity and European Transformation. From the perspective of remembrance culture as well as remembrance politics, however, we cannot ignore the work on memorial sites in Eastern and Central Europe. This is particularly evident in the Balkans, whose long history of conflict continues to have an impact today. And so it is only logical that we visit the Jasenovac Memorial on our way through Croatia.

The Jasenovac concentration camp was the largest camp built by the Ustasha regime during World War II and operated independently of Germany on the territory of Independent Croatia. The deportees mostly belonged to the Serbian population, but there were also Rom:nja, Jewish people and other minorities, and occasionally Bosnian and Croatian opponents of the regime were deported to Jasenovac. By 1945, more than 80,000 people had lost their lives in the concentration camp.

Between 1959 and 1966, an imposing monument in the form of a gigantic lotus flower was erected on the site by the sculptor Bogdan Bogdanović. Two years later, a museum opened here. Since then, the memorial has been collecting material, taking care of monuments of other Ustasha camps and working with young people in the field of historical-political education.

The memorial work connects people at the numerous sites of the Shoah in Eastern and Central Europe. And it shows what lessons must be learned from the past in order to make the findings useful for shaping our democracies.

Text und Photos: Christian Faludi 

Stage 19: Dubica, Edina & Edita

It is a visit to friends of a good friend, which means a lot to me and brings me closer to the locals. The contact was made by Christian Stadali, a former editor of Antenne Thüringen. In the 1990s, Christian studied in Trier and unexpectedly came into contact with people who had fled to Germany from the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. He became involved in helping the refugees and became a friend to many. This was also the case for Edina and Edita from Dubica in northern Bosnia, who came to Germany in 1993 and returned to their homeland six years later.  

When I meet Edina and Edita in downtown Dubica, I am still under the impressions of Srebrenica. Editha immediately takes this as an opportunity to “complain” that we are not looking enough at the positive developments in the country. And so she tells me that the Bosniak son of a friend has recently opened a music school in Srebrenica, where children from all parts of the population come to play music together and go on trips abroad.

During our walk through the town, both of them tell many such stories, and they laugh very often. They do, too, because it’s contagious. And it is probably this optimism that it takes to return here and leave behind the martyrdom they both had to experience. After all, their stories of escape (like so many others) are about the initial disbelief that war could come to them – until the local bridge toward Croatia was blown up. They are about the struggle to leave their homeland and the fear on packed buses where soldiers steal people’s jewelry. And they are about a long odyssey that brought them to Germany, where they met more than just people who wanted to help.

In 1996, three years before returning home, Edina and Edita, together with Christian and other family members, traveled to Bosnia again for the first time, where they visited, among other places, the completely destroyed Sarajevo. They documented their walk through the city on video. It can be viewed online( At the time, Editha and Christian did not want to miss a detour to Dubica, which is protected by Blue Helmet soldiers – against all warnings from fellow travelers. They made it past the barriers into town to the house of their neighbor – a Serbo-Croatian teacher. Her own house was inhabited by Serbs and was not accessible. Shortly before they finally returned home in 1999, they tore everything of value out of the building and destroyed even more. Today there is nothing left of it. It is a beautiful house, where I meet the parents, as well as with a garden and terrace, where we have lunch together.

When asked if they are happy with the decision to return to their homeland, they both answer firmly in the affirmative. Life as Bosniaks in Dubica is certainly not easy. The three rebuilt mosques are constantly the target of attacks, everywhere they can show us signs of nationalists on house walls, and there are also insults here and there. But all this is worth to be accepted in order to live in the homeland. In any case, as Edita assures us several times, most people here are friendly to all population groups. People celebrate together, Orthodox marry Muslims and hardly anyone is an enemy to others. This was also true before the war, and even during the war, contacts with Serbian friends did not break off. Today Edita is godmother of one of her Serbian friend’s children, just as she is godmother of one of hers. “Totally normal!” She says once again laughing loudly. Her look becomes serious only on the subject of politics, when she talks about the contrasts in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Srpska, and the attempts to suppress the Bosnian identity by teaching children in the Serbian language alone at school. The desire of both sisters is for their country to be united and for all segments of the population to have equal rights and opportunities. At the moment, they seem to be far from that.

