THE RHÖN: WESSIES AND OSSIES (Satis Shroff, Freiburg im Breisgau)
It seemed to me that the Rhön might not have the attractiveness of the Black Forest in southern Germany, but it was, nevertheless, a beautiful area to walk around for it had the most beautiful flora of Germany. And the people were so hospitable.
I found the old houses so pretty and the town gates, stone bridges and markets so charming. The Rhön hills were made of basalt, calc and sandstone. Alexander von Humbolt, the renowned German scientist and explorer, even praised the Milseburg, which lies opposite to the Wasserkuppe, as the most beautiful hill in the country.
Be that as it may, my sojourn in the Rhön was memorable due to Onkel (uncle) Adolf, who was untiring and took pains to explain to them the sights, sounds and smells and historical aspects of the Rhön during the countless excursions by car to Munnerstadt, Bad Neustadt, Nuremburg, Heustreu, Bischofsheim, Mellrichstadt, Fladungen, Hilders, Milseburg, Wasserkuppe and Mittelstreu.
We also went to the former East Germany border towns because Onkel Adolf thought it would be interesting to compare the West with the East (Germany), or the “wessies and the ossies”, as he put it. He was naturally a thorough-bred wessie, but he seemed to have a heart also for the ossies, and wasn’t like the TV character ‘Motzki’, an egocentric, arrogant bloke, who seemed to be railing upon the ossies perpetually. The BBC found it so amusing and typical of the German trait that they showed it in TV in England.
“The only thing that we people of the Rhön have, and can be proud of, is the beauty of the countryside and the historical villages and towns,” explained Onkel Adolf almost apologetically.
“In the 30 years war came Wallenstein and took everything. Then came Tilly and he took what he could. The Croatian Isolani came in 1634 and also plundered the Rhön. In the meantime, there was an outbreak of plague”, said Onkel Adolf scratching his receeding forehead and driving his car.
Then came the Swedes and plundered again. Two centuries later in 1866 there was a German civil war between brothers: Prussians against Austrians and Bavarians. The villages of Rhön were the ‘killing fields’ then. The beaten Bavarians had to hand over a piece of the Bavarian Rhön because the Prussians wanted a strategically important border near Bavaria.
‘Eighty years later in 1945, the able men of the Rhön were sent to die in the Volga, Tobruk on the river Seine (Paris), Belgrade, Elbrus and in the Atlantic coast. And then again in the Rhöne, because the then Nazi military fanatics thought they could build a strategically important Rhöen-Wall. The people of the Rhön were always the losers: whether Earls, Dukes, Barons or Nazis ruled the land’ said Onkel Adolf laconically with a shrug of his shoulders.
I’d been to the Rhön twice, which is a Celtic word meaning ‘hills’. There are not only hills but also valleys, basalt quarries, forests, bogs, trout-rich rivers and streams. The Rhön area is shared by the Franks, Hessen and Thuringer people. According to an old verse:
You have there the Rhön circle
Bischofsheim is industrious
Fladungen has the wood
Neustadt has its pride
Munnerstadt its money
Melrichstadt has its fields
Kissingen is famous for its salt.
We drove around the Rhön and went to Mittelstreu’s town graveyard, where Albert and the other Hankes were buried. We entered the small chapel, which was rather frugally decorated with an altar and a few benches, and church magazines and donation-slips for the Third World countries. After that we went to the old church and school, where Heidi, Dolf and Heinz learned their ABCs, or “ah-bay-zees” to put it in the German way of pronouncing them.
An exhibition dealing with lifestyle and the people of Mittelstreu in the early days was on. Heidi was rather moved by the exhibits for she’d recognised a lot of things from her past, and started telling us about the people in the old, faded silver nitrate prints. There were old, torn and worn out bibles and tattered flags, ladies underwear and corsettes and primitive agricultural implements there were used manually in those days, on display.
“And that’s a threshing machine which we kids used to pull from one farm to another for a few sweets. Sweets and potatoes were a treat in those days, after the Second World War, and we were always hungry,” said Heidi, her eyes sparkling with old memories. And once we were outside, Adolf showed me the Luftschutzkeller, which was an underground cellar built in the church lawn, with big wooden doors that would open from the ground, and served as an air-raid shelter for the community.
