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.

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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The Jewish Cemetery at St. Ottilien

Near the Ammersee lies a Benedictine Monastery named for St. Ottilien, or St. Odile of Alsace (A recounting of St. Odile’s life on Wikipedia reads somewhat like a season wrap-up of Game of Thrones.) If you find yourself near the small St. Ottilien train station, you will see a small enclosed garden whose iron gate bears a Star of David. This is the Jewish Cemetery.
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In April 1941 the Gestapo confiscated the St. Ottilien Cloister and set up a reserve field hospital there. American troops liberated hospital, overfilled with almost 1,000 war injured, in 1945. Through the work of the Americans, about 450 gravely ill Jews liberated from concentration camps began to be brought to the hospital and nearby school buildings for medical care.
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The US Army erected a Displaced Persons hospital, supervised by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, here in May 1945 to handle the constant stream of former camp inmates. The patients were mostly surviving camp inmates and forced laborers from the Kaufering camp complex, and ill persons from the camp at Dachau and its sub-camps in the Landsberg/Lech area. A Jewish community existed on the cloister grounds, tending to its own religious life and customs, until the hospital was dissolved in 1948. These were people who congregated here, then, for lack of the health and strength to go home, or for lack of a home to go to. Some recovered, and some died in spite of treatment from Allied medics, and those are the people who were buried here.
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65 people were interred in the cemetery between 1945 and 1948. The first gravestone, bearing a Star of David and nine names, was erected in 1945. By 1950 there were four memorials and twelve gravestones with names and texts in Hebrew, as well as an enclosing wall with its iron gate, and a bench. The gravestones were moved to the edges of the premises in 1968 after several exhumations and transferals of remains. Since 1972 the camp cemetery has held the remains of 46 camp inmates and nine forced laborers. The people resting here came from Germany, Hungary, Poland, Italy, France and Russia; most are known by name. According to the cemetery records at St. Ottilien, 10 of them belonged to Christian confessions:  one Evangelical Lutheran, one Reformed, three Orthodox Catholics and five Roman Catholics.

The camp cemetery in St. Ottilien is a protected cultural site, and its care is overseen by the Bavarian Memorial Foundation (Stiftung Bayerische Gedenkstätten.) The monastery publishes a small and inexpensive guide to the cemetery in both German and English, which includes explanations of the Hebrew tombstone inscriptions.

A Idea of Mine

I have a confession to make. Beyond all the other things I am doing right now – singing, translating, assisting in a bookselling business – I have a project in mind for the future. I want to put together a guidebook for the Via Raetia.
There are guides and books for following the Via Claudia Augusta, the first Roman-made road to cross the Alps in this region, but I have yet to find a modern tourist guide in English for it’s younger sister, the Via Raetia. The Via Claudia has an “official” route which one can follow ona bike, and much of it may accurately follow the old road. The Via Raetia does not, and here you can see why:
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Clearly one can’t just go traipsing across private property, let alone tell others to do so.

Walking, cycling, sights along the way, history, archaeology, culture, on the route between Augsburg and… well, how comprehensive do I want this to be? I could keep it within Bavaria (Augsburg to Mittenwald) or publish installments (Part 2, North Tyrol from Mittenwald to the Brenner Pass, Part 3 Italy: Brennero to Verona). Even if I had no other work, this would take a few years of research, travel, exploration. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to do it. (Note to any publishing houses: I’m here, “boots on the ground”, if you are considering something along these lines from a distance.)

But all this will have to wait another year at least, because for professional reasons I am going to be spending a considerable amount of time at the other end of Bavaria, namely closer to the Czech border.

Image from Google maps.

Rooftop Blogging: Final Edition

When I began the blog nearly 8 years ago, I wanted to do some kind of photoblogging that could be done on a regular, perhaps weekly basis with ease. A lot of people were doing “Saturday cat blogging”, which I found a little tiresome but it was something amusing to add to the big conversation going on, and I wanted to be part of that conversation by contributing to it. The mountain/city view from my terrace is beautiful and constantly changing, and seemed a good enough choice. So let’s have a last look around.

There have been so many changes to Innsbruck, architecturally speaking. While the little Altstadt retains its Medieval look, the areas just outside it have been changing in leaps and bounds. Here are the ones I can remember since 2000, when I arrived, starting with the changes observable right outside my window:

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The old one demolished in 2001 (I watched from my apartment), the new one, by star architect Zaha Hadid, opened in 2002.