After a very nice afternoon, we say goodbye to each other warmly. And we arrange to meet again – possibly at the Jena Future Center, which is also intended to be a meeting place for people like Editha and Edina. After all, their history is closely interwoven with the German and European transformation after 1990 – while both came to Germany as refugees, German blue-helmet soldiers went to Bosnia, where they were each part of the processes.

PS: Unfortunately, Čima, whom we also wanted to meet in Dubica, had to cancel at short notice. She is active in the association Friedenswege (putevi mira), supports Bosniaks in their return to their homeland and organizes joint reconciliation projects – especially for young and very old people. The work is bearing fruit and is worth supporting! More information can be found on the website:

Text & Photos: Christian Faludi

Stage 18: Srebrenica Massacre

The Srebrenica massacre is considered the most serious war crime in Europe since the end of World War II. More than 8,000 Bosniaks, mostly men and boys, were murdered by the Republika Srpska army led by Ratko Mladić. The Dutch Blue Helmet soldiers directly involved in the events did not prevent the killings. 

Today we visit the Srebrenica Memorial Center in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There, memorial worker Almasa Salihović welcomes us. She tells us about the crimes committed by the Republika Srspka army in and around Srebrenica: when Bosnian Serb troops invaded the protection zone of UNOPROFOR units and occupied Srebrenica from July 6 to 11, 1995, some 25,000 Bosniaks fled to Potočari and sought shelter with the Blue Helmet soldiers. However, the young men in particular feared their murder here as well. They, along with the older ones and some women and children, planned their escape through the forests toward Tuzla in Bosniak-controlled territory. The train, with an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 fugitives, set out on the night of July 11-12. Only a third made it to safe territory. The others were directly shot or captured in ambushes – some of which involved Bosnian Serb units posing as UN soldiers – and subsequently murdered.

In Potočari, Bosnian refugees were evacuated in buses, with Bosnian Serb forces selecting the men – many of them boys – and murdering them as well. The crimes were then systematically covered up by burying the bodies, sometimes in pieces, in mass graves at various locations. To this day, the remains found are identified by DNA samples and buried in the adjacent cemetery. Relatives are often only able to bury individual parts of their family members’ bodies. If new parts are found, the graves are reopened upon request. Many people are still missing today. Numerous relatives are still searching for their family members.

Almasa tells us that in the Republic of Srpska and in Serbia, the genocide is still largely denied today, and what pain this ignorance means for the relatives and employees of the memorial – which is located in territory inhabited by a majority of Serbs. Especially misinformation spread in the social media is currently causing her great concern. It is not without reason that the area is constantly guarded by police officers. In order to break down barriers and at the same time document history, Almasa and her colleagues are collecting interviews from witnesses in an oral history archive and giving them the opportunity to recount the lives of murdered family members. The memorial is looking for partners and financial support to continue its work ( A future center in Jena can provide scientific support as well as benefit from the collected sources. The people in Srebrenica are open to cooperation.

Under the impression of Alma’s stories, we then explore the area with its remarkable exhibitions, which are housed, among other things, in the halls of a former battery factory. At the cemetery, we meet a couple from Germany and briefly strike up a conversation. She is from here, fled during the massacre and is now – 27 years later – looking for the name of her murdered brother on the memorial wall.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger 

Photos: Christian Faludi

Stage 17: Belgrade – Bombing

After our visit to the Museum of Yugoslavia, we explore Belgrade. The traces of the NATO bombing in 1999 still characterize the cityscape today. It was NATO’s first deployment without a UN mandate and the first combat deployment of German troops since 1945.

We come across the building of the General Staff at that time, which was deliberately left in the destroyed state after its bombing. On its facade is hung a gigantic banner advertising the Serbian army. At the intersection in front of it is another banner that reads (loosely translated), “Serbia without Kosovo is like a man without a heart.”

