Are there white privileges in Poland?

Pensioners in Germany
“Poverty is invisible. You only see those who are doing well "

They drive around in a coach or caravan, have bright white rows of teeth and a thick wallet - and in the evening they sit on the terrace of their Spanish finca with a glass of wine. This is roughly how many Poles imagine the typical German pensioner. But in the course of my research and interviews, this stereotype began to falter.

By Joanna Strzałko

The two luxurious, bright white skyscrapers of the Augustinum senior citizens' residence in Heidelberg stand on a hill, in the immediate vicinity of a refugee accommodation and a housing estate, the houses of which are already peeling paint. When I visit Gisela (79) and Horst (86) in their apartment on the tenth floor of the senior citizen's residence, the wide view over the Rhine plain that opens up to me from their living room and bedroom leaves me speechless. Somewhere down there, people are rushing around, driving cars and trains. Somewhere in the distance a war is raging, a virus is raging and fear is growing. Up here in the silence it all seems unreal.
"Yes, we feel safe here and rarely leave the building," says Horst.
"Well, I go to elementary school every Monday," interjects Gisela and points down to a large blue building. “I'm helping a nine-year-old girl from Tunisia to learn German. We read fairy tales together for an hour. Three quarters of the children in this school have language problems. Several of us from the Augustinum volunteered to help the children. "
Gisela and Horst start their day at 8 a.m. They listen to the news on the radio, drink coffee and prepare breakfast in their small kitchen. At 9 a.m. they go to the in-house swimming pool for water aerobics. Then they read the daily newspaper and at 12.30 they go to the restaurant for lunch, the tables of which are laid white and decorated with fresh flowers and which smells of tropical fruits.
In the afternoon and evening, the two of them take advantage of the extensive range of leisure activities: there are language courses, art workshops, lectures, film and theater screenings, exhibitions, a wine bar as well as a hairdresser and a massage parlor. There are also club rooms, an imposing library and a chapel. There is something for everybody.
"All services and lunch are included in the price," says Gisela. "And the services of the medical staff on site are covered by the health insurance."

“The reception is open around the clock, seven days a week. And in our apartment we have an emergency bell. That's exactly how I imagined life here, ”says Horst with a smile. "In all honesty: I can't find anything negative at all."
Around 350 residents live in the two fourteen-story high-rise buildings of the Augustinum senior citizens' residence. The rent depends on the size of the apartment. Gisela and Horst pay 4,000 euros per month for their 58 square meter apartment.
“I started to make provisions for our old age at an early age,” says Horst. “I invested in stocks and paid into statutory long-term care insurance and life insurance every month. In addition there was the company pension scheme. "
Horst tells me that he lost his parents as a child. Because there was no money, he had to drop out of high school and find a job as quickly as possible. He did a two-year apprenticeship as a salesman and then worked in this profession. Until he finally found a job in a bank thanks to a personal recommendation.
“Even then, I was very interested in securities,” recalls Horst. “So I did a three-year apprenticeship as a banker. I learned and worked. I loved my job. And after I was promoted to head of department, I made so much that I was able to put a lot aside. "
"How high is your pension?" I ask him.
“A total of over 4,000 euros,” replies Horst.
"I get - and only recently, because I didn't get anything before - 150 euros," interjects Gisela. “Household work and raising children obviously don't count for us. The state also takes our common income into account. Fortunately, my father was wealthy and left me a piece of land and a house. Yes, I have been a housewife for most of my life. After graduating from high school, I did a bank apprenticeship and also worked in the bank for a while. But six months later I met Horst, and soon after we got married. We have been together for 57 years now. "
Gisela remembers that the name Augustinum was first mentioned thirty years ago when her father fell ill. It was then that they realized that they would soon find themselves in the same position. Her daughter lived in Berlin and her son in Bonn. Horst and Gisela did not want to be a burden to their children. He was nearing 60 and she was 53 when they made an appointment at the Augustinum.
“Horst could have moved in immediately, but I wasn't mentally ready,” recalls Gisela. “But when my husband took early retirement and I had difficulty walking after falling down stairs, I realized that the time had come. At that point in time, an apartment in the Augustinum became available. One of the residents had died. "
All they had to do was sell their house, which was quick, and undergo a medical exam. If you want to move into the Augustinum, you have to be healthy - these are the rules.
"Getting old is crap," says Gisela when she parted. “The head is still young, but the body is no longer. You can think clearly, but you can hardly walk. That upsets me. But what should you do? We live here now. And we will no longer have another home. "
Example image | Photo: Pexels

