May 5th, 1988

The postcard arrived in his mailbox on the 4th.

This was it. It was now happening. The last few years might have been like a dream, but the months leading up to this moment had been like the day of a storm, when the clouds are gathering and the air pressure has dropped, and you know something’s brewing, and you welcome it but at the same time it makes you nervous. There had been massive preparation involved leading up to this moment. And here it was, the postcard.

He knew in the back of his mind that, under what one in the West might call “normal circumstances”, it wouldn’t have been a sure thing that he and she would stay together. It wasn’t a sure thing as it was, but they were in love, and there was so much riding on the decision now that there really wasn’t room for second thoughts. The decision had been made and they were sticking to it. They’d met a couple of years before, back when she had come to his hometown to visit a mutual friend, and sparks had flown from the start. He not being allowed to leave the country, they met regularly in Prague. They spoke for hours on the phone, knowing full well that the Stasi was listening. Eventually they decided that the only way they could be together would be to marry, so they got all their paperwork in order, including the application for permission to emigrate for personal reasons. This last point had required some careful thought – he would have done anything to leave the GDR and emigrate to the West, but this could jeopardize a relative’s chances to be accepted to university or be promoted at work. The state tended to hold things like that against your family if you demonstrated your desire to leave*. They determined that there was no immediate danger to anyone’s career. They arranged a modest wedding and reception. He did most of the planning, as it had to take place there in East Germany. Her parents came over, as did several of her friends. His friends were there. His parents refused to come. Afterwards she drove her car back over the border, packed with more of his things. And then the waiting began.

When the postcard came, informing someone that he or she was now permitted to leave the country forever,  you then had to quickly collect the relevant papers at the relevant government authorities in order to receive an official exit visa which was only good for 24 hours.  He’d already sorted his belongings in anticipation of its arrival, assigning everything he couldn’t take with him – record collection, furniture, housewares. When his postcard arrived, he called round and let his friends know, and they convened that evening for one last night of drinking, smoking, and reminiscing together.
It felt permanent, and sad. He wanted nothing more than to get out and experience life in a free country, but it was painful to look at his friends and wonder if he would ever see them again. He was leaving 27 years of his life behind, locked away forever behind an iron curtain.

A few of his closest friends stayed through the night, and crashed at his place in sleeping bags. The next morning, bags packed, he was accompanied to the train station, where they all said their last goodbyes. There were tears. He promised he would write. What a feeling it was, the finality of it, as the train pulled away from the station. He was leaving his country and the only home he’d ever known, and even though he’d hated it and couldn’t wait to get out, it still came with a measure of unease. What would happen to him now? Would he even make it out? The border police were not above playing games with those bearing exit visas, if they were feeling ornery.

There were three older women in the train compartment with him. Two looked past retirement age – retirees had more freedom to travel in the West, since the GDR half-hoped they’d leave permanently and would have to stop drawing on their pensions. The third probably had a temporary travel permit. No one spoke. This train served as a normal regional train with stops along the way, people getting on and off until the last town before the border.

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Gutenfürst, the fortified GDR border station. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

There, at the border station, the train was stopped and the customs officials summoned him to alight and join them for questioning in their administrative building. They made him unpack all his baggage and identify everything while the train sat in the station. They searched all his things, examined his customs forms, asked him questions. After an hour, they were satisfied and allowed him to board again, and then the police came through to see everyone’s travel papers. The train moved again. He stood in the aisle outside his compartment, smoking cigarette after cigarette and watching the land roll by. They passed through the death strip, something he had naturally never seen before with his own eyes, and recognized it as the furthermost boundary of his entire world until that moment.  Beyond that point, the other passengers suddenly became cheerful and more talkative. A member of the Bavarian border police appeared – Grüss Gott, where are you traveling to? Ah, Munich? You’re moving to be with your wife? Very nice. He had never heard someone in uniform speak to him in such a friendly manner. The atmosphere inside the compartment turned palpably lighter. He was in the West. He was out.