The airstrikes – which took place in response to crimes committed by the Serbian army in Kosovo and Albania – hit military targets; however, they also killed approximately 500 civilians. Far more were injured and/or traumatized. To this day, the operation remains controversial. The images of the attack are part of the collective memory – but much has not yet been reappraised. A Future Center for German Unity and European Transformation in Jena must also address this period of European history – which to this day determines not only political relations with partners in Southeastern Europe, but also the biographies of people here and throughout Europe. In Jena, we would like to address the topic, even if it is difficult and causes deep wounds especially in the affected countries of the Balkans until today – which will become even more obvious at our next stop in Srebrenica.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger & Christian Faludi 

Photos: Christian Faludi 

Stage 16: Belgrade – Museum Yugoslavia

In Belgrade, we visit the Museum of the History of Yugoslavia, a complex of several buildings that itself has had a troubled history. 

Originally, the site was the residence of Tito. Today, the Flower House, built in 1975 as a winter garden, houses his body in the form of a mausoleum, flanked by two small – very modern – exhibitions. The Museum of Tito’s Gifts, built back in 1962, now hosts temporary exhibitions, but currently the facade is being renovated. The gifts that the Yugoslav partisan leader and later president received from home and abroad are displayed – together with the exhibits from the former Museum of the Revolution – in the old depot. Many exhibits now seem bizarre. Among other things, there is a flag of Yugoslavia, which the astronauts of Apollo 11 took to the moon and which Tito was given by Richard Nixon during a trip to the USA. Also on display in the Old Museum are exhibits from the former Museum of the Revolution – along with contemporary installations by artists.

After Tito’s death, Slobodan Milošević moved into the residence. In 1999, NATO destroyed the building in order to target the Serbian nationalist. Milošević escaped and subsequently moved to a neighboring house. In 2001, he was arrested there and taken to The Hague, where he was tried. Today, a wall separates the government compound from the museum complex.

During our stay, the museum is closed, but we are able to meet staff member Mirjana Slavković, who guides us around the grounds and through the fascinating exhibitions. She has already been to Jena as part of the Exhibiting Contemporary History program of the European College of the Friedrich Schiller University and knows the city well. We talk about our application for the Future Center for German Unity and European Transformation and our journey through Central and Eastern Europe. The museum – also as a research and educational institution and its cooperations with contemporary artists – could be a possible partner for the Future Center in Jena. Mirjana Slavković wishes us every success for our application.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger & Christian Faludi 

Photos: Christian Faludi 

Stage 15: Bulgaria – demographic change

We cross northern Bulgaria from east to west, on the last 100 kilometers more on gravel than on asphalt. Everywhere – at the houses, bus stops, lampposts or trees – we see slips of paper, with the pictures and names of deceased people. The reason is an Orthodox custom, with which the death of a loved one is publicly indicated. Meanwhile, the streets are almost deserted. Most of the buildings have crumbled; many are also abandoned. The scenery seems almost surreal.

Northwestern Bulgaria in particular is characterized by profound demographic change. Almost nowhere else in the world is the population shrinking as fast as in this region. While almost 9 million people lived here in 1989, today there are fewer than 7 million. According to UN estimates, by 2050 there will be just under 5 million, almost half.

The northwest is the poorest region in the poorest country in the European Union. People here, especially the younger generations, have hardly any prospects for the future. Those who can, move away. What is left behind are mainly the elderly. That is why the mortality rate here is comparable to that in war zones.

This form of demographic change does not affect Bulgaria alone. Since the collapse of state socialism and the change of system, an estimated 12 to 15 million Eastern Europeans have left their homeland, most of them for countries in the West. Young and well-educated people in particular are leaving; for example, it is estimated that one in six doctors trained in Bosnia-Herzegovina works in Germany.

This change, which is almost unparalleled in a global comparison, leaves deep wounds in the home countries of those who have left, which can hardly offer their inhabitants any prospects. There are hardly any long-term strategies to solve this development, which is massively changing the countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger 

Photos: Christian Faludi 

More information:

Stage 14: Tombul Mosque, Bulgaria

The culture in eastern Europe – especially in the southeastern part – is strongly influenced by Islam. Bulgaria has the largest Muslim population percentage within the European Union, at 10 to 13 percent, although some 370,000 Muslims were expelled here toward Turkey shortly before the collapse of state socialism after its ‘Bulgarization’ failed.  

