Hubert Gronen: ARLINGTON-AACHEN-REIMS: FINDING COMMON GROUND

WHEN: 18 September 2013

WHERE: Aachen-Nutheim

INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski

Q: Let’s begin with your family background and your early years.

HG: I am a genuine Aachen-bred guy. I was born in 1951 in Aachen and I have been faithful to this area ever since, although I have been abroad for quite a while, too. I have an unexceptional family background. My father was a working man and my mother was a shop assistant. But I had the opportunity to go to high school—Gymnasium, as we call it here—which at that time could not be taken for granted. I used the opportunity to learn English and French and tried to get involved in international relations. The first breakthrough came in 1968-1969 when I succeeded in becoming an AFS exchange student in California. My host family were the Christensens in Red Bluff. And I graduated from Red Bluff Union High School, which then gave me the chance to return to Aachen to graduate from Gymnasium, after which I took up studies in English and French at university. So, it was quite obvious that my connection to America motivated me to give back something by working with the Aachen-Arlington Partnerschaftkomitee to establish sistership links between the two entities.

Q: What is your profession?

HG: I used to be a teacher. Then I was a coordinator for German language instruction in Transylvania for eight years from 2005-2013, which explains the fact that now I am slowly reassuming some responsibilities with the Partnerschaftskomitee. At present my daytime job is with the government of North Rhine-Westphalia, coordinating school activities in the border area between Holland, Belgium, and Germany. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun and I hope that the French and Dutch languages will win a higher degree of acceptance in German schools and that the people from the border areas will have a chance to meet. That explains that beyond Arlington and Reims—I was president of the sister city committee Aachen-Reims for eight years—I consider myself a cosmopolite and love to interact with people and use their languages.

Q: So before you connected with the Partnerschaftkomitee you were a teacher.

HG: Yes, I was teaching English and French at an Aachen Gymnasium. That helps explain why I was connected with both the Reims and Arlington committees and why I always wanted to establish a triangular relationship between Aachen, Reims and Arlington. Heinrich Friedhoff and I worked together closely to try to realize that goal. Arlington was eventually twinned with Reims and Heinrich and I were the fathers of this idea.

Q: Before we get there, tell us how you first came to the sister city organization in Aachen.

HG: I have always had a friendship with Heinrich Friedhoff. He was becoming engaged in the Aachen-Arlington sister city initiative. He asked me if I would join the committee and take responsibility for the school exchange. We talked it over. I tried to recruit students from the different high schools (Gymnasien) here—not only the one in which I worked, but on a city level. The aim was to get 20-25 students to go on the first exchanges. So, that’s what I did. I worked closely with my counterparts—Jim Rowland and Jack Melnick were very helpful. Of course, we had this key experience when the American delegation came to Aachen to celebrate the signing of the sistership agreement. Tom Parker has always been my good friend from this circle. These are the kind of people who motivated me to get involved and work for the committee.

Q: When was that?

HG: That must have been in 1994. Aachen sent a delegation to Arlington in 1994 and the first school exchange was in 1995 or 1996.

Q: What rôle did Oberbürgermeister Jürgen Linden play in the early development of the Aachen-Arlington and then Arlington-Reims relationships?

HG: I think we owe a lot to Jürgen Linden, not only as far as Aachen-Arlington is concerned, but also relating to Reims. As the Aachen committee chairman for Aachen-Reims, I could always count on his support and his help. He is a very international man and made it a central facet of his tenure in office that the cosmopolitan side of Aachen was emphasized. He worked assiduously to develop links with other countries. One aspect I remember is his invitation to the Jewish community that had fled Germany in the black years of Nazi terrorism to come back to Aachen. He made that gesture and many accepted his invitation. I do believe that Linden’s initiative was one of the factors that led Arlington to approach Aachen to be its sister city. Politically speaking and on a human level we owe a lot to Jürgen Linden and also to Heinrich Friedhoff, who actually set the foundation stone for the twinning.

Q: So, you came into the initiative subsequent to that. The idea of launching the relationship had already germinated.

HG: Yes. I was asked by those two friends if I wanted to collaborate and I happily agreed. The project gave us an opportunity to build on our friendships.

