Waltraud (Traudl) Kősters: ASCA’S PARTNER IN AACHEN

WHEN: 18 September 2013

WHERE: Aachen-Nütheim

INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski

TRANSLATOR: Carl Lankowski

Q: Traudl, first of all let me say how pleased I am to be able to engage you today in this particular way. You have been a pillar of our joint endeavor and a personal inspiration to me, now for five years your counterpart in Arlington. Let’s start with your origins, your early experience with Americans, and your path to Aachen.

GK: I was born on the 17th of April, 1949 in rural Austria. It was the moment at which the American occupation built a base in the immediate vicinity. My father, who refused to become a Nazi, was affected by the American reconstruction effort from the beginning. Because of that I learned about American ways from my earliest childhood. I loved having American guests at our dinner table. It was always great fun, but also rife with knowledge. Much was conveyed about the regional, about the Marshall Plan, and the Lipizzaner from Vienna to Wels, then still under Russian occupation, came into the conversations. All in all, I spent a lot of time with Americans up until 1965.


After my university studies, I remained in Aachen. I married a German here.

Q: What did you study?

GK: I studied medicine and became a physician. I worked for 27 years with three women in my practice, which treated psychically ill women.

Q: When did you have that practice?

GK: We started in 1981 and concluded it 2009.

Q: What was your situation when the sister city relationship between Aachen and Arlington was started?

GK: That was in 1993. The opportunity to participate was mooted by my friends, Mayor Linden and Heinrich Friedhoff. We were a very enthusiastic team. Following the sister city signing in Aachen a visit to Arlington was arranged in May 1994. The relationship was formally founded there and our reception was very friendly and open. Many contacts were made that facilitated our work with Arlington. Soon thereafter the first student exchanges were arranged, accompanied by founding members and other dignitaries. The family of Virginia State Senator Holland came, as did John Melnick with his family. Included in the group were also Arlingtonians interested in visiting nearby military cemeteries.

Q: How large was the group from Arlington?

GK: There were about 20 visitors.

Q: Can you provide some insight into the origins of the relationship?

GK: The Aachen Cultural Affairs director, Franz Zentis, who I would like to acknowledge and thank at this point, and Dick Carver, who somehow knew each other, played a central role in the pre-history of the relationship. The feeling was that we already had enough sister cities, but we managed to push through the twinning relationship with Arlington despite this.

Q: How did it come to that? Why did you ultimately agree to take on Arlington?

GK: There was a group of dedicated individuals driving the idea forward. As well, there were many young people who wished to visit the United States. After the war sister cities in Europe were very important, but for the younger generation not so interesting. We had partnerships with Reims in France and Halifax. This is true to the present day: young people want to go to the USA.

The student exchanges grew naturally out of this situation. Hubert Gronen is the one who can tell you best about the high school exchange, a persistent feature of our relationship. After Hubert, Sabine Schierp directed the program and now it is directed by Helmuth Feuerriegel. The high school exchange program is organized through its own committee, whose members are mostly teachers, but to some extent parents, too.

Aachen’s sister city relationship with Arlington has the legal status of an e.V. (eingetragene Verein = registered association) registered in Aachen. Under German law, registered associations must have certain elements—a chairman, a vice-chairman, a treasurer, a secretary. We have gone beyond that to include a representative of each major German political party. Currently, they include Silke Bastien (Greens), Klaus Haase (Social Democrats), and others. We also have included members of our working groups from the high school exchange, the elementary exchange (Reinhard Germ).

Q: Let’s return for a moment to your background. I notice we were born in the same year. I wonder if there were parallel generational experiences.

GK: Before that, during my years at university I took a six-week trip through America—California, Texas, Florida, New York. Once we had children, we made trips to the United States and saw that they were generally enthusiastic about what they experienced there. One son did a high school year in the States. Another travelled for several weeks on a student exchange. They made enduring friendships, nowadays continued in part via FaceBook.

Q: Going back even further, tell us more about your parents’ family. We would also like to know more about your university years.

GK: My mother came from a farm in existence for over 500 years. She was educated in trade and commerce. She was a businesswoman and ran businesses through her 65th year. My father was a farmer with a strong interest in veterinary research, but also in politics. His connection to the U.S. Army was a uniformed Veterinarian with whom he engaged in scientific work—for example in animal reproduction. Our home was known not only for Lipizzaner, but also science. The first institute in Austria to manage artificial insemination of animals was located there, founded around 1955. They produced the highest quality cows.

