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Archive for February 25th, 2007

If you’ve been to Europe, you know that Sundays are not the best days to play tourist. In most cities, 99% of stores and restaurants are closed on Sunday, and Leipzig is no exception. Luckily, we had several sources of activity available to us despite the Sunday effect: (1) personal sights courtesy of the infinitely-patient Hubert; (2) the Leipzig train station (Hauptbahnhof); and (3) the Stasi museum.

Jon at Josef Kalfus grave, Jewish cemetery, LeipzigWe drove first along Berlinerstrasse to see the Jewish Cemetery where Jon’s great-grandfather is buried. Hubert pointed out notable community members during our walk through the graveyard – a woman who was a women’s suffrage leader, a famous rabbi and so on. There were updated gravestones erected on family plots to honor those who’d died in the Holocaust, and there was a plaque commemorating the fact that the graveyard was at some point the only place Jewish children were allowed to play (because they were otherwise banned from public parks).

After paying respects, we headed back into the center of town to find where Jon’s grandma grew up. Based on the address and description Grandma Gina had given us (i.e., it was across from the municipal liebhouse where Jews had all their belongings confiscated), we determined that the building she lived in no longer exists, and where it once stood, there is now a parking lot.

It started to rain, and we went to see the building where the Jews like Grandma Gina had found protection on Kristallnacht. The building sits across the street from what is now the US consulate, and it’s no longer the Polish consulate. Rather, it’s a city-owned guesthouse, whatever that means. There’s a small plaque in front to remember the Polish Consul General who decided to give safe haven to Jews on Kristallnacht. It’s amazing to me how much this city remembers.

Because we’d read so much about the Voelkerschlachtdenkmal, we figured we ought to see it despite Hubert’s warning that it’s no great shakes. The V is a monument commemorating The Battle of Nations, a victory of several allied countries over Napoleon in 1813. Hubert was, of course, absolutely right. The thing is a hulking, brooding hunk of stone that, frankly, looks pretty damn scary and ugly. Considering the Prussians decided to build this thing 100 years after the battle it commemorates, the monument is more about Prussia’s own aggressive ambitions at the time than it is about commemorating anything.

Leipzig’s train station, the Haupbahnhof, is the largest in Europe and houses 140 shops, half of which are open on Sunday. Other than dropping by the post office and pharmacy, though, there wasn’t much we found super exciting in the shopping mall. The clothing stores and houseware stores were closed, so really, what else is there to see?

The Stasi museum, which illustrates the banal, but fierce control exercised by the East German secret police, was pretty interesting despite our having to follow along on a photocopied brochure in English (.50 euros well spent) in order to understand anything on display. The museum is in the building on Dittrichring where the Stasi had their Leipzig HQ, and everything from the drab beige linoleum floors to the musty smell of a 1970s office creeps me out. I thought the disguise kits for Stasi agents and the tools used by the Stasi for opening and reading mail sent to/from Capitalist countries were the most interesting.

Today’s Eating:

Bagel Brothers, LeipzigBagels at Bagel Brothers (Nikolaistrasse, 42) were tasty. Chewy, moist interiors and slightly crunchy, shiny exteriors. The store was bright and clean (it’s likely a chain, though we didn’t see any other locations in the city), and we laughed about how it marketed the bagels as “new york style with a schmear.” We’ve always thought of bagels as originating in Eastern Europe, but it seems that the way to sell them as “authentic” now is to make them come from New York. Bagel sandwiches were named after JFK, Doris Day, and someone named Dick McDay.

Telegraph Café & Restaurant (Dittrichring, 18-20) was the perfect way to relax and warm up after our hour at the Stasi Museum down the block. Cozy banquettes, newspapers from around the world (no Sunday NYT, alas) and wi-fi access, combined with low prices for pots of loose-leaf tea – how could you not drop by, really?

As if we weren’t grateful enough that it was open on a Sunday night, the generically-named Restaurant Sushi Bar (Klostergasse, 18, around the corner from Barfussgasschen) served up a 19-euro all-you-can-eat sushi menu today. We sat on these high stools at an oval-shaped counter, and cheesy little wooden boats floated around the counter “carrying” various sushi. It’s the pre-cursor to conveyor-belt sushi? We ate our weight’s worth in shrimp tempura sushi and then called it a night. After all, we have a 4 am wake-up call tomorrow in order to catch our 6 am flight back to London.