Q: You mentioned OB Linden’s cosmopolitan outlook and your own, but what was Aachen like at that time and how did it develop?

HG: Well, I was born in 1951 and my first impressions of Aachen were in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Compared to what it is now, at that time Aachen was a very closed society. There weren’t any foreigners living here. The Gastarbeiter (“guest workers”) from southern Europe had not arrived yet. But eventually they did arrive and the more we got into contact with Italians and people from Yugoslavia, the more open the horizons of Aachen’s native community became. The time was ripe—like the ripening of an apple on a tree—to become more cosmopolitan. Aachen at that time, with Jürgen Linden being one of the examples, was governed by people who had not participated in the war. So, we did not have to account for the things that happened. We were conscious of ourselves as a new generation and we wanted to improve our society. By the 1970s and certainly by the 1980s, the atmosphere indicated that we were ready for a change and that we wanted to broaden our horizons. The atmosphere was reflected not only in Jürgen Linden’s activities, but also in the people who were the heirs of the 68er generation, those who studied in the 1960s into the 1970s at university and whose context growing up was dramatically different from their parents’ generation.

Q: Did the university in Aachen play a role in the transformation of outlook to which you refer?

HG: I may be wrong, but the university did not seem to play a predominant role in that process. The transformation was occurring more at the municipal level. That said, I do know that the Aachen university at present has many links with other universities. For example, when we gave scholarships in Romania to top Romanian students, Aachen was always on the top of the list of preferred universities.

Q: So there was a pretty strict town/gown division.

HG: That’s right.

Q: What can you tell us about the exchange program you set up in 1995-1996?

HG: If I can retrieve my old files from my computer, I could send them to you, if our data laws allow that—I would have to ask individuals listed whether they would be OK with publishing their names. It would also be interesting to see the list of names of the first group of Arlingtonians that came to Aachen and maybe try to track them down and ask them what their experience was.

Q: Give us a sense of what the exchange you set up was like. Was there a sense of excitement about it? Who was involved? Why did the kids want to participate? What about the parents?

HG: We had selection procedures. Every school could send two or three students, who were already nominated by the schools. Our committee with representatives from the Aachen school board then met the students. We had them for a day. The nominees were required to make presentations, sometimes with visual aids like posters. That gave us a chance to evaluate them—we could see who would became dominant, wouldn’t let others speak, or would be helpful, you know—make a gesture “now it’s your turn,” so we could see the social behavior of the students. Of course, we also asked them questions about the United States. It was, always has been, and still is a privilege for the students to be selected to go to the United States. Meanwhile, a problem already developed in that the number of students sent to us from Arlington was not equivalent to the numbers we took to Arlington. That was a point that troubled me. We know that the German language does not play the rôle in Arlington that English plays in Aachen. So we always had a lot of demand and we tried to be fair and give the nominees a chance to present themselves. Then we made a selection and said, okay, you can go and you can’t. It has always been difficult to exclude young people, but we wanted to send the best—the most knowledgeable and most mature and dignified.

Q: How many did you have to turn down at first?

HG: If memory serves, I think it was half the nominees. We could take in the range of 23-25 and we had about 50 applications.

Q: Tell us about some of the other programs.

HG: We had an opportunity to meet with Arlingtonians on different trips. I have already mentioned Tom Parker. I organized a private trip for four friends of mine and slept in Tom Parker’s basement. For them it was the first trip to the United States.

Later, I met with Bernie Chapnick, who organized the bike trips. That was one of our ideas actually. Bernie and I sat down together and pondered how to organize such a thing.

Q: When was that?

HG: It must have been in the early 2000s. By then I had been organizing the high school exchange for almost ten years, a program I supervised until I left for Romania in 2005. But Bernie and I had the idea of organizing a bike trip, so the first trip we organized was from Aachen to Reims. I can still remember the car accompanying the bikers with a flashing light to warn motorists. I had gone to all of the restaurants and hotels en route to make reservations. One of the most impressive people I met on that ride was Jay Fisette. We have been friends ever since. Even when I was in Romania we exchanged emails. Then there was Bob Rosen. On a second ride, we went from Nancy to Strasbourg along the canals. An excellent trip. Immediately after that I left for Romania for eight years.

Q: Was there another trip before the one you and he organized, also to Reims?