We visit the Tombul Mosque in Shumen. Until the political change in 1989/90, the largest mosque in Bulgaria and the second largest mosque in the Balkan Peninsula served as a museum. Today, people pray here again and teach in the attached schools. In Shumen, 30 to 35 percent of the population are Muslims.

We are greeted very warmly at the Tombul Mosque and are allowed to visit the prayer room and the courtyard. The complex is small but beautiful. Unfortunately, we can hardly communicate with words, so that a conversation is impossible. At the end we buy two Misbaha as souvenirs before we continue our tour through the north of Bulgaria.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger 

Photos: Christian Faludi 

Stage 13: Monument to the founding of Bulgaria

The monument on a mountain can be seen already on our approach from more than 20km distance. The lion at the top alone weighs 1000 tons. For its construction 2300 cubic meters of earth were excavated and 2400 tons of reinforcing rods and 50,000 cubic meters of concrete were processed. The mosaic embedded in the walls is the largest open-air triptych in Europe.

Pride in one’s own nation and its history also massively determines today’s politics in Bulgaria. The change of system in Bulgaria after the collapse of socialism happened comparatively quietly. In 1988, the country embarked on a course of reform. The first mass protests occurred in mid-November 1989, resulting in a democratic opposition movement. After free elections, the Republic of Bulgaria was founded in 1990. 

The country took a special path in 2001, when the former tsar Simeon II of Saxe Coburg and Gotha, who had returned home from exile, won the elections for prime minister with the National Movement. To date, he is the only deposed monarch in Europe to regain political power through democratic means. In 2004 Bulgaria joined NATO and in 2007 the European Union, but to this day it is not a member of the Schengen area.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger/Christian Faludi 

Photos: Christian Faludi 

Stage 12: Vama Veche, Romania

Shortly before the Bulgarian border we stop in Vama Veche. The small town on the Black Sea coast was for a long time an enclave for artists and dropouts. In recent years it has undergone massive changes.

Already under communism and Ceaușescu’s regime, dissenters sought protection from the Securitate, the Romanian secret service, in the village on the border with Bulgaria. Vama Veche retained its reputation as an enclave even after the fall of the regime in 1989/90. Dropouts in particular came here, giving the alternative seaside resort its special atmosphere. Until the end, the people successfully resisted mass tourism. For example, a citizens’ initiative prevented the construction of large hotel complexes. Three years ago, for example, numerous rockers supported the protest and blocked the only through road to the border with Bulgaria with their machines.

Today, however, Vama Veche seems lost. The onslaught of tourists never stops and the transformation that comes with it obviously does not stop. Attracted by the charm of the region and the myths about the alternative flair, the masses on private beach sections now have their drinks brought to their deck chairs. Loud techno music blares from loudspeakers, while promoters hand out lifestyle products. Everything looks like a commercial festival on the beach.

The fear that this place – which has already undergone massive changes – will hardly be recognizable in a few years is shared by a young couple we meet at lunch. Both live in Germany. He was often here in his youth with his family from Moldova and tells us about the special atmosphere that is being lost more and more in recent years. The people who actually shaped this cultural area are increasingly being pushed to its margins. The last bastion is the restaurant on a small hill in the north, where fresh fish is served directly from the oven on the beach and a doll dressed as a pirate in the lookout symbolically aims a rifle at mass tourism.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger

Photos: Christian Faludi

Stage 11: Tulcea / Danube Delta

From Germany, the Danube flows once across Central and Eastern Europe and flows into the Black Sea in the tri-border area of Romania-Ukraine-Moldova. The area is the second largest delta in Europe with a unique network of over 30 ecosystems. Here you can discover the largest reed area in the world and numerous bird species – including the pink pelican. The heaviest flying bird is native nowhere else in Europe.

