Back to the Fatherland 2

…so I headed down to the city museum – nothing from the 20th century covered, they pointed me to the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum Leipzig (Forum of Contemporary History) – that covers from 1945 onwards focusing on the GDR. So by any standards a big gap in their city history, the 30s and 40s an official blank. But I had a break through. In the back of the museum shop I found a facsimile map of the city from 1938 – the year my grand-parents got the helloutta here and arrived in London. Promenadenstrasse wasn’t renamed after a Soviet leader but after an artist socialist by nature, Käthe Kollwitz, her inherent empathy for the less fortunate evident throughout her life’s work. As soon as I’d figured out how the old map mapped onto the new I headed over. The route took me from the old town hall past the famous Thomaskirche, last resting place of JS Bach, and then past the site of the Community Synagogue of Leipzig, burnt down on Kristallnacht in November 1938. They burnt the place down and then charged the Jews for the demolition costs. The lost 14,000 (not including never-to-be descendants) are commemorated by the empty chairs of the congregation in dull bronze set out on a flat blank concrete base. When I got to 16 Promenadenstrasse where my paternal grandparents lived from (I think) 1935 to 1938 that too was flat, blank, empty. A carpark, albeit a tranquil one shaded by trees and bathed in dappled autumnal light on my special visit. I can see from no. 14 the kind of building it probably was, a typically elegant Leipziger apartment in a tasteful neighbourhood. My grandfather was always a snappy dresser – like my youngest brother and my older son (that gene skipped me for better or worse) – so I can picture him easily in these streets.

The view from No. 1 Nordplatz

Next stop was Nordplatz, slightly further out from the centre, where he lived as a bachelor with his older sister’s family. No. 1 proved to be all present and correct, with a beautiful view over St. Michaelis church, a Gothicky affair built between 1901 and 1905, and the green beside it. Another smart apartment building where I stood on the threshold trodden by Nat Gewurtz (later Gee, 1938 was a good year for dumping German surnames) and his sister Else Wolf, peering in to the interior which has evidently been revamped in recent times. I was glad to see he’d enjoyed such a beautiful and calm home. From there to Promenadenstrasse – then next stop 5 Highbury Grove.

My next stop was the address on the Nazi birth certificate, 84 Biedermannstrasse, Sankt Elisabeth Krankenhaus, the Catholic hospital where my father was born. It was only a few blocks south of MDR (Mittel Deutsch Rundfunk), the main broadcaster in the region where I spoke yesterday on Crossmedia and Broadcaster Online Strategy to an audience primarily of factual film-makers which also included a State Minister of Saxony and the President of German/French broadcaster Arte. I spoke among other things about Surgery Live, which I reckon many of them thought had come from another planet. Seven Days was from another galaxy. From the feedback I received afterward it seems my passion for the possibilities of interactive, networked media and the boldness of our ambition at the very least landed home even if the out-thereness of Channel 4′s approach and the freedoms of British culture were somewhat alien to some of the Euros. I should have mentioned another of my projects which I also spoke about in my presentation, One Born Every Minute, because that would have given me an easier segue back to the maternity unit at Sankt Elisabeth Hospital. On arrival it was clear it has been recently refurbished so fear of disappearance returned. I found the maternity unit now in a clean modern block. A chat with the receptionist soon established that the original maternity block still stood and as I roamed the corridors of the art deco building I stumbled across the original foundation stone dated 1930. That meant when my father was born there it was an equally state of the art set-up. An irony of course was that he never got to see the place himself again after his blurry-eyed first days. He died a few years after the uprising that started in Leipzig and ended with the Fall of the Wall, never getting/taking the opportunity to come back.

I’ve enjoyed a couple of days with the presence of my grand-father and father around me. I see a tiny sticker on the wall of the hospital saying “I will wait for you” (in English). I spot a sparrow (my favourite bird, rather thin on the ground these days in England) hanging around. A warm autumn sunshine shines down from a perfect azure sky the whole weekend, contrary to the usually reliable information on my WeatherPro iPhone app, created by German-based MeteoGroup with a Teutonic regard for precision.

{2nd photo courtesy of Leipzigpost}

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3 comments so far

  1. Alex on

    Really interesting post – and it has reminded me that I need to stop procrastinating and actually get over to Poland (and Belarus) to visit where my Grandparents lived before the Soviet invasion. Sadly they’re both dead now, so i’ve only got the limited papers that were left to go on, and the information from a family friend who still lives in Leeds, who my Grandmother lived with after her parents had been deported.

    I’m going to go and see her next weekend – hope that I can find out enough to make a similar visit to yours sometime soon…

  2. ArkAngel on

    Similar situation for me – grandparents no longer here, father passed on too, so working from limited documentation and older distant relatives. So tapping in to living memory certainly to be recommended. And this kind of journey back, truly thrilling.

  3. […] The first time was a great adventure with my own gang of urchins which you can catch up on here and here [written 3 years ago to the very day]. And here’s a poem inspired by that […]


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