Monday, October 27, 2008

Hamburg 26 and 28.6.1998: Ancestral Millstones and Reminders of Krystallnacht


Today Simpson would be 47 years old, and my parents 50 years married. As I lay abed drowsing, Simpson’s face popped into my mind, reminding me of this anniversary. And in the weeks prior to this, I’ve had flashes of Simpson’s face, often as a young, fresh-faced boy. This makes me know in my heart of hearts how much I miss him, and how much loss I feel, as I look back down the one-way tunnel of years to our childhood.

Hamburg 28.6.1998

Course in Hamburg now over—Deo gratias—and Steve and I are now driving to his Kuld ancestral village in Baden, Jöhlingen. Have just passed Hannover.

A gray day—another gray one, after several such days in a row, with heavy rains in Hamburg. That, and the cold Steve and I both now have, and too little sleep last night, and fatigue from that seminar, have me tired and despondent.

How to assess the seminar? The students seemed well-disposed, even friendly, and interested. Several people (Wolfram, Dietrich W., a Missionsakademie student) told me it was astonishing that all the students came every day and participated.

But I feel so empty and unsuccessful at the end, as if I sought to conduct a symphony and ended up with a high school band playing out of tune. Perhaps my own sense of emptiness, that life has passed me by?

If I do feel that way, I do so in addition to all the horrors life has dumped on me—because I don’t ever know how to connect, in and from my heart of hearts, with others. We discussed the place of gays and lesbians in society. I didn’t tell them I’m gay, didn’t know if I was permitted to do that. And there was Steve. I didn’t tell them he’s my longtime companion.

Ought I have? There are all those considerations about rules, regulations, how far to go, what might be permitted.

And then there’s that . . . uncontactability . . . of Germans. On the surface, gruff friendliness and politeness (at best). But one’s never invited further, and with my lack of linguistic ease, how can I even think of assaulting that barrier?

So. Nice, energetic students, whom I’ll never see again, and with whom I made only the barest of contact.

I feel so old, so used up and cast off, so rapidly passing through life without real contact or meaning. Who will deliver me from this body of death?

Last evening spent with the R.’s, who were exceedingly kind. We drove in the cold wet evening to Wohltorf. The Sachsenwald, and the neat—and affluent—little villagesn were very appealing. In Wohltorf, posh and urbanized as it is (urbanized by proximity to Hamburg), there were fields with cattle, horses, pigs—working farms, play-pretty little farms.

Rudy had made a risotto of Pfefferlinge and parsley, with bits of seasoning ham—very good. We had that after champagne, followed by a home-made blackberry ice, with copious amounts of Rotwein and Kirschwasser as a digestif. A pleasant, enchanting evening, with light falling in the garden all around their house, the apple trees laden with fruit, the windows looking out on all sides. As night fell, C. played Chopin for us; he’s an accomplished pianist. A European evening, with cultivated people whose culture is simply taken for granted, worn lightly, not exhibited ostentatiously as it might be in the U.S.

We talked of many things, including C.’s French teacher, an East Prussian. Rudi says that people from that region are very—was it bescheid?—very modest, able to live with very little while pursuing very high cultural standards. He (the teacher) can sleep with equanimity on the floor or in a bed, saying, “It could be worse: it could be Siberia.” He’s helped Rudi and C. renovate the cottage they all jointly own on the Île d’Oléron, and has masterfully preserved architectural features (e.g., an old door) they might have thrown away. He’s given C. his old Citroën, “Ente,” along with a set of tools he handcrafted to work on it.

We talked, too, of C.’s piano teacher, a Russian Jew with a Russian soul, who screams, threatens, hugs, kisses, praises. C. adores him. His sister C. refuses to go to him.

Just at Hildesheim now. Pretty landscape, with fields of grain and rows of trees running through them, and hills (the Harz Mountains?) in the distance.

+ + + + +

So. Now at Weingarten, a few kilometers from Jöhlingen, the latter village having proven to have no guesthouses, pensions, hotels, or Fremdenzimmer. The place we’re at here—the Golden Lion—is seedy but clean, half as cheap as the other places we checked, all full. It’s either an old inn, or a converted farmplace whose farmyard (enclosed farmyards typical here) has been taken in and converted to the inn.

When we drove into Jöhlingen in the late afternoon, another stroke of luck. I happened to see a name painted on a house—Kuld, along with Küferei and Weinbau—and told Steve about it. He stopped, and the place turned out to be his ancestral house, built in the early 1700s. Was a farm and mill, plus a cooper and wine-equipment maker.

In the house was only a Frau Kuld, whose husband died in 1991, and whose only son died in 1995, two years older than Steve. She showed Steve a Stammbaum that matches his, and then took him across the street to two millstones from the old Kuld place which the village has erected into a fountain with a plaque saying that they’re from the Kuld family’s old mill.

After Jöhlingen, back here to eat at a local restaurant that turned out to be very pricey, indeed. Steve and I had only appetizers, soup, and wine, and it still came to 102 DM.

I did enjoy my victuals, though—a summer salad of field greens, asparagus, and sugar peas, along with a tomato soup with pesto, ravioli, and gnocchi. Steve had herring filets and mushroom soup. We drank one of the good white wines of the region, and are now enjoying a Riesling from Jöhlingen itself, back in the hotel room.

I like this region. The people seem more mixed (Protestant and Catholic, German tinged with a bit of French), and thus more tolerant and sophisticated than Bavarians. There’s a pleasant, unhurried joie de vivre air about them. Perhaps because we speak some German, or because they could see we were penurious travelers, the restaurant owners brought us an on-the-house tray of small amuse-bouches, tiny tastes of the bounty of the local farms. That made the experience in the restaurant even nicer.

Lots of interesting Fachwerk buildings, too. But walking tonight after dinner, we happened on something horrifying: a plaque on the Catholic church (built immediately behind the Protestant one) saying that across from the church stood a synagogue that was destroyed on Krystallnacht in 1938.

This is recent history. Who tore down that building? Did local people stand by and shake their heads sadly, or did they participate? Did these gemütlich folks orchestrate the whole thing? Did they plan it cold-bloodedly? And what of their Jewish neighbors and friends? This region seems to have been full of Jews. What became of them? Who remembers today? Is the war just over and forgotten, along with all that preceded it? Or does anyone remember, atone, feel shame?

The church bells outside the window (yes, those very same church bells) have just rung 10 P.M. A long day, and now I hope, a bit of sleep.

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