The U.S. Army withdrew in 1955. My father actively supported Austrian neutrality. The agreement on Austrian neutrality was the sine qua non for withdrawal of all [American, Soviet, British, and French] occupation forces.

I grew up in a large multi-generational family and had three siblings. Three of my father’s siblings also lived on the estate. My brother studied Agronomy. One was responsible for managing the farm.

Q: Where was the farm?

GK: in the region of Upper Austria [east of Salzburg, bordering both Germany and the Czech Republic, with the regional capital of Linz]. After I turned 16 I went to live in town with my sister, where the family business was located. There I learned to be self-reliant. When I was 18 I moved to Innsbruck for university studies. Medicine and skiing! (laughter)

That was the time of demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. I participated in them.

Q: What year did you go to Innsbruck?

GK: I began my studies in 1967.

Q: What next?

GK: I came to Germany in 1972, to Aachen. In that year I married and continued my studies. I loved the environs. Austria was hemmed in by the “iron curtain”, the impenetrable borders with the Soviet satellite countries of Central Europe—Czechoslovakia and Hungary were closed off. Though studying in Aachen I lived at first in Belgium and also had a small house in Holland. We used to go for weekends to Amsterdam or France. For me, that was freedom. That kind of life was not possible in Austria at that time.

The times were also spiritually liberating in this part of Europe. France had its great rebellion, les evenements de Mai 1968.

Q: And you participated in the subsequent movements growing out of that cultural explosion?

GK: Sure. I was politically active in Aachen back then. I participated in the so-called Basisgruppen [grass-roots cells], conceived as a liberation movement. They were non-dogmatic in inspiration and orientation. They were the means of re-appropriating the world around us. I took full advantage of the opportunities they provided to reimagine society and our role in it. We read everything. It was a time to reengage Karl Marx, among others.

Q: A generational project…

GK: It was a liberation. We questioned everything. I am happy that our children were not like us! (laughter) Things looked different when we grew into our roles as parents.

Political action in Austria looked different. It is a small country. When I participated in a demonstration in Innsbruck, the police showed up at my parents’ farm to tell them about it.

Q: I also attended various demonstrations in those years. But the parents were a long way away: I was in Washington—later in New York—and they were in Connecticut.

GK: My parents were not close by, either, but Austria is mentally a small country in a way that America is not. Individual freedom is greater in America.

Q: Let’s focus now on your role in the Aachen-Arlington sister city relationship. How did you come to it?

GK: I have been involved since the beginning. I went on the inaugural trips to Arlington. With assistance of the Ludwig Foundation, I organized an exhibition of Aachen’s most important artists in Arlington. I have taken great pleasure in organizing the annual Thanksgiving dinner here in Aachen as part of our spectrum of sister city activities. Then there are the Fourth of July barbeques. After Heinrich Friedhoff stepped down as chairman of the Partnerschaftkomitee I was elected to the position.

Q: When was that?

GK: I think it was 1996. We enjoyed continued success, also for me personally, as I was able to satisfy my ambitions to bring art and music into the relationship. And a definite highlight of our efforts needs mentioning—the awarding of the Charlemagne Prize to U.S. President Bill Clinton became part of the Aachen-Arlington relationship in the year 2000. Our Arlington partners facilitated the process in working with the White House in Washington and we, here in Aachen, worked in parallel intensively especially in preparing the local population for the event.

Q: How did that look?

GK: It was overwhelming. We organized a party attending by more than 500 guests. There was a nice, mixed program. A varieté show was organized. Hubert Gronen appeared with his guitar. There was dancing. The atmosphere was festive and plenty of fun was had by all, including the accompanying White House staff.

The award ceremony was wonderful. It was an endlessly bright day. The setting was great. Clinton was in a great mood.

