Friday, October 31, 2008

Oberhochstadt, Rhine Palatinate 3.7.1998: Horseradish with Wine, and Elvis Presley

Now driving back from Baden (and the Rhineland Pfalz) to Hamburg. We left Jöhlingen yesterday morning and drove to Oberhochstadt, east of Landau, where Steve believes his Wolf family lived.* This is not far at all from Jöhlingen, but in passing Karlsruhe going east, one passes out of Baden and into the Pfalz—and, we discovered, out of one linguistic zone and into another.

In the Pfalz, they speak a Pfälzischer dialect, and even our ears could detect a difference between that and the Baden dialect. People we met in Oberhochstadt told us the dialect is the same one spoken by the Pennsylvania Dutch, and that they can understand the Pennsylvania Dutch very well, even though quite a bit of their dialect is archaic Pfälzisch.

People around Oberhochstadt don’t distinguish between p and b, so that Pressler = Bressler, or something in between, similar in quality to that blended labial b and v of many Hispanics. One finds the name spelled both ways here.

One clear difference I can hear between the dialect of Baden and the Pfalz is in its rhythm. The Baden folk were more sing-songy, where the Pfälzisch ones are more phlegmatic. Nor did I hear the latter say ish for ich, as in Jöhlingen, but that could have been because I didn’t listen carefully.

Oberhochstadt is a wine village on the Südliche Weinstrasse, rather pretty and neat, but a bit less . . . ornate? . . . than the Baden village. It has grown together with Niederhochstadt, so that both today form one village.

In Oberhochstadt, we found the church locked and the parish office (which wasn’t marked, so we could have been at the wrong place altogether) closed. We asked in a bakery across the street, and found all church books are now in Speyer.

Then the husband of the bakery manager, Herr M., took us to the house of the parish secretary, a Frau S., who offered us coffee. At this, M. decided we should eat, and took us to a Metzgerei, where he rather mysteriously ordered for us two pork schnitzels and pomme frites, as well as food for himself and his wife. We paid for all.

As we waited for the schnitzels, he told us that beef with horseradish and something—potatoes? noodles?—is a local speciality, and that during the August wine fest, people come to eat this and drink wine (horrible-sounding combination, wine and horseradish). As he told us this, people came and went, all friendly, in a bit gruffer, more overt way than in Baden, and many large and slow, big-boned and heavy, as Herr M. was.

Then back to Frau S.’s where we ate our schnitzels and potatoes as she and her husband sipped coffee and ate the cherry kuchen we offered them, from Frau Klink. They talked of how too much freedom has produced egoism, and has caused the youth to leave the churches. I found it a bit eerie and unnerving to hear all this, as we sipped mineral water and apple juice from glasses with the papal crest, from his visit to Speyer. The feeling was fascist, in that covert way in which fascism continues in European (and American) Christianity, running underground—so smug and decisive, and closed to self-criticism after World War II.

From Frau S.’s to Herr Pressler, a local teacher and historian who, the S.’s thought, might be able to advise Steve about his quest for roots. The Presslers were very gracious, offering us some of their own Gewürztraminer, which was very good.

With Herr Pressler, we talked of many things. He told us that Hochstadt is paired with a town in Pennsylvania whose name sounded something like Hosh, which Herr Pressler said is how local dialect would pronounce hoch. Apparently many of the inhabitants of the Pennsylvania town came from Hochstadt, primarily, I gathered, in the 18th century, as Protestant emigrants. There’s been much to-ing and fro-ing between the two communities, and Herr Pressler and his frau have been there three times.

Herr Pressler told us that the lineage of Elvis Presley has been traced to the Hochstadt Pressler family, and a man in Little Rock, who descends from this family, has been in touch with him and plans to write a book about the line. (He also told us an exchange student from Little Rock lived in Hochstadt last year.)

He told Steve that Wolfs had, indeed, lived in Oberhochstadt, but the name has died out. Unlike Steve’s family, these were Protestant, and were in the 18th-century migration to Pennsylvania.**

According to Herr Pressler, Oberhochstadt had belonged to the bishop of Speyer, and Niederhochstadt to the Knights of St. John. Somehow, in the various historical transitions that occurred in the area, this community became Protestant, and that remained Catholic, and the area remains very religiously divided today.

Herr Pressler also got onto the war, telling us that Hitler appeared to many Europeans as an alternative to communism, hence his popularity. He said that this is why the churches remained silent as he rose to power . . . .