After that we drove to brother Heinz and Astrid Hanke, where we had coffee and German cakes baked by Astrid, an elderly, bespectacled lady who was a genuine Mittelstreuer. The Hankes had moved in after the World War II. They were originally from a town in the former Czechoslovakia, and were disliked a bit, as all strangers are, in the old German town of Mittelstreu. However, they’d gone to school there and were well integrated in the small town community, for they were ethnic Germans after all. It was Heinz, the printer, who had married in Mittelstreu.
The rest of the Hankes were scattered from Munich in Bavaria to the town of Heidelberg and Melbourne in Australia. Albert the eldest son had dodged the draft and had headed for the open spaces of the Australian continent, somehow sick of the German politics and society. He wanted to discover new frontiers and meet new people and new challenges, and not be tied up and stifled with family matters and the Bundeswehr.
He was of the opinion that enough blood had been shed in the last World War with 45 million dead. He was a pacifist. The four western powers and the Soviet Union, the Ostpolitik, the RAF terrorists, the countless demonstrations had made him lose his patience with his country, and he’d turned his back and was footloose. He’d gone to Hamburg and then taken a ship to Australia.
Heidi had visited him with her sister Friedlind, and she had to admit she had liked the Australian way of life because it was different. But she preferred her life in Germany with its sense of order and security, her job and her small circle of friends and, of course, her family.
“Let’s go to the ex-DDR,” said Adolf after we’d bade farewell to Heinz and Astrid, and since there were no objections from any of us we made for the former German Democratic Republic, even though there had never been such a thing as democracy in that country. We drove to Römhild, an old East German town, past a snow-covered Rhön landscape.
“If an East German soldier was stationed in Römhild, it was just as bad as a second Siberia,” said Dolf, scratching his silvery head. Whenever he had to say something funny or exceptional he had to scratch his head.
We went to the previous Stasi (secret police, the East German equivalent to the Gestapo during the Third Reich) villa, now a mountain holiday inn for dollar and euros paying tourists from the west, for dance-and-refreshments. A three-man Ossie band was playing a melange of German and English songs, the latter sung with a terrible Saxon accent. It reminded me of the Anglo-Indians trying to imitate Frank Sinatra and Elton John in the hotels of Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkotta).
After that we went to Fladungen, which lies at the end of the High Rhön road, a town enclosed by old Roman walls. Though it was cold and windy, we strolled along the ancient town walls. This idyllic town, with its fortification walls, was built in the year 789 AD. It was an impressive little town with a small stream flowing through it, and had pretty shop fronts, like the ones that you see only in the ancient towns, unscathed by the Krieg and well-preserved by the local Denkmalschutz organisation, which is responsible for restoring and protecting cultural and historical monuments and buildings in Germany.
Every trade had its own sign outside, like in the Middle Ages, cleaned and polished with loving care: the bakery, the apothecary, the butchery, the town archive and the museum. There was always that German sense of order to be seen. After all, a German is brought up to believe that order is the essence of life. Actually ‚ Ordnung ist das Halbe Leben. And on holidays you could also see some people wearing their traditional dresses, or trekker’s trappings and going for walks, either in their towns or out in the forest, despite the cold Rhön winter.
We decided to go to Salzburg (which has nothing to do with its namesake in Austria) where there was an impressive castle with a pine and birch forest nearby. The visitors and locals living near the spas and medical complex were out for walks. After a short dekko at the castle and the town below, they decided to visit Heidi’s nephew Bruno and his wife Inge, where they had Christmas cookies, potato chips, peanuts and played indoor games with their kid. Thomas, the blond 4 year old son had scores of toys: gameboy, chopper, missile truck, with a pair of mounted missiles ready to be launched and crash-cars. The child was aggressive, couldn’t concentrated and given to screaming and crying. Bruno said almost with pride that his son was recently in the Kindergarten with his 250DM helicopter, and another kid wanted that chopper too and had cried buckets of tears.
I thought it was a strange status-race even at infancy, thanks to the power of ads in TV. I was right because after a moment Inge said, ‘Our son watches TV and wants the kind of toys he sees in the ad-spots.’ With Ninja-turtles, prehistoric dinosaurs, monsters and dragons, missiles, laser-guns, crash-cars and non-stop cable TV, DVDs at your disposal. A wonderful childhood.
“Na ja, phantastisch!” said Heidi softly with an ironic grin as they left.
A few days later, Adolf suggested it was high time we paid Inge and Sepp a visit in their residence at Mellrichstadt, which is a bustling town now, but which was an old Frankish settlement in the 8th century.