She was waiting for him on the platform when the train pulled into Munich. It happened to be her thirtieth birthday, and so she’d made reservations at a nice restaurant in town. He still remembers everything about that day. It was a beautiful spring evening, the sun was shining, and he was riding through his wonderful new city in the passenger seat of his new wife’s Citroen. He was indescribably happy, with a feeling that his future – their future – fanned out before him, seemingly without limit. Hinterm Horizont geht’s weiter. They would travel. They would start a family. There was no way to know that within two years they would split up, that the Wall would come down, that his old country would cease to exist, that he’d start a new career  – after it was clear that his East German diploma, from the best of universities, was somehow suspect – and that neither the career change nor the divorce would be his last.

 

 

*From Wikipedia’s entry on crossing the inner German border: “The process of applying for an exit permit was deliberately intended to be slow, demeaning and frustrating, with a low chance of success. Applicants were pushed to the margins of society. They were demoted or sacked from their jobs, excluded from universities and subjected to ostracism. If the applicants were parents, they could face the threat of having their children taken into state custody on the grounds that they were unfit to bring up children. The heavily politicised East German law code was used to punish those who continued to apply for emigration despite repeated rejections. Those who repeatedly submitted emigration applications faced charges of “impeding … the state and social activity”. If they sought assistance from contacts in the West, such as relatives or West German state bodies, they were guilty of “illegal contact” or “traitorous information transfer or activities as an agent.” Criticising the political system was a crime of “public disparagement”. Over 10,000 applicants were arrested by the Stasi between the 1970s and 1989 on such charges.

Rilke’s Ammersee flirtation

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The “Künstlerhaus Gasteiger” in Holzhausen, near Utting. This is not the villa Rilke wanted to rent (that house may have burned down in the 1960s). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Between 1914 and 1916, Rainer Maria Rilke was involved romantically with the (married) painter Lou Albert-Lasard. In 1915 he found himself somewhat stranded in Munich, waiting to learn whether he would be drafted into the Austrian Army. While there he was consoled by another married Lou, his former lover and life-long good friend Lou Andreas-Salomé (who had a number of other admirers during her lifetime, including Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud). Andreas-Salomé helped him look for a country home to rent on the western shore of the Ammersee. The lake’s western shore and more specifically Holzhausen have long been popular with artists.

Andreas-Salomé: “Yesterday after a bit of an odyssey I rode with Rainer to Holzhausen on the Ammersee so that he could see a small villa owned by Professor Erler. A beautiful, tranquil lakeside park, a charmingly furnished little house seemed to us the clear choice. He’s only uncertain because he would have to commit for the summer months. I think the solitude in nature will do him immense good.”

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Image from the Ammersee Kurier

Rilke: “…it is likely that next week I will move into a very small house on the Ammersee, with a housekeeper (whom I am still looking for) and my books. So that I won’t have to speak nor hear and, in a way, be faceless. … the city has become quite unbearable to me”.

“The little house has been taken away from me (when I had just decided this morning), since the Erlers now want to rent out their other, larger villa, not the small one down on the lake!”

“The Erlers”, one assumes, were the brothers Fritz and Erich Erler, both artists, or one of them with spouse. I can’t say which one might have been the professor to whom Andreas-Salomé refers.

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Image from Municipality of Utting website

Quotes from “Mich gelüstet’s nach Idylle” by Karen Eva Noetzel (in German).