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Sillpark Plaza and Annex
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I like the extra mall shops (and the green roof!) I don’t like the plaza (Vorplatz) for one reason: its acoustics. The shape of it triggers sound — people talking, music, drumming — to ricochet right up through our windows. It has gotten much louder here over the years. Last night a crowd of twenty-something girls were doing some kind of ritual screaming at the beach bar, over and over. They were there for hours.

Amraserstraße/Museumstraße/Brunecker Straße
An old, antiquated Post Office building stood on Brunecker Straße, and for a time I went there to pick up packages. Now the sleek, golden brown Pema Tower takes up most of that block, provides cover from sun and rain on that side of the street, and holds a few nice new businesses. The empty lot on the Amraserstraße side is currently a construction site for another tower. The bus/tram stop has been fixed up nicely too, and a pedestrian tunnel installed.

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Frachthof now

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This was a dirt parking lot, if memory serves me. There was some kind of old loading depot building which had some use in the alternative scene, and a little pink villa of sorts which I believe housed modern art. I often wondered what their original purpose was; they may have belonged to the Ferrari Palace (now a vocational school) across the street. Perhaps cargo was pulled off the Sill Canal and loaded on wagons there. The little house, I have no idea. On that site now stands a new apartment building. (It hasn’t destroyed the view, but I did have to get used to idea that other people now stand on their balconies and look over at me.)
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What else has changed? The Hauptbahnhof is new-ish, having reopened in 2004.
The Tiroler Landestheater opened its new annex in 2003, with rehearsal spaces, offices and workshops.
The Rathaus Passage and Kaufhaus Tyrol, both on the Maria-Theresien-Straße,  are two new urban shopping malls which, judging from the masses who go there, seem to be doing very well, despite my insistence that the latter, formerly Bauer & Schwarz, was cursed. The gods of commerce won that battle. Bauer and Schwarz would probably have approved.)
The Convention Center (Messegelände) was taken down and replaced with a newer, larger one.
The Hungerburgbahn was redesigned, with two new stations also designed by Zaha Hadid. The line was extended over to the Hofgarten, where the city tourists can reach it more easily.
The Tivoli football stadium was renovated to seat the larger crowds of the European Championship in 2008, with extensions which, by design, can be added for larger events and later removed.
The streetcars were replaced with the current red, noiseless version. I missed the old ones for a while but quickly got used to the new ones, especially since the Iglerbahn now quietly slithers through the forest, Innsbruck’s own Tatzlwurm.
A less-vaunted change was the demolition of the Bürgerbräu brewery on Ingenieur-Etzl-Straße, on which now stands a modern glass building of businesses below and apartments above. The not-unpleasant smell of hops used to waft through the air on warm summer nights. They made Kaiser Bier, and certainly there was a connection with the Kaiserstube restaurant, just around the corner on Museumstrasse. Below, both Bürgerbräu and the old streetcars.
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The Stadtsäle is going to come down this summer. This postwar structure was erected after the older Stadtsäle was condemned and demolished. A rather beautiful and ornate palatial hall from 1890,
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it succumbed to allied bombs that fell over Innsbruck late in the Second World War. I have always thought of the current Stadtsäle as our local version of the Palast der Republik, useful, ugly, but aesthetically interesting in a “retro” way.
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When it’s razed, the Landestheater’s Kammerspiel will go along with it, and a new Kammerspiel will take its place. I have many fond memories of this 200-seat theater. You can say I cut my teeth on that stage.

Bürgerbräu photo from here.
Image of old Stadtsäle from here.
Image of current Stadtsäle from here.
All other images by the author.

In Memory Of A Girl

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In memory of Ilse Brüll
Born 28 April 1925 Died 3(?) September 1942
and in memory of all those children of Innsbruck who were victims of this time

Ilse Brüll, a Jewish girl, attended school here in Wilten from September 15, 1935. She met her death in September 1942 at Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

From Ilse’s last letter to her family, August 30, 1942: “Please tell my parents and relatives of this letter and that they are not worry…”

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The story of Ilse Brüll is one of the saddest in Innsbruck’s Third Reich history. She grew up in an assimilated Jewish family in Anichstrasse in the center of town, her father Rudolf Brüll had a furniture and upholstery business. After the November 1938 pogrom (Kristallnacht) the family looked for ways to leave the country and emigrate to America, but without success.