Contact continued but the mood changed to tragic and somber with the attacks on Washington and New York of September 9, 2001. In Aachen the outcry was deep and immediate. Expressions of support came forth in the form of condolence books, school events, and people-to-people actions—police to police, fire-fighters to fire-fighters and the like. A sizeable donation was collected and sent to our partner organization in Arlington. The result was that in 2002, 80 Arlingtonians visited Aachen. The core group was Arlington’s youth orchestra. Aachen’s Youth Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Walter Mengler, had already appeared in Arlington, still in 2001, shortly after a memorial service at the Pentagon, which had been impacted by one of the three 9/11 hijacked commercial airliners, killing all the innocent passengers on board as well as several dozen Pentagon employees. My strong impression is that the young people participating in this program from Arlington and Aachen will never forget their visit.  In Aachen’s City Stage the two youth orchestras were combined. Over 700 guests experienced the resulting unique musical evening. The next evening featured a concert by the visiting Arlington pianist, Sonya Kim, who filled the performing space of the Musikhochschule in Aachen. A program lasting a week was organized for the visitors. They were moved and deeply appreciative. The net effect was an elemental strengthening of our transatlantic relationship.

Q: You had already developed a sister city team with which you could organize programs and react to events. How did that team come together?

GK: We sought representatives from very area of our activity. Defined areas included music, art, finances, and so forth. We drew in representatives from the parties, from the schools and universities (Professor Joepen).

A relationship developed with Arlington’s Marymount University. Starting in 2002 it was possible to earn a double degree from the Fachhochschule Aachen and George Mason University. In the cooperative effort with George Mason University regular seminars were organized here. In the summer of 2002 RWTH, the Fachhochschule and the Volkshochschule combined to provide financial support for language students.

Subcommittees were formed to take action in areas such as the SisterBike program, and the high school and elementary school exchanges.

Q: A lively relationship cannot be taken for granted. Why does it persist?

GK: Several factors are at work. First, there is a great interest among the younger generation in America. Second, we were lucky that Heidi Addison came up with the idea to offer an exchange program for younger children—eleven year-olds together with one or two parents. Paula Niemitz and I had to check to see whether there was potentially sufficient enthusiasm for such a project.

Q: Paula was already here in Aachen?

GK: Yes. She arrived with her German husband. Both of them work here. They have three sons. Pauls launched the elementary exchange in 2000 with eleven kids. This year the number is 47. The parents visit with their children. It is always a week in October. Heidi Addison organizes that in Arlington, for which we are very, very thankful that she has given so much over so many years to this program. She has always done an excellent job. I made the trip twice myself. It is astounding how the kids take to each other, despite undeveloped language capabilities. When the Arlington kids make the reverse visit it is like a family gathering. The groups are regularly 300 and more, as ca. 100 Americans show up, kids and parents, visiting Aachen counterpart families. Home-stays are arranged. There is a program, including a welcome party. A huge touring program. Reinhard Germ does a fantastic job with the exchange here, assisted by the parents. We have always been able to find the right parents. Paul Ferguson came with his family for the third time. Other kids have come back to Aachen outside of the formal exchange, a heady signal of the program’s success. It all goes back to Heidi’s idea.

Q: What leads people to invest their time and energy in the sister city project?

GK: There is enthusiasm for the idea. You can’t represent something to which you are not committed. We think it is important to transmit the things we think are important, the culture, the values, to the younger generation. We were able to convince a married couple of means in the Ludwig Stiftung to support us. Therefore, we have not had great difficulty in realizing programs we deemed important.

Q: Aachen has an array of sister cities, thirteen at present, I think. When Arlington became one of them in 1993-94, Aachen already had six. Why did you decide to take on Arlington? Why, specifically, an American connection?

GK: American culture is attractive. Of surpassing interest is the element of freedom. Unfortunately, it is a dimension of the American experience that has been somewhat eclipsed by the shadow of 9/11. That said, it is still great for young people to experience history unfolding there. To see the country offers a priceless opportunity to grasp what they otherwise learn primarily from books. These days in Germany all young people learn English. So, an additional motive for an American connection is an enhanced opportunity to speak the language. For the younger kids it serves as a motivation to begin learning a foreign language. Not only abstractly, from a book, but as a lived experience. And to communicate—whereby the Internet has become very helpful in that regard.

Q: You mentioned that the mood has changed after 9/11. How does that look from here?

GK: When I arrived in Arlington at the end of that September (2001), it appear to me that silence pervaded the land. There were no flights into or out of National Airport. No tourists. It was sad. And these days when you fly to the United States you must consider how and what you can pack in your luggage, can it be locked, how will you be handled by immigration authorities, you may be pulled aside for interrogation or worse, a humiliating search. None of this had happened previously. We had been able to visit the White House, the State Department. I can remember flying over the White House in a small plane. In 2002 there was in addition the sniper killing spree in the area, just when the elementary exchange was taking place. On the other hand, the kids had nothing to compare these extraordinary circumstances with. I would say it is a great pity that these consequences are pervasive.