HG: I think so—that’s how Bernie developed a taste for it. He has been organizing trips ever since. Schedule permitting, I will try to join it.

Q: What happened after Heinrich Friedhoff gave up the presidency of the committee?

HG: Traudl [Dr. Gertraud Kősters] took over and ever since, the committee has continued flourishing. It was a very good choice the committee made to ask her to assume the presidency. She has invested a great deal of time and effort into the project and we are all happy that she is at the helm.

Q: You had two major sister city responsibilities simultaneously: you were running the high school exchange with Arlington and at the same time became the president of the Aachen-Reims committee.

HG: Out of this was born the idea of establishing an Arlington-Reims connection. Harry Amos came to Reims as a negotiator. At that point, the mayor of Reims, Mr. Falala, was reluctant to form a relationship with a non-European country. But in the end, after Mr. Schneiter became mayor, it was promoted and finalized. That step brought me great satisfaction, as I had always wanted to close that triangle. Now we are three. We had good moments in memory of the war to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of WW II. I think this is a symbol of how people can come together even if their fathers fought facing each other across the same front.

Q: We hope to build on that feeling with the series of events next summer (2014) that will involve all three of us—Aachen, Reims, and Arlington. We will start on the 4th of July and finish on the 14th, encompassing the national holidays of two of the three.

HG: I am taking note of that, hoping that I can participate.

Q: How has the “triangle” functioned so far?

HG: At the beginning, I talked to Henri Desdouits, who was my counterpart on the Reims-Aachen committee and we very gently nudged the then mayor to welcome an American to negotiate with. His reluctance made our efforts tiresome. Heinrich Friedhoff and I traveled to Reims several times to launch the idea. Different mentalities were at work. For once, we, the Germans, had a chance to tear down some of the prejudices that existed in America as far as France is concerned and vice versa. We were intermediaries between those nations and cities. It was a lot of fun. When it stalled in France, we tried to relaunch the initiative. Similarly with Arlington: we engaged when it appeared to stall. This is why Heinrich and I are so pleased that, in the end, it came about.

My second successor, Georg Schmidt, can tell you how the triangle is functioning nowadays. I am freshly back from Romania and have lost touch.

Q: Who was your immediate successor?

HG: It was Dr. Wolf Steinsieck. Wolf has since become the honorary consul of France in Aachen. He resigned the presidency when he was offered and he accepted that distinction.

Q: I would like to return to the earliest years of the Aachen-Arlington relationship, because you were in contact with ASCA’s founding generation.

HG: John McCracken played a central rôle in the founding years. I cannot recall the name of my first high school exchange counterpart in Arlington. There was a lady who had a travel agency who was very helpful. She even helped us financially when students wouldn’t have been able to come without support. This is another case of needing to consult those computer files. Names will pop up and memories will return when I open them. I will add insights during the editing process if my efforts to regain access prove successful.

Q: John McCracken passed away in 2003.

HG: Yes. Another person occurs to me now—James Hunter. He was in a position to influence the choice of Aachen as being a potential partner. I think he had heard that Jürgen Linden had invited the Jewish people to come to Aachen and that was to him a big asset.

Q: Perhaps he was associated with Richard Carver, who had a connection in Aachen. Carver served on a committee with John McCracken and John Melnick…

HG: I was very sorry to hear of the passing of Jack Melnick recently. I talked to Margie that very night when I heard it. I had been in contact with Jack from Romania. He had invited us to his home on the seashore, but he died before we could make it happen. I would like to honor Jack’s memory specifically. I have a clipping from the Aachen newspaper, an article whose headline reads “Arlington and Reims are now together,” and it has a picture in which Margie, Jack, and I are sitting in Jack’s back yard.

Q: Tell us more about the early period.

HG: The first visit was an exciting one for all of us. There was the planting of an Aachen rose in a rose garden. We went to the Newseum in Roslyn. We went to the Pentagon. We visited the memorial to the Marines at Iwo Jima. We crossed the footbridge to Roosevelt Island. There was a rope bridge we crossed into Maryland. Then there was the view of Arlington National Cemetery across Memorial Bridge across the Potomac from the Lincoln Monument. We visited the gravesites of John F. and Bobby Kennedy. I remember that as a moment laden with emotion. We were excited about the prospects, but could not anticipate the warm hospitality we received. At that time we also could not anticipate that this infant program would grow and mature into the relationship we have today.