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Ilse Brüll and her cousin Inge Brüll were sent with the Quaker Kindertransports to the Netherlands, expecting to meet up later with their parents. At first brought to a refugee camp there, they sometimes entertained fellow refugees at events, by donning traditional Tyrolean clothing and singing duets. They were brought later to a convent with other children, and learned Dutch.

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The Kindertransports brought Jewish children out of harm’s way to he Netherlands and Great Britain. When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1942 they immediately began rounding up Jews, and demanded that the convent hand over any unbaptized Jewish children. It seems that Ilse had had the opportunity to be baptized but refused (Inge’s mother was Roman Catholic, and Inge had been baptized as a baby.)

Inge recounted in a taped interview that the convent felt it had no choice — if they had disobeyed the order, the entire colony of 200 children would have been disbanded. Ilse was taken to Westerbork Camp in August 1942 (Anne Frank’s family was just settling into the hidden apartment in Amsterdam, but would also pass through here 2 years later) before “most likely” continuing on to Auschwitz to be gassed. She was 17.

Ilse’s parents, Rudolf and Julie Brüll, were interned in Theresienstadt but survived, and returned to Innsbruck after their liberation. Rudolf Brüll fought for and eventually reclaimed his furniture shop, and was president of the Jewish Community in Innsbruck until his death in 1957.  Ingeborg Brüll died in 2011, also in Innsbruck.

Information in German here images 2, 3 and 4 from here. Image 1 by the author.

A Stone Marker on the West Bank of the Ammersee

Sometimes the act of looking up one thing takes me to another things, and then something else altogether. This post, for example.

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This is a path on the west bank of the Ammersee between Utting and Schondorf. The stone column seen on the left bears information about a Roman-era bath house with living quarters, which stood here between the 2nd and 4th centuries C.E.
The building was made from volcanic tuff, brick, wooden posts and mosaic, and its walls were painted with frescoes. It had living quarters and bathing facilities, including a changing room (apodyterion), and baths with hot (caldarium), warm (tepidarium), and cold water (frigidarium), achieved with an underfloor heating system (hypokauste).

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This home-spa belonged to a very nice villa and farm (villa rustica) which once stood a little further up the hill. Situated conveniently near both the east-west Via Julia (Augsburg – Salzburg) and the north-south Via Claudia*, the villa had access roads leading to connecting roads on high ground west of the lake and to the Lech valley further west. It would have provided impressive views of the lake and the mountain range beyond.

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According to the plaque, the foundations were excavated in 1924 by one Dr. Blendinger along with his students. Dr. Heinrich Blendinger was director of the nearby boarding school Landheim Schondorf. In 1934 he took over the über-elite Schule Schloss Salem (Salem Castle School) in Baden-Württemberg, just north of Lake Constance. That school has kind and grateful words about Blendinger on their website, giving him credit for the school’s survival through the Third Reich years. A scholarship is given in his name.
According to other sources, Blendinger was not so much “keeping Nazi influence at bay” as he would have one believe from his published memoirs, but an excellent educator who also had impeccable Nazi credentials, and who took over direction of the school after Hahn’s very Nazi successor made a mess of things. All in all one gets the impression he was, if not quite Oskar Schindler, something like that. Former students remembered that under Blendinger’s administration, the school had no racial-idealogy studies, no mandatory wearing of the swastika, and they greeted each other with “Guten Tag” and not “Heil Hitler”. That alone says much about the climate in the school, constantly under threat of being dissolved and turned into a military school.

Somewhat related to the topic: Christoph Probst, member of the resistance group White Rose, attended Landheim Schondorf at age 17 in 1936. As did (around 12 years earlier) Helmuth Graf von Moltke, who had assisted the White Rose in getting flyers to the Allies for distribution over Germany. Another White Rose sympathizer, Jürgen Wittenstein, attended Salem Castle School during Blendinger’s tenure there. He is living in the United States.

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*The plaque mentions the Via Claudia as being the road “to Brenner”, which is not clear. The actual Via Claudia ran further west of here along the Lech River and over the Alps at the Reschen Pass. The road now called Via Raetia, which is much closer to this place, does go over the Brenner Pass but was built around 100 years later, and seems to have had no name at the time. It is possible that the new road then took over the official route name, much like highways do today, but I haven’t seen that before in connection to these two roads.