We took a brisk walk around the town before going to Sepp’s residence outside the town. The St.Killian church was impressive. In the part of the town called Muhlfeld was a castle built in 1725 on the ruins of a burg. Rossrieth was another picturesque 16th century castle with a moat.
The welcome was traditionally hearty and we were greeted with a wee glass of the excellent Rhön schnaps (raksi). Inge, a fat old lady with red hair, had a penchant for decorating her every available room in her specious house with that touch of feminism: flowers and porcellian, and all sorts of traditional kitsch. Without all that she’d probably feel uneasy, and the way she moved around in her familiar environment, and talked with her relatives and guests. She plainly enjoyed it and felt elated.
Inge’s husband Sepp, an abbreviation for Joseph, was a German with some Jewish blood in him, and he said, “If I feel that I’m being threatened by the neo-nazis, I’ll just pull out my revolver and shoot them. And plead self-defence.” That meant that old Sepp had been brooding about the neo-nazis all the while, because Melrichstadt also had its share of old and new nazis, and he’d been following the developments of the rightists in German TV rather closely, as he told me.
‘With a Jewish background, you never know,” was his standing. Sepp’s parents were gassed by the Nazis at Ausschwitz.
The conversation had centered on neonazis because he’d asked me whether there had been any such Teutonic terror on non-Germans in south-west Germany. I told him that there had been little or no rightist terror. There had been a case of Friedhofsschändigung at Ihringen, in the vicinity of Freiburg, carried out by a few drunken youth. They’d overturned the gravestones of the dead Jews in Ihringen’s Jewish graveyard, and smeared them with nazi slogans like: Jude verrecke (Jews should rot) and the swastika, Germany for the Germans, Jews go home! (Where? When the Jews are German nationals). In neighbouring Basle the Jews were surprised to find an antisemitic poster with the words. ‘Schweizer wehrt euch, don’t buy in Jewish shops!’ The Jewish owner of the shop brought the matter to the organisation David, which is a centre against antisemitism and the state attorney has been informed. It was no coincidence that the poster was put up a day after the Reichskristallnacht. It was on the night of the Reichkristallnacht from 9th till the 10th of November 1938 that the organised mass-murdering of six million Jews began.
Did the neonazis mean that the Jews should leave for Israel? But the few Jews living in Germany are Germans, so where should they go? That’s what a German politician asked Ignaz Bubis once during a press-conference: whether he would go to Israel?
Sepp was a soft-spoken, bespectacled, corpulent German with quite a few gerontological problems and normally shunned guests in the house. But this time he’d enjoyed drinking the excellent Franken wine with us and talked about the past. He was a passionate collector of Jewish religious books and crucifixes, which you could find in every corner of the house. He took pride in telling us that he’d inherited not only the house, but also a vast collection of books. He also showed us his medical compendium and said he could diagnose diseases and showed me a materia medica dated 1985.
Old Sepp was opening up and began talking about the Nazis in Mellrichstadt. He said he knew people who had been communists at first, and became nazis in 1936 and then catholics after the Krieg. As if to bear testimony to this fact, he produced two books written by a Mellrichstadter professor. The first edition of the book was published in 1936 and was dedicated to the Führer and had extensive pages on the “Jews and how to eradicate them and make Mellrichstadt a city free of Jews…”, with connotations that were similar to Rostok, Leipzig and Hoyerswerda in 1992, which was a small-scale Crystal Night. It sent waves of shock, angst and disgust not only in Germany but also elsewhere.
I remember going to watch a play at St. Joseph’s College North Point (Darjeeling) “Judgement at Nuremberg” staged by Nepali, Mizo, Naga, other Indian and US students. And here I was in this historical German town. The poet E.T.A.Hoffmann called the rebuilt Old Town of Nuremberg “the apple of our princes’ and lordships’ eyes”. The Old Town had been almost razed to the ground by Allied bombings during the Second World War.
Yvonne, who’d visited Nuremberg often said, “A document issued by Emperor Henry III on July 16, 1050 mentions Nuremberg for the first time. The town was then called Norenberc.” I learned that it was a politico-military royal town created by Emperor Henry III, who reigned from 1039 to 1056. The town had been repeatedly besieged and captured and the settlement below the royal castle had been destroyed by fire in 1130. It was towards the end of the 13th century that Nuremberg’s defensive walls were captured.