How does the German pension scheme work? *

Old-age provision in Germany is based on the 3-pillar model: The first pillar is the statutory pension insurance, which looks after around 82 percent of employees, i.e. almost 55 million people. The second pillar is company pension schemes and the third is private pension schemes.
The contribution rate of the statutory pension insurance is currently 18.6 percent of the gross wage. Half of the contribution is paid by the employer and half by the employee. The starting age for the regular old-age pension is currently 67, regardless of gender.
In 2018 there were around 18.25 million old-age pensioners in Germany. This year, the expenditures for pensions paid out throughout Germany amounted to around 277.1 billion euros. Only 0.2 percent of pensioners received a regular old-age pension of over EUR 2,400 per month. 19 percent of women and 11 percent of men receive less than 300 euros per month.
In 1962 there were six actively insured economically active persons for every old-age pensioner. In 1992 there were only 2.7 and 2017 only 2.1 contributors. In 2050, 30 percent of the German population will be over 60 years old.

Saxophone, high heels and jazz

If 67-year-old Mary met Gisela, she would likely give her a high five. She is open-minded, lively and also not very enthusiastic about getting old.
“There are days when I feel terribly old and think I'm going to die soon,” she reveals to me. “But I'm not driving myself crazy about it. I have come to terms with the fact that one day I too will have to leave this earth. "
Mary tells me that her 60th birthday was the turning point in her life.
"That day I looked in the mirror and said to myself:" My dear, if you still want to do something new, then now, before it's too late. "
"And what did you do?" I ask her.
“I started taking saxophone lessons, that was my dream for a long time,” laughs Mary.
Her saxophone, a rare Selmer Marc VI from 1960, is the only thing that Mary has left of her father. She takes lessons from two music teachers. She loves playing barefoot. Only when she goes on stage does she put on her high heels.
“I met some nice musicians at a jazz workshop two years ago, and we decided to start a band,” says Mary. “We are two saxophonists, a trumpeter, a guitarist, a pianist and a drummer. The youngest of us was 17 years old, but he has now graduated from high school and has moved away. I am the oldest in the band. Last year I spent several thousand euros on music lessons alone. That's why I also try to earn something in addition to my pension so that I have at least 1500 euros a month. I would like to maintain a certain standard of living to which I have grown accustomed over the years. That is not possible with a monthly pension of 700 euros. "
Mary began planning her retirement many years ago.
"Every year I got a letter from the pension insurance company, telling me how much I had already paid in and how much pension I would receive in the future," says Mary. "When I was young I didn't really worry about it, but when I turned 30 I thought," Oh, damn it, I should take care of it now. ""
Since 1987 Mary has been working as a freelance editor for various publishing houses.
“Fortunately, artists and publicists in Germany are insured by the artists' social insurance scheme. That is a great help, because the artists' social insurance fund pays a large part of the contributions to the statutory pension, health and long-term care insurance, ie over 500 euros per month, ”says Mary.
Mary also invested her money in a capital life insurance policy.
“Actually, I wanted to live off the interest in old age and possibly earn a little extra. But right now I feel a little betrayed. Not only were interest rates cut to zero percent, no, I also lost around ten percent of my savings to inflation. So my plan didn't work out. In addition, in 2002 the pension level was reduced by several percentage points. So I'm getting less than I was promised, ”says Mary. "If I were single, I would have problems getting by now."
Mary and her husband pay 500 euros a month in rent, plus current expenses. They spend around 400 to 500 euros a month on food and clothing.
“Maybe I could manage with a thousand euros, but that would be a minimum of life. But I'm not complaining, ”says Mary. “I chose this life myself, and now I can handle it. I earn a little extra as an editor - but when you are 67 you are not as fast as you used to be, and every activity consumes more time and energy. When I'm fed up, I take my saxophone and make music. I dream of getting away from work, household chores and stress for a while. Do you know a nice place? Somewhere far away? ”Mary asks me and laughs.