A natural paradise that was already on the verge of destruction – and is still acutely threatened today. Thus, starting in the 1960s, large parts of the delta were drained in communist Romania. Among other things, because Elena Ceaușescu, the wife of the former dictator, wanted to grow rice here – but it didn’t work. The artificially altered landscape and with it the animals and plants died anyway.

Only the fall of the regime in Romania and the disintegration of state socialism in Central and Eastern Europe saved the natural paradise from extensive destruction. Today, the Danube Delta is the largest transboundary protected area in Europe, involving Romania,Bulgaria,the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine are involved. Today, scientists from all over Europe work in the former vacation villa of Nicolae Ceaușescus, conducting research on the conservation of the natural paradise.

The unemployment rate in the region is between 30 and 40 percent. Combined with the problem of poaching, which acutely threatens the ecological balance – such as electrofishing and the illegal export of wild horses – the need for socio-ecological change becomes clear. Only when social ills are addressed can ecological balance be ensured.

Tourism poses another threat to the delta. More and more operators are sailing speedboats across the sensitive waterways, bringing people even to small settlements where new guesthouses and bars are being built all the time. In one of them – Milan 23, a village with about 200 inhabitants of the Russian minority – we talk to Ionel. In the 1980s he was a captain on a large merchant ship with a crew of more than 100. After the system collapsed, he became unemployed. At the end of the 1990s, Ionel founded his own family business, bringing tourists to the delta and introducing them to flora and fauna. The business is doing well. Today he is a successful entrepreneur and winner of the transformation. The ecosystem in the Danube Delta, on the other hand, will be increasingly damaged by the growing success of his industry.

Text & Photos: Christian Faludi

Stage 10: Romania, Saon Monastery

From Comrat, our route continues south through the former Bessarabia to the border crossing at Galați, where we take a ferry across the Danube. Not far from there, the river flows into the Black Sea in a gigantic delta after its course through large parts of Eastern/Central Europe. This is our next destination.

On the way there, we make a stop at the Saon Monastery to find out if it is still possible to have lunch with the nuns. At the church I meet Sister Julia, who explains that there used to be such a thing. But if I want, I am welcome to come back the next day. Punctually at 12 o’clock we meet again at the gate and Julia takes me to the kitchen, where I am introduced to the nuns working there and the priest. Before dinner, I have the opportunity to speak with Sister Justina in the garden. Here a conversation develops “about God and the world”, which also becomes very personal. Justina tells about her personal transformation – her “new birth” – when she entered the convent exactly 23 years and one day ago at the age of only 17, her beginnings as well as difficulties in life as a nun and her way to “inner peace”. She also tells a lot about the history and the recent transformation of the place, which was still almost a ruin without electricity when she arrived in 1999. At that time, she had to fetch water from the river. At that time, people from the surrounding villages still came by horse on dirt roads to visit the priest. Within only two decades, the nuns have created a radiant idyll with two beautiful churches, agriculture such as wine growing and animal husbandry. The supply works almost autonomously. For the remaining needs they sell homemade honey, wine or Christian jewelry to visitors who now come here via an asphalted road. The proceeds are enough, and it even gives the opportunity to do more. For example, three months ago the nuns took in refugees from Ukraine. When asked what Justina wants for the future, she explains that she does not think about it. And further: The community in the convent lives in the here and now. The future is in “God’s hands,” and trust in Him gives Justina the inner peace that makes it possible to live in harmony with all other people. As a message I should take with me that everyone can find this peace – not only in the monastery.

After lunch, the nuns bid me a fond farewell and I leave for Tulcea, grateful for the beautiful experience in this secluded world and the deep insights into life there, where the boat for the trip to the Delta is already waiting.

Text & Photo: Christian Faludi

Stage 9: Gagauzia / Comrat

Today we continue towards Comrat, the capital of the autonomous republic of Gagauzia. The last 40 kilometers we drive on the Strada Lenin . Some sections are full of potholes, others are completely new. The repair of the road, which runs right through the former Soviet republic, is being financed by subsidies from the European Union – as signs keep telling us.