We’d put up at the Vier-Jahres-Zeiten hotel, near the railway station, and were in the Old Town after a short walk. We could enter the ancient complex over a drawbridge, and below us was what had been a moat to fend off the enemies, but was now dry and green with well-kept grass. Inside, there were dwellings, shops and workshops of the clever Nuremberger craftsmen of those bygone days.
I was told that the Nuremberg craftsmen carried out 50 different craft and there were more than 1,200 master-craftsmen working with copper and brass in those days. The town became a leader in many area of technology and in the manufacture of scientific instruments and even the pocket-watch, the globe and the flintlock of which a good many were on display at the German Museum, in addition to the Nuremberger trinkets, and from the 17th century onwards even toys.
It was delightful to visit the toy museum where hundreds of toys from different periods were on display. And exquisite hand-made dolls and doll-houses.
As we approached the monumental edifices of the Reichsparteitag, or the remnants thereof, which the US troops had destroyed and part of which was used to build Nuremberg, Uncle Adolf said, “It was the economic crisis of 1931-32 and the political foolishness that brought the Nazis to power. These sad monuments are a dark reminder of the Third Reich. There are still hot-heads who dream of a Greater Germany.”
“When these tanks appeared in Nuremberg, we lost the war,” said Adolf laconically, as we went past the vintage Sherman tanks.
I’d seen photographs of a destroyed Nuremberg at the Frauenkirche and asked Adolf how many people had died during the Allied air-raids and he replied,”Nuremberg suffered the heaviest air-raid on the 2nd of January 1945, and a greater part of Old Nuremberg was destroyed. And of the 420,000 inhabitants, there were only 175,000 Germans living in the town. Most of them had either fled or died. Nuremberg was gutted down to 10.7 million cubic metres of rubble!”
It was unbelievable. The massive rebuilding programme started in 1948 had changed the face of war-torn Nuremberg. The Old Town had been rebuilt in the old style, especially the Kaisersburg, St.Lawrence’s church, the Frauenkirche, St.Sebaldus’ church and the town hall. New factories had cropped up, and the town linked up with the autobahn network, a harbour built to connect it with the Rhein-Main-Danube canal and soon Nuremberg was economically growing prosperous again.
In the Old Town we went past shops selling antiques, toys (Zinnfiguren), and porcellain worked out in the finest details. There were window decorations in antique styles. And in the city were fashionable shops.
We had lunch in the city in a traditional restaurant where you could order even Bratwuerst and Franken-wine among other delicacies. There were a lot of Czechs, Slovanians and Poles taking turns at being photographed in front of parked Porche and Mercedes Benz cars, and women posing in front of shops selling wedding gowns. It was like watching the poor man’s and woman’s dream being documented in a fleeting photograph and the words: “We were in the West” to be cherished in a family album for posterity. But with the former East Bloc countries becoming increasingly EU and Nato members, history is changing fast in Europe.
Satis Shroff is a writer living in Freiburg (Germany) and has written textbooks on Nepali: Sprachkunde for Germans (Horlemann Verlag, Bad Honnef) and has written for Nelles Verlag’s guidebook ‘Nepal’(Munich), articles in The Christian Science Monitor, The Fryburger, The Rising Nepal, Radio Nepal, Himal Asia, the Nepalese Perspective and Nepal Information (Cologne). He has studied Medicine and Sozialarbeit in Freiburg and Creative Writing (Writers Bureau, Manchester). He is the published author of three books on www.Lulu.com: Im Schatten des Himalaya (book of poems in German), Through Nepalese Eyes (travelgue), Katmandu, Katmandu (poetry and prose anthology by Nepalese authors, edited by Satis Shroff). His lyrical works have been published in literary poetry sites: Slow Trains, International Zeitschrift, World Poetry Society (WPS), New Writing North, Muses Review, The Megaphone, The Megaphone, Pen Himalaya, Interpoetry. Satis Shroff is a member of “Writers of Peace,” poets, essayists, novelists (PEN), World Poetry Society (WPS), Boloji and The Asian Writer. He describes himself as a mediator between western and eastern cultures and sees his future as a writer and poet. He is dedicated to promoting and creating awareness for Nepal’s literary heritage and culture in his writings and in preserving Nepal’s identity in Germany. Satis Shroff was awarded the German Academic Exchange Prize.