Once upon a time this ridge divided the Austro-Hungarian Empire from Prussia. Then it became the frontier between Germany and Czechoslovakia. Today it divides the Czech lands from Poland.
These are, of course, only the more recent changes. Look back further and other names come up: Brandenburg, Bohemia, Greater Poland, even Tartary. Changes – ever more!
And yet the mountains remain as they have always been – but for some weathering. The erosion of rocks is far slower than the erosion of empires.
When I last walked over this ridge, an elderly man with a stick, it looked just as I remember it when my parents took me along these same paths when I was not yet ten.
On one of these family hikes, long years ago, my father stopped at a large log cabin. It looked like many such cabins in these mountains except for the chimney – an unusually wide stone chimney. “This,” he said, turning to my mother, “this is something the child ought to see.”
In the cabin sat three men wearing leather aprons, each in front of a small cauldron suspended over a charcoal fire. Each had a bellow at his foot. In the half-dark I saw one of them pull a lump of sticky matter from the cauldron with a long tube. He twisted it swiftly, then blew into the tube slowly. Very slowly. The lump grew into a ball and the man moderated the growing shape with a spatchel, shaping it as it expanded.
We were watching fascinated and I did not notice that we were not alone. We were not the only watchers in the room. There was also an elderly couple. The man wore an old-fashioned stiff collar – the type they used to call Vatermoerder – ‘patricide’. They, too, were observing the glass-blower as he shaped the mass with apparent ease. The old gentleman turned to me and said “Look carefully. You may never see this again.”
“Why not, sir?”
“It’s becoming rare. These Bohemian mountains are one of the few places you can still see it.”
The glass blower nodded. A minute or two later he had perfected his vase, placed it cautiously on a shelf behind his stool and turned to me:
“Last of the Mohicans! That’s what we are. The young escape to the cities. No one wants to stay in these mountains. I, myself? I have never wanted to live anywhere else.”
I overcame my shyness: “They are beautiful mountains.”
“The boy is right,” he said. “Stay, son, and become my apprentice. You look as if you had healthy lungs”
“But I want to be a pilot”, I said.
“A pilot?” He looked despairingly to the heavens.
The gentleman in the father-murder collar turned to the glass blower. “Just watching you work has given me an appetite. Tell me, where can we find a little lunch around here?”
“No need to go far.”
He pointed to a shoulder-high partition that I had not noticed in the half-dark. It separated the glassblowing shop from a small room with two tables and a bar counter
“My wife will see to you.”
My father turned to the glass blower: “Would you join us for a cognac?” The man thanked him very formally, took off his apron, washed his hands in a basin and came to sit with us. “I’ll have a Kümmel, if you don’t mind.”
The man in the murderous collar introduced himself: “Wittelshoefer”, he said as he bowed and clicked his heels, Prussian-style.
“Not Ministerialdirektor Wittelshoefer?” asked my father.
“Oh? You have heard of him? Horrible things, no doubt. I’m afraid I am that man.”
“Not at all,” said my father but said nothing more until the glass blower had finished his drink, thanked my father and had taken his leave. We were tucking into our frankfurters before my father explained “There are only three of us left. Three Jews remain in the ranks of the Prussian civil service. I mean the senior ranks. And here are two of us at this table. My rank is, of course more modest than yours.”
The Nazis had dismissed Jewish civil servants within days of Hitler coming to power. However, puzzlingly, a small number had been left at their posts. My father attributed his exemption to his record of impeccable integrity. In fact, it was not. I don’t know whether Dr Wittelshoefer knew better. I don’t think anyone did at the time – not until years later. Over a decade after Hitler had committed suicide confidential files were opened. They showed that the venerable old President Hindenburg – he who had commanded Germany’s armies in the First World War – had intervened: He said the honour of the German army was at stake. He could not agree to the dismissal of Jews who had fought in the frontline trenches in the Great War, nor to the dismissal of the orphans of Jewish fathers who had died for the fatherland. Hitler had to wait until Hindenburg himself died nearly two years later. Then people like Wittelshoefer and my father were compelled to retire.
We spent the remainder of that day hiking with the two Wittelshoefers. But that was the last I saw of them that year.
Next summer my parents decided to take their summer holiday across the border in Czechoslovakia, at the spa resort of Marienbad. I guess they had chosen this because it was just like home, yet also very different. The Sudeten region, though within Czechoslovakia, was German-speaking. The food was similar, the manners similar but – one saw no Nazis! Of course they were there but, at least, they were not visible.
The brown uniforms of Hitler’s storm troopers had been banned in Czechoslovakia. Bookshops sold publications that had been burnt in Germany. Lending libraries had shelves-full of these books. They were in great demand from tourists from ‘over there’. Librarians helpfully wrapped such books in brown paper to protect the borrowers from snoopers. My father read avidly.
My mother spent time soaking in mud baths credited with curative properties and sipped spa waters which were to ensure that she lost weight.
“Cure guests” had come to sip these mineral waters. Carrying little cups with spouts they promenaded around the colonnades and pavilions and parks of the elegant little town. But before they were permitted to fill their spouted cups they had to visit a “cure doctor”. He would advise which of the 40 or so springs were right for your particular condition. Water from a variety of different sources had been piped to a central “cure hall”.