He spoke, too, of the fate of the local Jews, claiming that, in contrast to the Speyer bishop, the Knights of St. John permitted the Jews to live in their community, and so the Jews were treated less horribly in Niederhochstadt and during the war than in other areas.

Though they were expelled, and the synagogue pulled down—not burned, because it was attached to wooden buildings on either side. Nevertheless, descendants returned after the war and have been (so he said) cordially received. If I understood aright (all of this in German), the last two Jews of the town were sent to a camp in France during the war, and died there as elderly people.

Other bits and pieces from Herr Pressler: the local people were Franks originally. In the Thirty Years War, the community was decimated (as with Jöhlingen), and many Swiss came to the area. (In Jöhlingen, many folks seem to have come from the region of Württemburg near the Swiss border, as the Kulds did, so that Jöhlingen today has a mix of Frankish, Alemmanic, and Swabian blood—perhaps the same in Hochstadt, though the Frankish may predominate?)

Herr Pressler recommended that we stay overnight in Offenbach, whose Rathaus has the civil birth, marriage, and death records for Oberhochstadt. We did so, and found the village tedious—no center, traffic everywhere, since it’s on the highway to Landau and other places, and, in general, glum and cheerless. No windows had flowerboxes, though this is the mildest climatic region of Germany, and fields of nursery flowers grow all around.

Does the lack of ornamentation have to do with the religious character of the region? Or am I reaching for an explanation, and in doing so, reaching into a tired old grab-bag of religious tricks? Still, it’s possible: Regina Klink told us that Wössingen near Jöhlingen is an historically Protestant village, with a rather repressive culture that disapproves of dancing, etc.

Last night unmemorable. A walk here and there in the town in a futile attempt to find something, anything, that would look like a shopping area, a town center or square. After that, a sauna and swim at the hotel (Krone), for which we’d paid dearly, so felt obliged to use these, followed by a light dinner (Steinpilz in consommé and salad for me; some broccoli and carrot and potato squares fried and served with rice) with good local Gewürztraminer, and a splurge—ice cream with hot raspberry sauce and whipped cream.

This morning, to the Rathaus, where Steve drew a blank—nary a Wolf in the birth index from 1793 to the 1940s. Is he barking up the wrong tree altogether?

And then the drive back to Hamburg. Now somewhere north of Frankfurt on the terrifying autobahn, made more terrible today, somehow, by the fine weather and Friday afternoon vacation mentality: eager, earnest Germans on Urlaub, a force not to be taken lightly!

I liked the Rhineland, the wine culture and smiling landscape, though the experience in Offenbach showed me village life in the landscape can be dreary. Offenbach was more like an American town than anything I’ve encountered in Germany: pretty fields all around, and then that . . . faceless . . . center of human life plopped down in their midst. To the extent that there was any life, it was in the “suburban” area where a filling station, Pennymarkt, and drink shop were to be found. Religiously fueled individualism transmuted into American culture? We could have been in Anywhere, Iowa.

Is this because of the strong ties of the region to parts of the U.S.? Or am I making large, unfounded assumptions on the basis of too little evidence? I am, after all, only passing through these areas. Perhaps it would be better to keep quiet, given that I know so little: my initial impulse when I began keeping this travel journal.

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Going north (we’re now north of Kassell): always, that discernible thing about the northern sky, whether in Canada, northern Germany, Scandinavia: discernible and yet so hard to describe. Is it that the light recedes (and yet it’s more constant in summer, the further north one goes)? Or is it the humidity in the atmosphere of a cool, damp land?

This I know: in southern Germany, there was a difference. The light makes things simply . . . brighter . . . the further south one goes. People say that climactic theories about regional character are bosh, and they can be; but I’m hard-pressed to deny that something of the phlegmatic temperament of northern regions is due to the drabness of color, there, in this always muted light. Those impossibly dreary colors of the Canadian Group of Seven . . . .

*Note: a few years down the road, we were to discover we were in the wrong place. The Wolfs came from Oberhöchstadt in Nassau, close to Frankfurt. See my German travelogue for 2005 on this blog. One umlaut can make a world of difference.

**When we found that Steve’s roots lie in Oberhöchstadt of Nassau, instead, we also found his Wolf ancestor—who came to Minnesota in the mid-19th century—left Germany after serving in the defeated Catholic army of the prince of Nassau, as the Prussians seized control of the area.

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