Friday, April 24, 2009

Germany, then and now

I wrote recently about my student days in Marburg ("Spring Awakens," April 3), about the difficulty I had keeping my quarters warm throughout the cold German winter. Just yesterday something arrived that reminded me of those days as well. It was a series of photographs taken in 1990 by the West German photographer Karlheinz Jardner. Jardner had traveled that year to the East German island of Rügen, site of the cliffs made famous by Caspar David Friedrich, capturing a world, as he writes, "that would soon vanish forever." 

There was a photo of children (left) who had been out collecting coal, that recalcitrant medium of heat with which I sought to get the iron-bodied stove to heat my room. The photo that most touched me, however, was that of a woman in her living room (above), for it reminded me of the living room of my own landlady in Marburg. On the walls of that living room were photos of life from another time and place, Germany in the 1930s. One of the pictures showed an alpine setting with an angelic-looking girl who had succumbed to malnutrition and consumption in 1943. My landlady's surviving daughter was slightly feeble-minded, whether an effect of the war or an unnatural endowment I never discovered.

The living room was the gathering place, evenings at about 5:30, of a small group of lodgers from the large and ancient building in which I lived that year. An indication of the in-between state of the German economy in the late 1960s was that not all Germans owned a television set. What amazied an American like myself on the evenings I was present was the attentiveness with which my fellow lodgers sat through the solid thirty minutes of advertising that preceded the evening's TV programming -- there were no commercial breaks as yet -- thereby corroborating every cliché concerning the authority-consciousness of Germans.

I enjoyed sitting with my neighbors, less for the TV than for the firsthand stories I prodded them into telling me concerning the hardships they had endured in World War II. Having grown up in America, I could not get my fill of tales in which ordinary people showed themselves inventive and courageous in the face of adversity, reported with admirable stoicism and matter-of-factness. In contrast to me, everyone in that small TV-viewing group had been touched and after over twenty years, some still lived with the war's effects, for instance, the lodger who had lost her husband in Russia in 1941 when her son was four. 

That son, however, was now a grown man himself and belonged to the rising generation of German economic entrepreneurs. You always knew when he was on one of his visits from Frankfurt, already the major economic center of West Germany, because his large green Mercedes would be blocking the sidewalk outside. The narrow streets in the Old City of Marburg, much like this street in Rügen, were otherwise too narrow to allow such a big car to park.

Though the woman in Rügen was too young in 1990 to have experienced World War II, she appears to have followed the path of my landlady in Marburg, gathering around her as many of life's comforts as were possible, including a TV. Down to the cupboard with the dishes and other knickknacks, the wallpaper, the curtains, the barometer, and the small table with the both pastel cloth atop, this could have been the living room of my Marburg landlady.

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