Special travel blog by Gert Krell
We are back from a week in Leipzig, where we had never been before. One reason to go was this year’s Bach festival there. I had read “Bach und ich” by the famous Dutch novelist Marten t’Haart in spring. I had also heard a long interview with him on the radio, where he indicated to my surprise that he did not regard the Netherlands as enlightened and as liberal as it seemed to many Germans. He indicated that he might even emigrate, if things (i.e. right-wing populism) got worse. When asked where he might go, he answered: probably to Leipzig. I now understand why.
Today, after twenty years of continuous restoration, Leipzig is a beautiful city again. It has the largest concentration of “Gründerzeit” buildings in Germany, large rows of big apartment buildings from the second half of the 19th century with richly decorated facades, stately but never pompous. The whole atmosphere in the city is one of spacious generosity. Leipzig also has two of the most prominent Protestant churches in Germany: the Thomaskirche with the famous Thomas Choir, which will celebrate its 800th birthday next year; and the Nikolaikirche, which was the center of the peaceful revolution in the German Democratic Republic in 1989.
Leipzig once was the fourth largest German city, but it lost about one sixth of its population during the years of Communist rule; after the “Wende” (the “turning point”, i.e. the end of the Communist regime), another 30.000 left for the “golden West”. Today, many Saxons work in Austria’s and West Germany’s gastronomy, as bus drivers or conductors, or in the security services. Leipzig is only no. 12 in the list of major cities now, but it is growing again.
Leipzig used to be an important industrial and political center, it was the cradle of both the German workers’and the womens’ movements in the mid-nineteenth-century. Most of all, it was a cultural focal point. It housed many famous publishers of literature, including music publishers. In the course of the 19th century, it had more than 100 piano factories, at one time about 20 simultaneously. With few exceptions, that is all gone. Fortunately, Leipzig still is a center of musical performance and education, which it has almost always been since the days of Johann Sebastian Bach, Robert and Clara Schumann, and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. It still has one of the best musical schools in Germany, founded by FMB in 1843 and still (or rather: again) carrying his name. And it has one of the world’s best orchestras, the famous “Gewandhausorchester”. There is music in the city everywhere.
The major reason why we went to Leipzig was that Lutz, one of our closest friends, had invited us to visit the city where he was born during the war and raised under the Communists. Lutz had been an active member of the Protestant Church then and showed this at school. His reports included the sentence: “Lutz does not show any willingness to join in the building of socialism.” This meant that he was not allowed to go to high school. All that was offered him was to become a cement mixer. The family then decided to leave their home and move to West Germany via Berlin, which was still possible in the late 1950s.
When I got to know Lutz in my student years, his lively and authentic discussion of “real socialism” was a very important corrective against my naïve illusions about the other German state. Well, there are still people all over my country who believe that the German Democratic Republic had been a “genuine alternative democratic experiment”. That is ridiculous, if you consider how the Communists treated any opposition to their total political control, including death sentences and strategies of personal psychological “Zersetzung”. That was the official term; it means something like “decomposition”! The Nazis had used the term widely to discredit non-conformism.
Some of the scars of our history are more visible than these stories of individual suffering. There are still many empty spaces in Leipzig’s built-up areas, gaps from the war which the GDR had not filled. In addition, the Communists let many of the old buildings which had survived go to rack and ruin; there was very little maintenance or renovation. Towards the end or the regime, much of the whole country looked dark and drab. You can still see many dilapidated houses in between which urgently need repair.
The greatest scar, however, is the destruction of the Jewish community. Until 1933, more than 12.000 Jews lived in Leipzig, which had 17 synagogues. Only about 2.400 Jews survived the Nazi terror, almost all of them in exile – Josef Burg, an important Israeli politician and Avraham Burg’s father, being one of them. Like in so many other places, the Jewish community in Leipzig had been one of the most active economically, socially, culturally, and intellectually. In 1988, only 35 Jews still lived there. Now the community is growing again, due to immigration from Russia.
140 empty bronze chairs at the place of the former main synagogue remind inhabitants and visitors of the more than 10.000 Jews deported and murdered by the Nazis. (I have seen figures between 11.000 and 14.000) The monument was built in 2001.
In 2008, a replica of the Mendelssohn monument was placed near the Thomaskirche. It was rebuilt as a faithful copy, with the help of computers on the basis of old photographs. The deputy mayor of Leizpig, who was a Nazi, had let the original be destroyed in November 1936, while Carl Goerdeler, the chief mayor of the city, was away. Goerdeler resigned in protest and later became a central figure in the resistance against Hitler. He was murdered by the Nazis after the failure of the coup in July 1944.
In 1997, 150 years after his early death, the house where Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy had lived with his family in his final years was reopened after restoration and renovation. The beletage now is a museum, where they often have concerts in the old music room. Since 2007, the Mendelssohn Foundation has awarded an International Mendelssohn Prize Leipzig every year to people who work in FMB’s tradition, either politically or culturally. This year, we joined the Gala concert and the presentation of the prizes to Lang Lang, the famous Chinese pianist and a great admirer of Mendelssohn, and Iris Berben, a well-known and courageous German actress who works for tolerance and understanding. After the concert, which ended with Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s fifth, the “Reformation Symphony”, the whole audience rose in applause and enthusiasm, not only for a brilliant orchestral performance but also in reverence for FMB, I am sure. There has been a virtual Mendelssohn renaissance in recent years, and the prejudice against his music, which had outlived Wagner and the Nazis in some circles, seems finally to have been put to rest.
So some healing has been done. On Leipzig’s main street, the Grimmaische Straße, we met Alex Jacobowitz with his huge marimba. Alex, who was born in New York in 1960 and now lives in Jerusalem, is one of a handful of professional xylophone soloists in the world. In summertime, he travels Europe’s major cities to play Klezmer, traditional Jewish, and classical music and to talk to people, about music, tolerance, and humanism. When we heard him, he mostly played Bach, but also a Spanish classicist. It was then when he spoke about the old golden Spanish period of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim neighbourhood and intensive cultural exchange.
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