The Dismount:

I just finished reading an excellent book called Mountains Beyond Mountains, about Dr. Paul Farmer who, among his many other accomplishments, transformed the way the medical establishment thinks about treating drug-resistant TB in poor countries. According to the book, Dr. Farmer always asks his medical students to take him through a “dismount” – a lessons-learned, summary-style debrief at the end of every case. So here’s my dismount on Leizpig:

It’s a historically-rich, beautiful city that’s struggling to find its place in a post-unification Germany that favors institutions and industry centers in the former West Germany. As cities in western Europe go, it’s an affordable place to visit, and there’s enough variety and quality of food and cultural activities left in Leipzig to make it worth a visit.

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Zill’s Tunnel restaurant, Leipzig

I had low expecations for the dining scene in Leipzig – the former GDR’s image may have informed this impression, as did the fact that in Prague, we ate a whole lot of dense potato dumplings that I think are still weighing me down.  That said, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of eats today (see the previous Leipzig Day 1 post for a description of what else we did besides eat).

For lunch, we’d asked Hubert to take us to his favorite “traditional German food” restaurant, and that’s how we ended up at Zill’s Tunnel Restaurant. The restaurant sits on Barfussgasschen, which is a cobblestone alley lined with restaurants. I don’t think I would have picked it out on our own because of concern that it was on such a touristy-seeming street, so once again, I was glad we had Hubert with us.  I guess the reality is that even though in any other geography, the Barfussgasschen would scream tourist trip, maybe there aren’t enough tourists around to make it so.  And this means you take it for what it is – a street that happens to have a lot of restaurants on it.

Although I wouldn’t eat it every day, I have only good things to say about my eisbein sauerkraut, which are slices of braised beef with red cabbage sauerkraut, topped with gravy and served with airy potato-and-butter dumplings called klosse. Hubert explained that my dish, especially the klosse, are a Saxon specialty, and I definitely wouldn’t complain if I crossed paths again one day with a klosse.

Jon had a little less luck with his sauerbraten mit klosse. Like me, Jon is now a fan of the klosse, but the sauerbraten could have used more seasoning to make it interesting. Sauerbraten is a “pork knuckle,” which is a giant, fatty leg of pork. It was cooked so that it was still tender and juicy, but when you’re eating a hunk of meat that serious, I think you need a little something something to lift up or hide the heaviness.

Ur Krostitzer, the local pilsner I ordered, was so hoppsy (is that a word?) and flavorful that I downed two during lunch, and Jon was equally happy with his dark lager, Schwarze Perle.

Our tab for three came to less than 50 euros. Check it out when next you’re in Leipzig.

Because eating ten thousand calories’ worth of meat and potatoes wasn’t enough, we also stopped by a large, bustling Movenpick café near the Old Town Hall for desserts and coffee. I’m so creative, I ordered black forest cake (schwartzwald kirsch torte) and tea. No complaints about the goodies, though I must humbly apologize to my fellow Americans for furthering the stereotype of Americans as dumb and bumbling. After all, I was the loser in the bathroom who couldn’t figure out how the soap dispenser worked. I pumped and pumped and wondered where the soap was. Too late, I realized I’d managed to pump soap all over my arm.

As if this bit of genius weren’t graceful enough, the bathroom attendant had to witness that and my embarrassment at not having any spare change to leave with her (as is the custom here).

For dinner, we walked back to the Barfussgasschen to try out,Varadero, a Cuban restaurant (think Communist-era connection). We were disappointed there were no plantains on the menu, but the beer was again good (Wernesgrun pilsner) and overall the food was hot, fresh and cheap. I loved all the black-and-white photos Varadero Cuban restaurant, leipzigon the wall of Che and Fidel, and when you throw in the lightbox photo of a beach and assorted palm trees, I’d say the décor was comfortingly not German.

Jon’s garlic shrimp appetizer was a standout (surprisingly not overcooked), our main courses were fine, and our one disappointment was with the black beans and rice.  The beans were undercooked (still hard) and the dish was very dry despite the liberal use of bacon fat. How hard is it to cook black beans and rice?

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St. Thomas Church, Leipzig

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.

Broyder Synagogue, LeipzigWe 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.

I loved that the block on which the synagogue sits now includes a Bang & Olufsen and Poggen Pohl store. Time certainly does march on.

Next we crossed the Pleisse River, which was really Monument on the Pleisse, Leipzigmore 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.

Memorial of the Great Community Synagogue, Leipzig

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:

Interior of St. Nicholas Church, Leipzig

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, LeipzigMadler 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.

AuAuerbachs Keller, leipzigerbachs 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.Opera House, Leipzig

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?

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