St. Ulrich’s Chapel & Healing Spring

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Just outside the village of Eresing, near the Ammersee, there is a small chapel and a fountain house where people would come wash themselves devoutly, especially the eyes. This spring is said to have healing powers, is dedicated to St. Ulrich of Augsburg, the patron saint of the diocese, who once allegedly rested here and caused the spring to flow forth. This is supposed to have occurred immediately after Ulrich’s returning from the Battle of Lechfeld (TL;DR version: FC Holy Roman Empire versus visiting Hungary, the Germans won.) Interestingly, the road near the fountain house and the chapel is also the old Roman road known today as the Via Raetia – so it’s possible that the spring was already known during Bavaria’s Roman period, and that travellers drew water from it. I have heard it suggested – although without evidence proffered – that it may have been a holy spring for the Romans as well. The gentleman in the video posted below (warning: it’s in “Boarisch“) claims that this spring’s water is soft, in contrast to the hard water found everywhere else in the area (and I can attest to that, out tap water is quite hard), and so locals fill up jugs of the stuff to brew their coffee with it.

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The figure of St. Ulrich in the fountain house dates from the 15th century. In the 17th century the Court Margrave of Eresingen, Franz von Füll, subsidized the construction of the fountain house, the red marble basin, and the Ulrich chapel with hermitage.

A story of changing times

Once upon a time, there was a miller who lived in a small town. This miller was quite successful, and had expanded his business into a large commercial bakery. There had always been a mill by the river — in fact, the town’s chronicle listed there having been one first mentioned in written records in 1398. Imagine that: before Christopher Columbus had even been born, there had been a mill operating on this river, which flows from the mountains and into the Elbe, and then on to the North Sea.

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The miller wasn’t really a miller by this point; he was factory owner, a capitalist. He had a spacious, somewhat opulent mansion built on his property, situated on what is actually an island, as the water from the river courses around both sides of it. When he grew old and died, his son carried on with the business. This son was the adventurous type of businessman – several times going bankrupt, but always dusting himself off and getting back to some new scheme. When he grew old, his son took over the business. This new owner married a local girl, a saddle maker’s daughter, and had a daughter of his own. IMG_3609

He was called up to war, but lived through it and returned home to find that parts of the bread factory had been destroyed by bombs, and the country had undergone considerable change. In fact, it wasn’t even the same country as it had been before the war – this was now the “Russian zone”, and shortly afterwards a new country was established, and the government insisted that no single family needed a mansion all to themselves. So the owner moved his family into a few rooms in the house, and other people began to take over other parts of it for themselves.
His daughter grew up and married a veterinarian in the hill country, 3 hours away. They had two sons, who enjoyed visiting their grandparents and playing with the neighbor children in the mansion’s expansive orchards and courtyards, where they would set up a tent under a chestnut tree. You would think that the children would have enjoyed playing by the river, but the river was polluted, and had an unpleasant smell. No one wanted to swim in it, although the boys’ mother recalled doing so as a child. This astonished them, as they couldn’t imagine that it had ever been clean, not knowing it any other way.
The owner’s wife fell ill and died, and the old widower married a somewhat younger spinster, the daughter of acquaintances who was happy to have a husband, even a frail one. When he died, she stayed on but eventually began to hoard items as the house fell into disrepair around her.IMG_3593

One year, the grandsons (now young men) were sent by their parents to clean out some of the junk in the old villa. They found piles of stuff, including old C.A.R.E. packages sent at Christmas by relatives in the West. Their contents – soap, coffee, chocolate – had been unwrapped, dutifully admired, and put back in the boxes for safekeeping, until they were decades past their use dates. The two brothers laughed and shook their heads at this unintended waste, and tried to throw them out, but the old widow kept running out to the trash container and bringing things back inside.
Well, time passed. The Wall fell a few years later, and the old widow passed away. No one in the family had any reason to visit that town anymore, as those relatives were all gone. The family tried to sell the decaying property, hoping that a speculator from the West might pay good money for prime riverfront land, but no one was interested and eventually it was bought cheaply by a developer, who tore down the old factory to make room for low-cost apartments, but saved the chimney and the old villa. Maybe he ran out of money before he could get around to the villa.

