In the summer of 2003, four senior citizens decided to travel across Europe in a camper for about six weeks. During the day, we did as much sight seeing as we could. At dusk, we headed for the nearest caravan site and pitched camp. There was no need for advance booking, and the rates were a fraction of what we might have spent on hotel accommodation.
The camp sites were comfortable and safe, with clean baths and toilets and hot running water. A kitchen with gas or electric stoves and plenty of utensils was also available, provided we cleaned up after cooking.
The first thing we did on arrival was to pitch our portable tent as an extension to our camper. It provided privacy, and served as sitting cum dining room, as well as bed room for the men. The back of the van converted into a mini kitchenette, and every evening, we cooked a meal of curry and rice, as we were ravenous by then. No one complained about the curry odours. We made the acquaintance of fellow travelers who hailed from all over Europe and UK.
At dawn, we were off again to our next destination. The Schengen visa gave us the liberty to travel through 11 countries. No one bothered to check our papers except at the point of entry / departure at Calais, when we crossed over and back into UK.
None of us had visited East Germany before. Now there were no ‘Check Point Charlies’ to turn us away, and all that was left of the hideous wall were a few remnants of broken stone.
We were now on the outskirts of Leipzig, the second largest city in Saxony, about 180 kilometers south west of Berlin. Like its sister-city Dresden, Leipzig too had suffered severe bombing during World War II, and only a few of the Renaissance and Baroque buildings had survived. A convenient and cheap tram service made it easy for us to criss-cross the city on our sight seeing sprees.
Leipzig is the city of music – the home of musical giants like Bach and Mendelssohn. So we decided to start at the Gewandhaus on Augustusplatz , a beautiful glass fronted building that was home to the Gewandhaus Orchestra. The roof of the foyer had the painting of an entire orchestra and choir. The old building constructed between 1899 and1905 had been razed during the war, but was renovated in 1981. The Manager was pleased to know that we were interested in western classical music. He gave us a grand tour of the opulent interior, and a booklet about the history of Gewandhaus. Outside the building was the monument of Mendelsshon.
“Felix Bartholdy Mendelsshon was Director of the orchestra from 1835 to 1847,” the Manager said, “He was merely a boy in his twenties when he took over. Have you heard his music?”
“Of course,” I said, “Who can forget his ‘Hebrides Overture’ or his ’Scottish Symphony’?”
“Though he was a musical genius, for many years he was not given his due only because he was a Jew. Anti-Semitism was rampant even in those days. After his death, Richard Wagner a fellow musician wrote a nasty pamphlet “Jewry in Music,” criticizing Mendelssohn and his music. As a result, a memorial to the musician was postponed, and could be erected only 45 years after his death.”
“That was a mean thing to do to a fellow musician,” I commented.
“Yes, because it was to cause more problems many years later. During the Nazi Regime, this charge was resurrected, and Mendelssohn’s music was banned in Germany. German musicians were asked to alter his music. A hateful Nazi called Rudolph Haake destroyed the monument. The new statue we see today was erected after the war. If you are interested in learning more, you should visit Mendelssohn’s house which is not very far from here.”
We thanked the man and stepped out on to Augustusplatz. On our right was the Karl Marx University, a triangular 30-storyed building. A statue of the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz stood in front of the building. Opposite to Gewandhaus was the imposing City Hall, its tower soaring into the skies at 105 meters.
On Goldschmitstrasse, we visited Mendelssohn’s house. The musician lived here for a major part of his life and died here too. This is a permanent exhibition of his life, the rooms where he worked and lived, and his musical instruments. Detailed documentation of his work is available here. This is Germany’s belated apology for the shabby way Mendelssohn was treated during his lifetime. It is a reminder to humankind, that Art knows no boundaries of race or colour. Concerts are held here every Sunday.
That evening was wet and rainy, and we were in no mood to go back to the camper. Someone suggested that we visited the “Puppet Theatre-Bohmel.” It was a dimly lit hall with just a handful of tourists, who like us had accidentally stumbled on this place on Tallerstrasse. We were more than delighted to witness the entire opera of Mozart for almost two hours, played by puppets. The recorded music was by famous operatic singers. The two feisty lady puppeteers merely lip synched with the music, their heads just visible behind a white curtain.
The next day was bright and sunny. We decided to walk around the city. An American tourist was looking for the memorial of Geordeler, the man who had planted a bomb under Hitler’s desk. It was an unpretentious circular marble slab in a sunken garden, on which were etched the saying of this brave man.
From here, it was not too far to the 13th century St. Thomas Church made famous by the musician and composer Johann Sebastian Bach. He lived in Leipzig from 1723 – 1750, and was the choir master at the church and the St. Thomas School of Music. The boys’ choir became famous through his efforts.
The church is a Gothic structure partially rebuilt in the 15th century. One of the stained glass windows – Bach’s window shows the maestro looking down on the pews. In another window, Martin Luther is depicted translating the Bible into German.