The loneliness of the long-distance runner

Gustav ** could recommend several such places to Mary. Traveling is his great passion.
“As soon as I retire, I'll pack my backpack and go,” the 58-year-old explains to me. "I would like to travel from the North Cape to southern Italy or from Ireland via Poland to the Ukrainian border."
Gustav works in a factory that works in three shifts. He works two days from 6 a.m. to 2.30 p.m., then two days from 2.30 p.m. to 11 p.m. and finally three days from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Then he has 48 hours off, and then it starts all over again.
"After 26 years of shift work, I am so exhausted that I have to constantly change my daily rhythm that I would like to retire early," Gustav tells me.
We leaf through a large folder labeled “Rente” that Gustav has spread out on the table in front of me.
"Oh, here is the letter that says I can retire at 66 years and 6 months." Gustav taps the document with his finger. "But that would mean that I have to work for another eight years."
"Can you do it?" I ask.

“Absolutely not,” Gustav replies firmly. “Maybe I can do another five years. Then I would be 63 and could take early retirement. For every month that I retire early, 0.3 percent will be deducted from my regular old-age pension, so I would receive around 13 percent less. That is a lot. But, you know, I've made provisions. "
We continue to scroll through the folder.
“An age pyramid was shown in a debate on television in the 1980s,” says Gustav. “It was then that I realized that my statutory old-age pension might not be enough. I was a little over 30 years old and earned around € 2,000 a month. So I invested in a private pension insurance, into which I have been paying 110 euros a month ever since. When I retire, I can have the saved sum paid out all at once or as a monthly pension. "
Gustav is preparing optimally for retirement. | Photo: Pexels That's not all. Gustav takes another document from the folder, an Excel spreadsheet.
“In 2005 the Federal Chemicals Employers' Association and the Mining, Chemical and Energy Industrial Union created a pension fund into which employers and employees pay once a year. I pay around 3000 euros every year. The fund is managed by a bank that invests the money. As soon as I retire, I will receive tens of thousands of euros all at once or in monthly installments. I just have to pay the taxes. "
That's all? No, Gustav is looking for another document.
“Oh, here it is,” he says proudly. “Look, the company I work for has set up an in-house pension fund for its employees. It says here that I will receive a company pension of 800 euros per month. "
I'm gradually losing track of things.
"How much are you going to get in total now," I ask Gustav.
"If I only had the statutory pension insurance, I would receive around 1200 euros per month," says Gustav. "But with the additional payments, I'll get two and a half times as much."
"Such a pension would be unimaginable in Poland," I say with a sigh.
“That may be true, but you also have to take into account the cost of living in Germany,” Gustav explains patiently to me. “My housekeeping costs are around 300 euros a month, I pay over 500 euros for health insurance, and I spend a few hundred euros on food. Fortunately, visits to the doctor are free. And I pay a maximum of 10 euros for prescription drugs. "
"How is it that Germans plan their retirement provisions so carefully?" I ask him.
“We used to live with several generations in one household and look after our relatives ourselves,” says Gustav. “But then we were told we have to be flexible if we want to have a career. So we went out into the world and started living on our own. Nobody today expects family members to look after them in old age. Statutory long-term care insurance guarantees elderly people home care or a place in a retirement home. That is why I am so amazed that so many Germans move abroad when they are old, ”says Gustav. “I recently saw a TV program about German pensioners moving to Bulgaria because life there is much cheaper than here. I just wonder who should look after them there and what it will cost. I don't know if it's really worth it. The other day an article was shown about a homeless 78-year-old man who had been stranded at Frankfurt Airport for a year. He had lived abroad for so long that he dropped out of the German social security system and was completely penniless on his return. That was a shock for many Germans. "

"But the German restaurants, cafés, concert halls and cinemas are full of older people who are obviously happy with their lives," I interject.
Gustav shakes his head.
“Poverty is invisible,” he replies to me. “But almost a fifth of all men and almost half of all women in Germany receive a regular old-age pension of less than 600 euros. If they haven't taken other precautions, they now live in poverty. In public you only see those who are well. "

Sure: I do!

