In my last post, I was about to leave for Germany to do some research for my novel. I had two precious days in Leipzig, my protagonist’s hometown. The city is less than two hours by train from Berlin.
About Leipzig: after the WWII, it was under Soviet control in what became the German Democratic Republic—also known as East Germany. Here’s a chilling statistic: in East Germany, there was one secret police (Stasi) officer or informant for every sixty-three people. If part time informers are included, some estimates put the ratio at one informer per 6.5 citizens.
After the Wall came down in 1989, many Leipzigers fled their long-neglected city for the abundance in the western regions of their newly unified country. Some Germans I met in Munich who had visited Leipzig in 2010 recalled a very grim place, shuttered and abandoned, literally crumbling. Think Detroit in the early 2000s. Or Flint right now. But in 2018, Leipzig’s downtown area is lively, with crowded cafés and shops.
The city’s former industrial/working class neighborhoods of Plagwitz and Lindenau once held camps for forced laborers during the war. After the rubble was cleared, whole blocks were rebuilt with low-rise Soviet-style architecture to house workers and their families. Now there’s a hipster art scene in full flower. Vegan restaurants, galleries, yoga studios. Think Williamsburg or Bushwick of a decade ago—before the creative types had to leave.
So any story of Leipzig for the last eighty years must include these plot points: the rise of Nazism, the bombing and destruction of WWII, its government’s paranoid repression for the next fifty five years, the regime’s overthrow, then reunification and spotty recovery and, in the last few years, the arrival of thousands fleeing the Middle East and Africa.
Our first evening, we went to a concert at the Church of St.Nicholas, the site of the prayer meetings and non-violent 1989 Monday Demonstrations that led to the civilian takeover of the local Stasi offices and ultimately, the regime’s demise.
After the concert, we took a taxi. Our driver was a man in his sixties. As we sped along, I asked for a recommendation for real Leipziger fare. He spoke some English but explained with frustration that when he was in school they were only taught Russian. “Now the young people get English.” About restaurants, he said with a very bitter chuckle, “Soon you won’t be able to find pork in this city,” and then with a mocking wave, he added, “Islam, Islam.”
It was one of those moments when you are so unprepared, you go mute. And everything I thought to say in the moment felt futile or arrogant, an American tourist scolding a stranger about the importance of welcoming refugees to his country, when my own government and many fellow Americans responded to that refugee crisis with the same bigotry. But as we drove along, I became more frustrated and bewildered. Everywhere in Germany there are memorials and museums that take an unsparing view of the profound suffering caused by the racism of the Third Reich. Had the scourge of Nazism taught this particular German nothing?
I have since learned that the regime told the citizens of East Germany that their region had no role in the Holocaust and that any remaining Nazis had all fled to the West.
After an uneasy silence in the cab, I mentioned our visit to St.Nicholas and the driver gazed with a mixture of sadness and pride into his rear view. “I was part of the original group there. The best days of my life.” He’d spun me around again.
We’d arrived and I didn’t get to ask what made him keep going to those meetings, knowing there had to be informants in that group. And what had he imagined in 1989 about his life in 2018? What were his thoughts about Kapitalismus? Did he picture himself driving a cab and struggling to learn the language this new economy required? If those heady church meetings on Monday nights were his life’s highest water mark, what gives him satisfaction and meaning now?
I paid my fare and then surprised myself—I quietly shook his hand. Did he understand that I was expressing support for his courage against political thuggery, not the anti-Muslim comments? I hoped so.
The irony did not escape me—I was in a country where passivity and silence in the face of violent hatred facilitated the deaths of millions. But the arc of this driver’s story from brave, heroic idealism to bitter grievance expressed through racism is depressingly familiar.
I thought that conversation would stay with me. It did. It has.
I came to Leipzig as a novelist hunting for “textural details,” those small things that make a scene grab hold of the reader. After the first twenty four hours in the city I was fascinated but…nothing spoke to me that way. I got a little panicky.
I’d made arrangements to look at photos at the city’s historical archives. Many, many photos of buildings that were later pulverized by RAF bombs. I told the archivist, Christoph Hoffmann, all about Viktor, my fictional Leipziger, and how Viktor’s father had a job as a city clerk and gotten a huge promotion when all the Jews were fired. As I explained so earnestly about someone I made up. Christoph did not look at me like I was a lunatic. Instead, he gave me a you’re-in-luck smile and directed me to the Neues Rathaus, the New City Hall, built in 1905. “Virtually untouched by the bombs. Exactly the way it was,” he assured me.
I had two hours left in the city. I tore over there.
The Neues Rathaus is red-roofed and wedding cake-like from the outside and the interior is gorgeous, a cathedral for bureaucrats. A majestic atrium, arched clerestory windows, dark curved wood beams.
I wandered over to a long, wide marble staircase with a red carpet reaching up to a mezzanine. A sculpted mermaid and centaur stood at the foot of the steps like sentries. Below the stone handrails were carved life-sized ducks and rabbits and turtles, everything at perfect eye level for a child.
I remembered that in this very building, Leipzig’s mayor and deputy mayor and their wives took cyanide as the Allies entered the city in April of ’45. Their bodies were found slumped over desks and across couches by American soldiers. The photographs were published in Life magazine.
As I stood gaping, a scene materialized: it is 1934 and my Viktor is a nine year-old boy in knee pants. He is playing alone on the staircase, enchanted with the mermaid, the sculpted animals, while he waits for his dour father. At last they have a rare moment of playfulness together. Eleven years later, a grown Viktor, a prisoner of war in the US, reads about his city’s surrender. The American newspaper reports that the most powerful men in Leipzig shared cyanide with their wives. He imagines heavily armed American GIs storming up that marble staircase—his beloved, magical staircase.
As I stowed my iPhone, I knew I got what I came for. It’s one reason why we write fiction—or why I do–to experience those rare, almost-hallucinatory moments.
I hope I’ll visit again. I don’t think I’m done. But after this trip, I think of Germany a little differently, more viscerally aware of the conflicts within that culture, residing in that one cab driver: grievance, bigotry and inspiring courage, just as in Leipzig’s “new” City Hall there was collective madness and death alongside whimsy and magic and beauty.