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One of the grandsons, now in middle age, was passing through the area with his wife, and decided to swing by and see the old homestead, that expanse of small town property which, as his grandmother used to tell him and his brother, would be theirs someday. It filled him with memories and emotions: happy memories of childhood summers spent there, sadness in seeing the old place in such a state of ruin. There is a new developer who, two years ago, said he wanted to build apartments there and save the old original facade. Maybe he will, someday.

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Seeking Fortunatus

After posting my most recent entry I began to look more seriously for the “Vita S. Martini” by Venantius Fortunatus in translation. It hasn’t brought much to light. I cannot read medieval Latin, but there is an Italian translation available in book form, which might be my only option. There is also a German version available but which costs an arm and a leg (and really, I don’t want to spend that much on a hobby). There are plenty of English-language academic papers about aspects of the text, but I don’t believe that an English translation exists. If any buffs of early medieval literature can prove me wrong, please have at it, as I would love to know!

“If the Baiuvarii on the Lech don’t block your way”*

My husband knows that I have this fascination with local maps and roads and routes from long ago. In a recent acquisition of used books he stumbled across something he knew I’d like — “Die Alpen in Frühzeit und Mittelalter” (The Alps during Antiquity and the Middle Ages) by Ludwig Pauli, C. H. Beck, 1980. I skipped ahead to the chapter on Alpine crossings and Roman Roads, and lo, look what I have learned:
It’s about 565 C.E., the Romans have retreated back to the Italian peninsula, and Rhaetia has gone through a few centuries of bloodbaths. The people who buried their silver coins in the hopes of recollecting them “when things died back down” are long dead and their stashes will remain buried for another 1,600 years or so. There’s no upkeep of infrastructure, but the roads are still there, more or less. Against this backdrop, a 25-year-old named Venantius Fortunatus has set off from Aquilea, on the Adriatic coast, for a long journey to Tours to pay respect at the grave of St. Martin of Tours. He wrote about his travels later**, and so we also know the route he took — over the Plöcken Pass (at the Italian border to Carinthia in Austria), then westward to the Brenner Pass, north to the “Seefelder Sattel” and on to Augsburg and beyond. What this means is that he took the (later named) Via Rhaetia, “our” Roman Road, which passes right through our area here between the Ammersee and the Lech River. Fortunatus passed through here — which means he is the earliest person of later world renown*** to have traveled in our area, all those years ago.

I must admit that I was unfamiliar with the name, but a check with Wikipedia revealed something quite interesting — I was already somewhat familiar with his works, musical versions of which are in the Episcopal Hymnal (it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that most classical singers in America, no matter what religion or denomination they grew up in, know hymns from the Episcopal Hymnal, because the Episcopal churches, unlike their R.C. counterparts, pay well for professional choirs.)

One of his greatest hits is Pange lingua gloriosi, Corporis mysterium.

 

*Venantius Fortunatus, advising a traveler about conditions on the Via.

** “The Life of St. Martin”, which of course I need to hunt down.

*** Hannibal and his elephants crossed further west.

Discovering Curt Bois

We happened to be surfing around TV stations this evening and stumbled over a 1980s comedy series called Kir Royale, which had been filmed in Munich. Tonight’s episode was “Adieu Claire”, about a fictitious famous composer named Friedrich Danziger, very old and near death. Something about him looked familiar, and it wasn’t until about three-quarters of the way through that it dawned on me.

Curt Bois, a successful German Jewish character actor, left Germany in the 1930s, eventually came to the USA, and appeared in supporting roles in many Hollywood films through the 40s. He returned to Germany in 1950 and resumed regular work there in film and on the stage. Perhaps you remember the old man in “Wings of Desire” (1987), looking for Potsdamer Platz, reading in the library. Bois lived to see reunification, but he would probably not recognize Potsdamer Platz today, (nor would he probably like it, but who am I to say).

You’ve probably seen him in at least a dozen films, if you like the old stuff. His most famous film, however, might be Casablanca. Who did he play? The charming pickpocket.