At a rock concert in the Alte Feuerwache in Mannheim, several older couples stand in front of the stage and bob to the beat of the music. The rest of them sit at high tables and sip drinks. Here I get to know Cornelia, a petite and well-groomed 66-year-old pensioner.
Cornelia likes to go out and lead an active life. During the week she takes a salsa class, goes to the gym and meets up with friends. On the weekends, she has time for her partner, with whom she has been in a relationship for twenty years.
“We don't live together, and that's a good thing,” says Cornelia with a laugh. “To do this, we travel the world as often as possible. We have already driven the caravan across Europe, to Namibia and South Africa. We have also been to the USA, Hawaii and Mexico. We are now planning a trip to Israel and Jordan - unless the Corona virus throws a spanner in the works. "
Cornelia has no financial problems. Her parents were wealthy and left a lot behind. And as a civil servant - because most teachers in Germany are civil servants - she receives a good pension.
“I've been teaching math and physics all my life,” says Cornelia. “Until I retired at the age of 65 a year and a half ago. Now I get 2600 euros every month. "
Cornelia explains to me that civil servants in Germany enjoy many privileges: They cannot be dismissed, receive a pension from the state and only have to pay 70 percent of their health insurance: in the case of Cornelias, around 200 euros per month.
"At first I just couldn't imagine a life without my students and was afraid of falling into a deep hole after my retirement," says Cornelia. “Fortunately, my ex-husband, with whom I am still friends, offered me a job in his own company. That way I could fill my time and learn something new at the same time. I worked in sales and in contact with customers. I liked the job, but when my granddaughter was born I left the company. I would rather be there for my daughter. "
"You make a completely satisfied impression on me," I say while looking at her.
“Being old is simply wonderful,” says Cornelia with a laugh. “I wouldn't want to be 30 years old again. It's only now that I appreciate a lot of things, that comes with age and experience. Have you read Michelle Obama's book? There she asks the reader various questions. One of them is: do you know someone who is really happy? When I thought about the answer, I suddenly realized: "Of course: I!" " German civil servants have many privileges. | Photo: Pexels

Another place

In Mannheim you can feel the prosperity, in the Barbarossa city of Kaiserslautern the poverty is more noticeable. Especially on Tuesdays, Fridays and every second Thursday afternoon. Then the poorest residents pick up their food at the table. Tafel Kaiserslautern supports over 800 people, three quarters of whom are retirees.

"In the last two years the number of elderly people in need has risen significantly," says Peter Lenk, director of the Kaiserslautern food bank. "I think that these people didn't come to us earlier because they were ashamed."
“Why do so many retirees need assistance?” I ask.
"The minimum pension in Germany is very low," sighs Peter. “Imagine an elderly couple: The man dies. He did not earn much and received a pension of less than 700 euros. His wife, who has never worked, then receives a widow's pension equal to 60 percent of the old-age pension of her deceased husband, i.e. 420 euros. How should she live from it? You mustn't forget that only around 45 percent of Germans own home, the others pay several hundred euros a month in rent. "
"How do you make ends meet?" I ask.
"You are applying for social assistance," explains Peter. “And on January 1, 2021, the so-called basic pension will be introduced in Germany, which will improve people with low pensions by up to 400 euros per month. But as a German journalist has already said: Every board is a reproach to our society. We are a rich country after all. The government keeps telling us that the market is self-regulating and that everything is going to be fine somehow. Nothing, but nothing at all, becomes good on its own. Some receive a pension of several thousand euros, and others gnaw their hunger. The rich really wouldn't mind if they got five percent less. But do you know why politicians want everything to stay the same? Because they don't want to cut their own flesh. "
More and more people come to the food banks (food banks). | Photo: Pexels Tafel Kaiserslautern receives its groceries from supermarket chains such as Globus, Lidl, Rewe and Edeka. In this way, the supermarkets get rid of their food that is no longer sold but can be safely consumed.
“Pensioners, the unemployed and refugees get vegetables, fruit, pasta, rice and bread from us,” Peter lists. “You choose yourself what you need most. Many of them do not come with shopping bags but with small handcarts. After all, the groceries we give them have to last for two weeks, because they can only contact us every 14 days. But during this time there are also many other aid organizations available to them. "
"And how are you coping with your pension yourself?" I ask Peter.
“I can't complain,” says Peter with a laugh. "My wife and I are fine."
"Then why do you volunteer for the board?" I ask.
“When I retired 16 years ago, I resolved to volunteer one day a week,” replies Peter. “That one day has now turned into three. Fortunately, I was able to persuade some acquaintances to take part as well. The oldest of us is 84 years old. We work well together and feel like we're doing something useful. But I'm always looking for volunteers, because not everyone is psychologically up to this situation, the close contact with poverty. It's not easy for both sides, ”sighs Peter.