Q: As you said, we are dealing with the interaction between generations in our transatlantic relationship. How does this intergenerational dimension express itself?

GK: Our membership reflects the array of activities in which we are involved. School kids who participate in our exchanges often become members. The interaction can be seen in our treatment of the traditional Thanksgiving celebration. We no longer do it as a dinner, but as a family brunch so that they can participate. The event is an integrating moment for the membership, but connections continue within the various groups as well. It is important to cultivate the rising generation. Any association would face extinction, if it were populated exclusively by gray-hairs. We have been able to attract younger people, including younger teachers, to our membership and activists.

Q: Tell us about the composition of those participating in the exchanges. One would expect that they would come from the better endowed families. That is the case in Arlington. Is it also the case in Aachen?

GK: Yes. For example, parents need to be able to offer exchange students living accommodations. They need to be able to pick up at least some of the incidental expenses associated with the various activities in the program.

Q: Have there been any initiatives to broaden the circle of participation in this regard?

GK: We have tried to do so, but without notable success. There is also an experiential basis for that—kids from less well-off families typically do not have the experience that would give them the level of maturity needed to participate effectively. Much depends on experience within the household. It is different with university students, who are judged on the basis of test performance and not tied to household income. The situation in the SisterBike program is again different. Many participants are retirees with fewer responsibilities and the cost is quite modest comparatively speaking.

Q: What other activities are connected to the sister city relationship?

GK: There is an internship exchange. That sometimes encompassed working visits of professionals from the public administrations of Aachen and Arlington, respectively. These, ranging from human resources and cultural affairs to city and economic planning, have been mutually beneficial. Due to new regulations in Arlington, this sort of exchange has become more difficult recently. Let’s not forget the sports exchanges either. There were the “Soccer Boys”, tennis groups, the Aachen Greyhounds baseball team visited Arlington on three occasions. These groups are regulars at our American festival events, especially the Fourth of July BBQs.

Then there are the events we organize to fortify the liveliness of the association include, first and foremost, the open-air Fourth of July party in barbeque format with American sports and music. Sometimes we organize a tombola with a flight to Washington. We have the Thanksgiving dinner or brunch. And then there are occasional combined sister city events in which we participate. There was one just last week in the coronation room of the Aachen town hall. It was a public meeting that drew considerable interest and attention to the sister cities.

Q: Two years ago I was in Aachen for the Charlemagne Prize festivities and noticed that all Aachen’s sister cities were represented.

GK: That was the annual Charlemagne Prize festival. That is a European prize in the spirit of European unification and normally we bring together our European sister city associations.

Q: Aachen has a special history as Roman bath much later the seat of Europe’s first transalpine empire. How does this past resonate in Aachen’s relationship with Arlington?

GK: Aachen’s history goes back even further to the pre-Roman Celtic era with its Feuerstein [flint] culture. This and the Carolingian tradition and the imperial coronation of Charlemagne represent realities that cannot be found in America. On offer here is a special perspective on history. We have a special route Charlemagne designed to organize historical insights in a meaningful way. It is very well received by visitors.

Q: The Carolingian empire was multicultural and heterogeneous. I imagine that Aachen as a meeting place of peoples is a theme that also works with a transatlantic dimension. How do these profound historical currents affect your exchange programs with Arlington?

GK: The children go on city tours, but these are, of course, designed with their level of understanding and experiential horizons in mind. It is less artistic sight-seeing and more of a scavenger hunt. Active learning through hands-on discovery is the theme. At the other end of the spectrum we involve university students in the Charlemagne Prize process. A youth Charlemagne Prize is awarded from a field of activities focusing on the building of Europe. Civic engagement and discussion are organized and acknowledged.

Q: America is a country of immigrants, but the United States is not a country which borders on nine others and has no cities whose daily experience involves extensive interchange and cooperation across international borders as is the case with Aachen in its relationships with its Belgian and Dutch neighbors.

