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Cities began partnership six years after bitter war

October 17, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

When a friendship between the cities of Hagerstown and Wesel, Germany, was proposed in 1951, some Hagerstown residents opposed the idea, said Jane Burhans, an early supporter of the program.

After all, Germany was an enemy in World War II just six years earlier and some residents were still prejudiced against Germans, Burhans said.

Burhans, now 90, and her husband, former Mayor Winslow Burhans, just found other people who were more supportive of the idea, she said.

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The relationship between the two municipalities quickly blossomed and the two cities formed the world's first German-American partnership and became sister cities.

This weekend, about 50 Wesel residents are in Hagerstown to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the partnership.

About 97 percent of Wesel was destroyed by bombs in World War II. As part of its recovery, Wesel City Manager Karl-Heinz Reuber contacted an American organization, Operation Democracy Town Affiliation in New York, and said the city wanted to form an alliance with an American city.

The New York group contacted the U.S. State Department, where an official suggested Wesel consider Hagerstown, said Gann Breichner, former Hagerstown city clerk and wife of Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner.

Hagerstown was suggested because it had a German population and was of a comparable size, Breichner said. In 1954, Wesel had a population of 23,000 and Hagerstown had a population of about 35,000, she said.

Reuber asked Rolf von Bonninghausen, the chief county manager of Rees County, where Wesel was located, to make a stop in Hagerstown while in the United States. In late 1951, von Bonninghausen met with then Hagerstown Mayor Herman L. Mills, who told him the city was interested in a partnership.

In a letter to the Wesel mayor, von Bonninghausen wrote that he liked what he saw here.

"Hagerstown is a very attractive city, clean and tidy, makes a well-groomed and wealthy impression with its pretty buildings, parks and a nice mix of farming background and a solid industrial base," he wrote.

Mills began corresponding with the Wesel mayor and on March 10, 1952, the Wesel council announced the partnership between the two cities.

In September 1954, Bonninghausen and the Wesel mayor and city manager visited Hagerstown, bringing with them a museum exhibit. The exhibit was opened at Hagerstown's Washington County Museum of Fine Arts on Oct. 31 at a ceremony attended by 600 guests.

More than 5,200 local residents went to see the museum exhibit. It was the largest attendance at the time of any museum exhibit, according to news files.

Then it was Hagerstown's turn to send information about its city to Wesel. Hagerstown's exhibit included city and county maps, recordings made by students, Bibles donated by churches and pictures of local sites.

In August 1955, a delegation from Hagerstown led by the Burhans family went to Wesel for a two-week visit.

The German hosts had planned for the Americans' two-week visit to coincide with an event called "American Festival," which began with the opening of the Hagerstown exhibition on Aug. 28. Some 2,390 people attended the ceremony in the rotunda of Wesel's town hall.

In the next two weeks, an additional 31,617 visitors - about 2,100 per day and 7,000 more than the number living in Wesel - came to see the exhibit, according to historical records.

In a letter home, Mayor Burhans wrote that the Wesel countryside in many ways reminded him of Washington County.

"I walk along the streets and I observe that the soil and vegetation look the same as back home," he wrote. "The grass looks the same, the trees the same - sycamores, locust, willow and pussy willows - and there are roses and dahlias and goldenrod and weeds that look the same - even the lowly dandelion."

Visits from residents of one sister city to the other have continued ever since including, in recent years, student exchanges.

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