Today was an action-packed day.
Our gracious host was Hubert, a German lawyer who handles restitution-of-Jewish-property cases (what a huge back story that is!). Having spent five hours with him, I feel confident that he’s one of the smartest, most patient and thoughtful people I’ve ever met. It’s impossible to detail, even in this lengthy post, the many examples of these qualities we found in Hubert, but I guess you’ll just have to try to meet him yourself someday.
We set off on foot in the bright sunshine, and within five minutes, we stopped in front of the lone active synagogue in Leipzig. Hubert told us the only reason the synagogue survived World War II is because it was incorporated into a large apartment building where non-Jews lived. Before the Holocaust, 14,000 Jews lived in Leipzig, and 1,000 live there today.
Next we crossed the Pleisse River, which was really more like a stream, and Hubert pointed out a small monument remembering the Jews who were forced into the water and subject to public humiliation a few days before the escalation of Kristallnacht. The Polish consulate nearby is where Grandma Gina and her niece, Ruth, sought and were granted protection during Kristallnacht. Hubert explained that legally, consulates (unlike embassies) are not foreign soil and so it was only a matter of luck that anyone who sought refuge there was actually protected from the rampaging violence that night.
We visited 18 Pfaffendorferstrasse, where Ruth’s family lived. The street, Pfaffendorferstrasse is, relatively-speaking, a busy and noisy road, but to get to the building where Ruth’s family lived, we walked down a small, quiet alley. The apartment building now houses small businesses: an apartment developer and publishing house, among others.
We walked around to the back of the building to take a photo of what we could see of the apartment, which must have been a long walk up on the top floor of the building.
No doubt Hubert has given up many weekends in the past to play host to people like us, looking for connections to the past. Without pause or break in conversation, he walked us over to Carlebach School, set up in 1913 when all Jewish children were required to attend the same single school, instead of mixing with the general population. The building today is now used by a publisher of Braille and recorded books for the blind.
Last on our personal “must see” list today was the memorial of empty chairs, which sits where the city’s largest synagogue stood until burned down on Kristallnacht. Each empty chair represents a congregant killed on Kristallnacht.
As if it weren’t enough that Hubert spent time showing to us Jewish and personal monuments, he also took us to see a few of the general sights of Leipzig. Based on the gorgeous old buildings and landmarks Jon and I saw today, Leipzig is a city that seems to have come out of the years of war and Communist rule relatively intact.
Hubert explained that unemployment in Leipzig hovers around an unconscionably-high18%, and there are too many apartment buildings and stores sitting empty, but overall, I’d say Leipzig is far from being out for the count.
So here’s what you can see if you’re not in town to find your grandma’s birthplace:
St. Nicholas Church: When you first set eyes on it, it’s just another gorgeous church in a soaring Renaissance style. It turns out, though, that the church’s claim to fame are Peace Prayer Services that took place in and around the church in 1989, which grew into demonstrations that brought down that famous wall.
Madler Passage: Walk a few steps around the corner from St. Nicholas and you’re in front of a large, indoor arcade called Madler Passage. Most of the stores in the Madler Passage are global luxury brands (Wempe, Mont Blanc), but there’s a local store at one end of the passage, Gourmetage, where we found not only the usual global delicacies (prosciutto, whiskeys, French and Italian wines) but also a variety of local German wines. Hubert, being the stylish, worldly man that he is, recommended a few bottles by Schloss Proschwitz and a sparkling wine (Rotkappchen). So we’ll give them a try and report back. The bottles weren’t cheap, so I have high hopes they turn out to be the find of the year.
Auerbachs Keller: Down a set of winding stairs in the Madler Passage and flanked by enormous sculptures depicting Faust and Mephistopheles, this local attraction is hard to overlook. Hubert warned us away from the food (we figured the souvenir shop in the corner of the restaurant reinforced his advice), but because the restaurant is where Goethe set a scene from Faust (he and the devil eat a lovely dinner there), we went downstairs to poke around and take photos. The dining room is cavernous but cozy – how I have always pictured an old-school German restaurant.
St. Thomas’s Church: J. S. Bach was choirmaster here for the last 27 years of his life. We weren’t able to go into the church because a concert rehearsal was taking place this afternoon, but all the stores near the church include “Bach” somewhere in the name and street musicians play (what else) Bach. We satisfied ourselves with a photo of a giant Bach sculpture (his pocket turned out to show how poor he was during his life) and walked on.
The Opera House: On the north side of a square called the Augustplatz sits Leipzig’s ginormous opera house. On the south side of the Augustplatz is Gewandhaus, the home of the Leipzig orchestra. Tickets this evening for the orchestra were for a children’s concert, so we went with opera tickets. I’m therefore going to blame this evening’s adventure on Jon, who ordered the tickets in advance and didn’t know what we were going to watch tonight.
When we arrived at the opera house, most of the building was pretty dark, but then we spotted a random lion statue holding a sign saying that if you’re looking for the Keller Theatre, you have to go around the side of the building. So we walked over to that theatre and saw that it was open. Our tickets were inside waiting for us at the box office, and then we descended two flights of stairs to find ourselves in a basement reception area that had all the charm of a, ummm, basement.
It wasn’t quite the opera atmosphere I’d been expecting. We felt like we were waiting to see an off-off-Broadway production, which was generally fine with me. When the theatre doors opened, our impression was reinforced by the rows of folding chairs in a black-walled room.
The opening act lasted less than 30 minutes and although we didn’t understand a word of it (all songs were in German), we got the gist: the Girlfriend is constantly on the phone; the Boyfriend tries everything to get the Girlfriend’s attention; the Boyfriend stomps out of the apartment and calls the Girlfriend from a payphone, at which point the Girlfriend pays tons of attention to the Boyfriend. The End.
It wasn’t the best piece of musical theatre we’ve ever seen, but we figured it was good enough that we’d wait around to see what happened after the intermission. Big Mistake.
After intermission, we sat through an hour-long, one-woman opera. Again, the phone played a prominent role. As best we could determine, the woman is alone in her apartment and gets a number of phonecalls throughout the night. Here are the parts we could understand:
[piano player duplicates ringing noise made by telephone]
[woman picks up the phone] “Hallo! Hallo!”
[1 hour of solo singing, in German, by the woman ]
So for an entire hour, we had plenty of time to think about an interaction we’d had during intermission with a German woman sitting in the otherwise-empty row behind us. She had busted out in German asking us to move over a seat so that she could see over Jon’s head. We told her we didn’t speak German, so she repeated her request in English, and we moved over because it wasn’t a big deal for us.
What we wondered for the next hour is why, given that she’s sitting in an empty row, couldn’t she move over a seat?