Unlike Transnistria, the autonomous region of Gagauzia is recognized by the Republic of Moldova. The Gagauz ethnic minority predominantly lives here, but Russians, Moldovans, Bulgarians and Ukrainians also live here. In addition to Romanian, the Turkic language Gagauz, a dialect related to Turkish, is spoken here. However, Russian is also the colloquial and official language.

Moldova’s secession from the Soviet Union and rapprochement with Romania triggered a pro-Russian countermovement in Gagauzia. After Moldova recognized the region’s autonomous status in 1994, the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict in 2014 and Moldova’s rapprochement with Romania reignited the conflict. In a (non-official) referendum on February 2, 2014, 98.4% of the people in Gagauzia voted in favor of closer relations with Russia and 97.2% against rapprochement with the EU. In addition to Russia, Turkey maintains close relations with the region, which does not de-escalate the conflict.

We learn how present the Soviet past and the proximity to Russia is here during a visit to the regional museum. In addition to illustrations and objects about the history of the region and the everyday life of the people, we discover above all relics from the Soviet era, miniature tanks, photos of high-ranking visitors from Russia (including Putin), medals and much more. In front of the administrative authority of Gagauzia there is a statue of Lenin, which is still well-kept, and a rusty Soviet star hangs on a street lamp. Before we continue towards the Danube Delta, we buy piroshki from an old lady in Russian and a cup of kvas at the roadside.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger

Photos: Christian Faludi

Stage 8: Republic of Moldova

The Republic of Moldova – a country between the Soviet past and a possible future in the European Union, which gained international political attention with the Transnistrian conflict and which has a special significance in the Ukraine conflict.

By entering the Republic of Moldova, we are once again leaving the European Union. When Ukraine applied for EU membership in the wake of Russia’s war of aggression, Moldova followed shortly thereafter. Since June 23, 2022, the country has been officially granted candidate status. Currently, 2.6 million Moldovans live in Europe’s poorest country, with over half a million Ukrainians having crossed the border into Moldova in recent months, fleeing the war. Many have remained here. 

The region in Eastern Europe has had a turbulent history in which it has repeatedly been a pawn in the interests of various great powers. From 1940 to 1991 it belonged to the Soviet Union, and in 1991 Moldova officially declared its independence. The fear that Russia would lay claim to the region became more present than ever with the invasion of Ukraine. The country’s simmering conflicts between pro-Russian and pro-European forces were reignited in the process.

We travel across the countryside through small villages and agricultural deserts badly affected by the heat from Iaşi toward Chişinău. The seemingly endless sunflower fields have withered. The villages seem almost deserted, except for the melon vendors on the side of the road. It is quite different in Chişinău, where life pulsates with almost 700,000 inhabitants. The city itself, however, always seems a bit out of time – which is mainly due to the omnipresent apartment blocks.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger & Christian Faludi

Photos: Christian Faludi

Stage 7: Monument Chișinău, Republic of Moldova

The presence of the Soviet past in Moldova even today is proven by the Complexul Memorial Eternitate in Chișinău, a monumental memorial erected by the Soviet Union in 1975. It is dedicated to the Soviet soldiers who fought against the German-Romanian troops during the Second World War.

To me, the monument somehow looks like a gigantic foreign body in the city. In the surrounding park, children play soccer and families walk. Between the columns of the monument, symbolizing five rifles, an Eternal Fire burns, and a large Soviet star can be seen at the top. On the stelae are military scenes from 1941 to the liberation from fascism in 1945.

Also on the grounds, we discover a monument commemorating the Transnistrian War, in the aftermath of which the separatist region seceded from Moldova in 1992 with the support of Russian troops. Even today, some 1500 Russian soldiers are stationed there, between Moldova and Ukraine. More than half of the people in Transnistria identify themselves as Russians, the others as Romanians and Ukrainians. The fear that the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine will spread to Moldova is very present here.