Cheer up while you can!

“Many of my friends depend on the food on the table,” says 75-year-old Doris from Osthofen. “Fortunately, I don't belong there. I manage to some extent. "

Doris is very brave. To meet me, she has to go down the stairs from the first floor. With every step she carefully holds onto the railing. After a failed knee operation, she has a stiff leg and climbing stairs is extremely difficult for her. Slowly, with small steps, leaning on her rollator, she reaches the café where we have an appointment.
"I recently went to a retirement home," says Doris while we are having our coffee. “After all, one day I will no longer be able to drag myself to my apartment. I was told that you currently have to wait three to five years for a place. "
"Couldn't you live with your children?"
“No, I don't want that,” Doris denies energetically. “I don't want to be a burden to anyone. Everyone needs their freedom. "
Doris says she never had a house or apartment of her own and that she wouldn't take out a loan for anything because she doesn't want to be in debt.
“The apartment I live in belongs to my son,” she says. "I don't pay him much rent, 350 euros plus ancillary costs, a total of around 500 euros."
Doris is a widow, mother of two children, grandmother and great-grandmother. Her husband, who was very healthy and athletic, died suddenly of a heart attack 28 years ago while they were on vacation together. A few years later Doris had a stroke.
“I actually wanted to retire afterwards, I was already over 50,” recalls Doris. “But the telecommunications provider I was employed by calculated that I would only receive 97 marks, around 50 euros, because I had only worked there for eight and not ten years. So I bit my teeth and continued to work for two years despite my discomfort. I don't know how I endured it either, but it was worth it. "
"Why?" I ask.
"Because now I am getting a company pension of EUR 700 in addition to my EUR 1,000 regular old-age pension," says Doris with a smile. “I can save something for my children and grandchildren and I don't have to look at every penny when shopping. A 72-year-old friend of mine who is very ill has worked in a switchboard her entire life. She receives so little pension that instead of taking care of her own health, she looks after others for five euros an hour! Many of my friends sit in front of the television all day because they can't afford anything else, ”sighs Doris. "You have given up, have finished with life."
Doris argues that, despite all its limitations, being old isn't necessarily a bad thing.
“I read a lot, listen to music, cook. And I almost celebrate my meals: I set the table and light a candle. I don't care that I eat alone, ”says Doris. “I also maintain my friendships, because without them my world would collapse. In the summer I would like to go to a sanatorium on the Polish Baltic Sea with a friend. Who knows, maybe it will be the last time? "
* Sources:,
** The name was changed at the request of the interview partner.


Joanna Strzałko studied Scandinavian Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. She then studied at the Polish School of Reportage in Warsaw. She works as a reporter and translator and collaborates with the daily newspaper “Gazeta Wyborcza” and its reportage magazine “Duży Format” as well as with the specialist magazine “Characterery” and the weekly paper “Tygodnik Powszechny”. Her articles have also appeared in the women's magazine “Twój Styl”, the magazine “Newsweek Historia” and the magazine “Polityka”. She was a scholarship holder of the Foundation for German-Polish Cooperation and a finalist of the German-Polish Tadeusz Mazowiecki Journalist Award 2019. She lives in Germany.

Translation: Heinz Rosenau
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Poland
August 2020

  • Print article