Q: Did you contemplate a second iteration of the exchange; was the first one organized as a pilot exercise?

HG: It was planned from the start as a long-term program. The exchange was slightly problematic because we had a smaller number coming to Aachen from Arlington than from Aachen to Arlington.

It is also worth pointing out that Paula Niemitz initiated an elementary school exchange, but that was after I left for Romania, so I cannot say anything more about it, except to say that we had always hoped for such a program, as the younger the children are, the easier it is to prevent prejudices from developing.

Q: Did you visit the Arlington high schools on the initial exchanges?

HG: Yes, all of them. We visited the Catholic school, Bishop John’s, I think. During our inaugural visit to Arlington I hired a taxi to visit all the schools while the rest of the group was engaged in another activity. I met with all the principals at that time. I wanted to gain a personal impression and I wanted them to associate a face with the program we were launching.

Q: These are best practices that are being lost. We should revive them! You must have taken at least one more chaperone with you on the exchange.

HG: On one trip is was Sabine Schierp. I was very upset to hear that she passed away this year.

Q: She had many, many friends in Arlington. We were devastated by the news.

HG: I think Silke Bastian came on another occasion. And there was a year when Sabine and Wolfgang Schierp came together. One of the school exchanges coincided with an official visit by Jürgen Linden and Traudl Kősters. I still have pictures of it. It was during the spring when the Cherry trees were in full bloom. The head of the Arlington County Council was Barbara Favola.

Q: Let’s move to the final phase of our conversation and focus on the question of what the Aachen-Arlington sister city relationship has achieved.

HG: I can only liken the trajectory of this relationship to a baby who has grown to be a man or woman or a seedling that becomes a mature plant. We started planting a flower, a rose. It has become sturdier, more massive, more robust, more resistant, and it carries more weight. I think that all the initiatives that Traudl has been responding to from the American side have shown that the initial idea has proven itself in practice. People from different parts of society in both cities have been able to meet and still will meet in the future. In Aachen, Arlington is a word that has become known to the people. Not because at the Aachen city limits we have a big sign advertising our relationship, but because the activities in which we engage show that we have a sistership in fact. I think we can be happy with the results, because there are always new things to do. You can never relax and rest with the status quo, because the status quo can easily degrade if the relationship is not continually revivified. With the people currently involved, the chances are good that the relationship will go on. Moreover, young people are likely to take over, because the founding generation is moving into retirement. We will with certainty need new people to spend time, effort, energy in realizing sister city ideals if it is to survive.

Q: One hears much about globalization and the possibility of virtually instantaneous contact with anyone, anywhere, anytime. Is there still a rôle for sister cities in that context, or has the whole idea of sister cities become obsolete?

HG: You are right to say that it is no longer a big deal to go to America. Anyone can go to a travel agency and book a ticket. Just like it’s no longer a big deal to go to France, because you cross the border without even having to show your passport. But one thing is for sure: you can never, by no technical or electronic means, replace a personal encounter. Just as we are facing each other at this moment—I can see your face; I can see the reactions in your features, and you can see mine, you can see my gestures, you could say we could do that by Skype. But NO. This is something that is irreplaceable. When you go and meet people in their surroundings, you get to know them better than just reading about it. Maybe the level of excitement has declined somewhat, but I don’t think the idea is obsolete.

Q: How does that show up? What evidence do you see for that?

HG: First, consider the demonstrable interest. The number of people participating in the Partnerschaftkomitee has doubled or tripled since the early years. We started with around 80 and that number has significantly increased. The idea is still alive. As for young people, they feel that the more they know in today’s globalized world about other countries and continents, the better off they are. The job chances of people who have had this contact with America, France, even Romania—why not!?— are greater. They are fitter and have a higher aptitude for the future of Europe than are the people who have chosen not to participate. I think it is a big, big thing that people should meet and learn from each other. Sometimes developments in Germany are a mystery to you, just like American politics is sometimes a mystery to us. But the more you meet people, the better you can explain and the less prone you are to be influenced by people who try to indoctrinate you. This is what I consider to be valuable and worthy.