We leave Chișinău again and travel on toward Gagauzia, an autonomous region in the south of the Republic of Moldova.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger

Photos: Christian Faludi

Stage 6: Chernivtsi

We have arrived in Chernivtsi – a safe haven in Ukraine, where probably around 100,000 internally displaced persons are currently stranded. No one knows the exact number. Here we meet Oxana Matiychuk at the university.

Oxana is the head of the Ukrainian-German Cultural Society Chernivtsi, which is part of the Gedankendach Center at Yuri Fedkovych University. As an employee of the International Office she is responsible for the exchange with German-speaking universities. She has very close ties to Jena, most recently through a joint European theater project in which Freie Bühne Jena was also involved. Later she tells us that they worked together in Czernowitz on a play about the First World War, which was also performed on the Friedensberg in Jena. Many people from Germany and all over Europe visited her in Czernowitz and worked with her. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, almost no one comes anymore.

We wait for Oxana in front of the gates of the university where a big banner is attached. When we ask her what this means, she says: “Bunkers”. The university has two large air-raid shelters where people can take shelter in case of alarm. Before we go to her office, she takes us through the basement rooms. Laughing, she points out a large houseplant and several carpets. The janitor is trying to make the bunkers a little more livable. Oxana explains that if the alarm sounds during our conversation, we should go straight down here. She would then follow, but would first have to make sure that everyone else found their way to the shelter as well. Currently, there are a lot of high school graduates at the university who are registering for the next semester.

Back in her office, we briefly tell her about our trip and then ask Oxana and Oleg, one of her co-workers – he studied in Weimar and knows Jena well – about her current situation. What life is like at the university and their daily routine in view of the war. While we are listening to them, it happens: in the middle of the sentence the alarm sounds. Oxana immediately answers the phone and notifies everyone at the university. We go into the bunker.

After a few minutes, Oxana also arrives and we continue our conversation. Between us the houseplant that the janitor has put up. In the room next door, students are passing the time playing table tennis. Oxana tells us about the solidarity of the people in Ukraine, who support each other and especially the soldiers at the front – which is usually called “at zero” here – with everything in their power. Later she shows us packages of “emergency compresses” and water filters in her colleague’s office . “Farewell gifts” for colleagues and friends who are being drafted.

We only talk about the Future Center in passing. Nevertheless, Oxana emphasizes how important mutual exchange is, especially now. We agree to tighten the bonds for closer cooperation between the institutions in Czernowitz and Jena. In the design of a future center, she wishes to be able to participate. To bring people closer together, she says. Talking to each other, listening to each other, would be more important today than ever. For the future, she wishes for Ukraine to be freed from the Russian invaders within its old borders and for her to be able to live in her homeland again without fearing for the lives of people close to her – and her own.

The detailed interview with Oxana Matiychuk will be part of our travel documentary later.

Text: Christian Faludi & Tobias Schwessinger

Photos: Christian Faludi

Stage 5: Ukraine border

Today we traveled to Chernivtsi in the Ukrainian part of Bukovina – a country that has been at war since 2014 and was invaded by Russian troops in February of this year, which it continues to oppose with determination. The landscape of Bukovina may be the same here as it is in Romania, but the everyday lives of its people could not be more different.

At the border from Romania into Ukraine, we are probably the only non-Ukrainians. While we are waiting for the border officials to check us, we are approached by Katja. Visibly puzzled, she asks what we are up to. She herself fled from her home village near Kiev in March to join her daughter in London. Now she is returning to her homeland for the first time – to her husband and mother, who had to stay there. For the future she wishes only one thing: to be together with her family again, without fearing for her life. Maybe – Katja hopes – everything will be “normal” again in a year.

We decided to travel here because a conversation about the history and future in Central and Eastern Europe would not be right at the moment without Ukraine. After crossing the border, on the way to Chernivtsi, we drive many kilometers past waiting trucks that supply the country with goods that are currently so urgently needed. In Chernivtsi we have an appointment with Oxana Matiychuk. The next post will report about the meeting with her.