GK: It is a part of who we are. Therefore, it almost goes without saying that participants in our sister city exchanges experience the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, even France, if here for a longer period, when they are with us. It is invariably exciting for them. That goes for the older participants as well: SisterBike participants are always impressed with the transnational routes of our bike paths. They often ask us how we manage to achieve that, when getting bike paths connecting Virginia, DC, and Maryland has been so frought. We have provided something of an example of inter-jurisdictional cooperation. It goes far beyond bike paths here: people live and work across the borders, attend schools and universities across the borders. Many people here have learned to weigh advantages and disadvantages in choosing a neighborhood to live in, selecting shops to buy in, deciding where to work in a common German-Dutch-Belgian context. It is a life-style that functions well, requiring the development of special coping skills, a process negotiated daily by the region’s inhabitants.

Q: A new European reality that must come as a surprise for visiting Americans. I know that the trip to Berlin, a traditional part of the high school exchange, is hugely popular and successful, but I wonder whether a trip to “Europe’s capital”, Brussels, would also have a role in the program.

GK: I think there is a good case to be made for that. Logistically, a trip to Brussels is much easier than travelling to Berlin—an hour by train from Aachen station. The group could return the same day and give the visitors even more to discuss with their host families and in that way further strengthen their bond. Amsterdam is also a possibility, but Brussels is the European capital. It is also with this general idea in mind that as part of the original plan SisterBike 2014 had in mind Strasbourg, seat of the European Parliament, as its point of departure or destination.

Q: The Aachen-Brussels couplet is a topographical analogue to Arlington-Washington DC.

GK: A little further away in our case, but still eminently reachable. Anyway, there are people living in Aachen who work in Paris or Brussels.

Q: So how long does it take to get to Paris by train?

GK: Three and a half hours. That is also true of London. Many start out from Aachen early in the morning for London and return that same evening.

Q: Are there many Aachen-Brussels commuters?

GK: Sure. Many from the sphere of politics do that. Among them is the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, who grew up in Aachen’s immediate environs.

Q: Aachen is a special place. Though we in Arlington are connected to you, we have only just begun to understand you.

GK: It is also a source of surprises to us! (laughter)  And we enjoy invoking a sense of discovery with visitors. In fact, it is in our role as hosts that the character of our community is clarified greatly to us, when we have to try to mediate our reality to our American guests. To take but one example, on an outing to one of our art museums an American visitor discovered a piece by an American, though she was very well versed in art. This reflects the close transatlantic connections cultivated over a long period by a local collector. There was astonishment that a city like Aachen could have developed such an acute artistic sense.

Q: I am not so sure that this astonishment is general among American travelers. My sense is that in comparison to American cities, we think of European cities as rich in cultural institutions like museums and galleries

GK: Aachen might serve as a point of departure for further visits farther afield. There are eight airports less than 120 Km from Aachen and air travel can be cheap, thanks to competition of new carriers.

Q: Let’s turn to a more general evaluation of the sister city experience. What do you think has been accomplished since the launch of the Aachen-Arlington relationship 20 years ago?

GK: Our initial expectations have been greatly exceeded. The concern that only a very small number would benefit from the relationship has proven to have been unjustified. More Aachen kids fly to Arlington than to all other Aachen partner cities. Pupils who have participated in the program have been so moved and sensitized by their experience that when they hear English being spoken in Aachen they typically ask “are you from Arlington?” (laughter) Or, to recall what John McCracken said on a visit here when standing in the market square: “this is the most beautiful square in the world.”  Another time, he was asked by a youngster “aren’t you Mr. McCracken from Arlington?” These sorts of encounters can be multiplied at will. What we see is the sturdy basis for a good relationship. Our partnership has attracted the attention of your ambassadors and consuls and has contributed to raising Aachen’s profile

Q: What comprises the foundation for these successes?

GK: First and foremost, a good team. The association has provided structure and continuity. From time to time it must, according to the legal requirements, be democratically replenished. In conformity with the German associational norm, elections are held, audits are conducted. This guarantees a correct and orderly associational life. A third area to highlight is the communication between board members and membership. We publish a regular newsletter, recently via the Internet. And we promote integrating events for the whole membership.

Q: These are impressive achievements with mechanisms in place to insure continuity. What do you see for the future?

GK: We need to replenish our leadership, my successor, for example. More immediately, we are planning the events for our 20th anniversary year.

Q: I can speak for ASCA when I say that we are deeply appreciative of your excellent work on behalf of our relationship.

GK: I have not only given; I have received much.