Bach’s organ which he used for man years still occupies the nave of the church, and his body lies interred before the altar, under a black marble slab. A fresh rose is placed upon it every day.
In the courtyard outside, is a larger-than-life memorial of Bach which was erected in 1911. On the pavement leading to the church is another bust of Bach. It was put there by Mendelssohn, a great admirer of Bach. Every Sunday there are organ recitals inside the church. From June to August, concerts are held outside, in front of the Bach Memorial.
Opposite the church is the Bosse House which is now the Bach Museum. It displays manuscripts of his compositions, his instruments, and even an assortment of costumes of that time. There was an assortment of souvenirs for tourists to choose from. I picked a copper medallion embossed with Bach’s face on one side, and his signature on the other.
The Schumann House where Robert and Clara Schumann spent their first year after marriage is also a museum.
We moved out into Madler’s passage where Dr. Faust was persuaded by Mephistopheles, to accompany him into the Auer Bach’s Cellar. This place made famous by Goethe, is below street level. The statues of Dr. Faust and Mephistopheles stand in the passage leading to the cellar. Here they guzzled wine in the company of University students. This was too expensive a joint for us to patronize. So we had to be satisfied by just a look around.
Then we rambled through the shopping arcades, and the many food courts where people dined ala carte. The smell of food was everywhere – an unsettling hotchpotch of German, Spanish and Italian odours which was not easy on our stomachs. So we scurried away to the Arabian Coffee House where we not only drank coffee but were free to go upstairs to the coffee museum.
The Nikolai Church with its three steeples in the heart of the city, is one of Germany’s architectural monuments. Over it hovers the Angel of Peace. The interior is fascinating, with columns resembling palms, a rich decorative ceiling, galleries and pews. This church is famous because it united people from all over GDR, in a peaceful, non-violent revolution against the infamous Communist regime. The revolution that began inside the church on the initiative of young people, drew Christians and non-Christians from all over the city every Monday, to pray for peace, in spite of threats, persecution and imprisonment.
On December 4th, 1989, this mass of humanity with lighted candles in their hands, and the song “We are the people” on their lips, stormed the Stasi Head quarters and brought to an end an insatiably sadistic regime. No drop of blood was shed; no single act of vandalism took place. Their only weapons were the message of love, peace and non-violence. It soon led to the collapse of the wall, and the reunification of Germany. Even today, prayers for peace continue to be held in the church.
The erstwhile Stasi Headquarters (East German Ministry of Security) is now the Museum of the Runden Eke (Round Corners.) It displays instruments of torture, prison cells, spying methods, implements of disguise, and chronicles the surveillance equipment used during the Communist regime. It also records the triumph of the peaceful Resistance Movement.
The Monument of the Battle of Nations (Volkerschlachdentmal) is outside the city. It was built 100 years after the Battle of Nations took place in 1813. This battle brought about Napoleon’s defeat, and also determined many of Europe’s national boundaries. The monument is a massive pile of sculpted brown rocks, with 500 steps leading up to a windowless monument which is 91 meters high – the highest in Europe.
The Leipzig Messegalande –The International Trade Fair Centre is to the north of the city. It has the largest levitated glass hall. Though Trade fairs were held since the 15th century, this new building was opened in 1996 at a cost of 670 million euros. It has five large halls for exhibition.
Schiller House is also on the periphery of Leipzig. The poet Fredrick Schiller lived in this small farmhouse in Gohlis for just four months, from April to September 1785. But he made many friends during that time, one of them being Goethe. In this cold and pokey little house, Schiller began his poem “Ode to Joy,” but completed it only in Dresden. This house was condemned as unsafe in 1846. But the Leipzig Schiller Society had it renovated. Today it is a museum, with a beautiful garden behind. Schiller’s books, waist coat and other personal effects are on exhibition here. There is also a large fan that has been autographed by his many friends.
The Erich Kastner Museum is situated in the Villa Augustine at Albertplatz. A small pixyish sculpture of a boy sitting on a wall beckons to us. Though not so well known in India, Kastner is famous in Europe as a writer of children’s books. He had a sad childhood under a manic depressive mother, who emotionally blackmailed him into obeying her. Though he was loved by his father, he was never sure if the man was really his biological father.
The Leipzig Railway Station is something worth seeing. This huge building took from 1902 – 1915 to be completed. It has 26 platforms and an attractive shopping centre on the first floor, where 140 shops and eateries do brisk business.
Our last visit was to the Memorial for Jews. It was erected in memory of 14,000 Jews who were slaughtered during the Nazi regime. The raised square platform with lines of empty chairs is a silent indictment of human brutality. It reminds us of the potential for evil lurking in every human heart, and the need to cultivate forgiveness towards all those who have wronged us, tenderness towards those who are weaker than us, and boldness to stand up for what is right.
The trip to Leipzig the city of great musicians and poets, a city where ordinary people ousted a repressive regime through non-violent means, will always remain one of the highlights of our European tour.
ALIVE Magazine – February 2007