Text: Christian Faludi & Tobias Schwessinger

Photo: Christian Faludi

Stage 4: Bukowina, Rumänien

On the way to Ukraine, our route to Suceava leads through Bukovina, a landscape where a variety of ethnic groups lived for a long time, including Germans and Jews. For many centuries the region was characterized by diversity, which almost completely fell victim to the conflicts and wars of the 20th century. Today, on our way through the Carpathians, we only cross small Rom:nja settlements, meet traders with honey next to their beehives, berries or wild mushrooms. 

Meanwhile, in the towns and villages, people are already celebrating the second day of the Assumption in bright traditional costumes and parading through the streets with icons. In the process, we encounter colorful folk festivals at several stops. In addition to regional specialties, we also have the opportunity to attend traditional dances. People ride through the villages on festively decorated carriages and horses.

Under these impressions, the question arises in our minds to what extent traditions are a support that give us a feeling of security and home, especially in times marked by countless upheavals. Are it not also such rituals and customs that offer protection and security in people’s lives, which are politically, socially and economically – also in view of current events – determined by all-embracing transformations?

In any case, we were grateful to be able to participate in the festivities. We were very impressed by the many people and their joyful and life-affirming way of celebrating.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger

Photos: Christian Faludi

Stage 3: The ‘Merry Cemetery’ of Săpdânța, Romania

It is a theme that has accompanied us since the beginning of the journey: The transformation of the itinerary. Detours are more the rule than the exception during our road trip. The exciting and beautiful part are the surprises. On our route to the Sighet Memorial, a Romanian wedding party blocks our way as they parade through their village in the Carpathian Mountains with music and company. Elsewhere, a long procession celebrating the Assumption of Mary – a central holiday in Romania – comes out of a church with an icon. 

In yet another place, we come upon a large festival unplanned and are drawn by the singing from a colorful church and a cemetery that seems strange at first glance. The Cimitirul Vesel, the ‘Merry Cemetery’ of Săpânța, is a unique place. On each of the artistically designed crosses there is an ironic obituary of the deceased. The tradition dates back to artist Stan Ioan Pătraș, whose own tombstone reads, “Since the age of 14, I had to earn money. From 62 countries they have visited me until yesterday, but whoever comes now will not find me.”

Text: Tobias Schwessinger

Photos: Christian Faludi

Stage 2: Memorial Sighetu, Rumänien

Throughout Europe, socialism claimed its victims – in Romania alone, hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured and killed in the name of communism from 1947 until the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu.

This is particularly evident even today at the Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Sighetu, Romania. Here we were welcomed by Norbert Kondrát and Andrea Dobes, who guided us through the former prison where political elites were imprisoned until the 1960s. Norbert and Andrea gave us a fascinating insight into their work and the necessity of remembrance work.

After the guided tour through the area, there was still some time left for discussions. With regard to a possible Future Center for German Unity and European Transformation in Jena, the hope was expressed to enter into a cooperative partnership – not least because close contacts have already existed for decades through the University of Jena.

We thank for the warm welcome, the interesting guided tour and the support for our application.

Text: Tobias Schwessinger

Potos: Christian Faludi 

Stage 1: Košice, Slowakei

It is an example of a transformation process that has reached a dead end – and it is one of the first stops on our journey through Central and Eastern Europe: the Luník IX district in Košice, Slovakia. 

Originally built in the 1970s as a workers’ housing estate for policemen and soldiers, today almost exclusively Rom:nja live here, with an unemployment rate of over 90%. After the collapse of state socialism, Košice – like many other places in Central and Eastern Europe – saw the collapse of industry and the promise of jobs. Those who could afford it moved away from Luník IX, while poverty-stricken and structurally excluded people, especially Rom:nja, were forcibly relocated to Luník IX in the following years. The transformation to an inclusive district originally planned for Luník IX failed.

The impressions from Luník IX will keep us busy for a long time. Out of respect, however, it seemed inappropriate for us to take photos at close range. Therefore, we decided to take a picture that shows the entire district from the air. However, we would like to refer you to a short film by Artur Čonka, who himself grew up in Luník IX for a few years and can thus give you a picture from the inside:

We will report again tomorrow!

Text: Tobias Schwessinger

Photo: Christian Faludi