It was on our first or second day there, while my father and I were taking a leisurely stroll along the beautiful covered colonnade, that we were surprised to hear our name called. There were Dr and Mrs Wittelshoefer! It should not have come as such a surprise. ‘People like us’ congregated at Marienbad in those years – middleclass Jews keen to breathe air free of Nazis. But there were many others. Most striking were Egyptian pashas with red fezzes. Gold watches on gold chains lodged in the waistcoats that covered their portly bellies. Even more alien-looking were orthodox Jews from Poland with long beards and side locks who wore wide-brimmed hats and long black kaftans. My father grumbled that their outlandishness provoked anti-Semitism. But other visitors who were not so exotic, also attracted attention. Discreetly my father pointed out to me German politicians in exile, men like Otto Braun, the former social democrat premier of Prussia. He had gone into exile following his dismissal by the right-wing Papen government – a blatantly illegal act that eased the path to power of the Nazis. Dr Wittelshoefer, in turn, pointed out to us the Soviet foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov. He was side-lined by Stalin a little later, but – unlike others purged at that time – he survived.
Other such people may have been among the passing crowd, bowing and politely removing their hats as they passed princes or ministers or acquaintances.
Who, in the 19th century or early 20th did not come to Marienbad? The tourist board leaflet listed Goethe and Chopin, Kafka, Wagner, Czar Nicholas II, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I and many more.
In the little band pavilion a band played happy tunes from Viennese operettas.
At one of the shops in the arcade my father bought me a local speciality – Carlsbader Oblaten, sweet thin wafers from Carlsbad, the largest of the Bohemian spas.
The central colonnaded walkway was some three stories high, protecting strollers from rain, snow, hail, sleet and from the sun. It was supported on cast-iron columns in a pseudo-baroque. All along one side were elegant shops. The other side was open to the gardens – beautifully manicured gardens. I suspect in our century no gardens are maintained quite as these were. Who, today, could afford such an army of gardeners? My father joked that they polished each blade of grass separately.
If the great colonnade had been built in Prussia it would have been rigidly straight, like the Imperial guards on parade. Not here. This had been built in days of the K und K Empire –Kaiser und Koenig – the Hapsburg kings of Hungary and emperors of Austria. Their colonnade curved gently and elegantly.
Spread around the gardens were wooden benches. One of these was drawn to our attention. This very bench had affected menswear the world over –and continues to do so to this day. In the 1890s it had been freshly painted when a corpulent English prince – later King Edward VII – sat down on it and stuck! Consternation! Aides rushed off to find other trousers. There were menswear emporia within the colonnade. Yes, confirmed the sales manager of one of the nearest, he would be honoured to provide a pair fitting even his royal obesity. However the prince would have to be patient for a few minutes. Trousers in his store room were stacked and the weight of trousers piled up gave each pair an unsightly crease – most unfortunate, that, melord. It would take a few minutes to iron it out.
The agitated equerry said he would take a pair just as it was. No way could he leave the heir to the British Empire stuck to that park bench. He and others of the royal entourage surrounded the royal prince to protect him from the gaze of the hoi polloi. It would not have been easy for so portly a royal to wriggle out of his trousers but his aides managed to extricate him and shoe-horn him into the new pair. Without batting an eyelid – noblesse oblige – the Prince resumed his interrupted walk along the promenade, greeting and being greeted by the great and good of Europe and the Middle East – and some not quite so good.
The following day (or was it a day after that?) every man of fashion in Marienbad promenaded with a sharp crease in the front his trousers. They still do – and not only at Marienbad.
Is my story true? I have never seen it confirmed in print but I heard it told in a great variety of languages by strollers passing that bench.
Marienbad town lodges in a gentle valley which then rises to forested hills. In the valley was a pavilion in which a band in operatic uniforms played tunes from Viennese operettas. Café-restaurants served rich food – as if to frustrate the effects of the spa cure. Some of these spring waters have laxative properties so there were discreet little toilets spread around the gardens. Each was guarded by an old harridan who stretched out one hand and demanded a small fee. In return she handed over some carefully counted sheets of toilet paper.
On the lower slopes rose hotels, large and grand, built in the second half of the 19th century. Had this been England they would have been in red-brick pseudo-Gothic. Here, however, they were in pastel colours – pink and yellow and ochre and pale blue in a baroque-like style. They had copper roofs – cupolas or mansards with a verdigrises patina. Chubby-cheeked angels hovered over windows that had curves much like those of a violin. Patron saints stretched out hands in blessing. Trident-carrying sea monsters blew into conch-shells. Caryatids supported large balconies.
We did not stay in one of these grand hotels but more modestly – in a boarding house.
After a few days I must have got bored or my parents found me a bore so they enrolled me at a Kinderheim- a colonie de vacance. In England middleclass families sent their sons to boarding schools but kept them within the family during the vacations. With us it was the other way round. Term time I remained at home and attended a neighbourhood school. During the vacations I was sent to a Kinderheim. I enjoyed the one at Marienbad even though I was only a day-boarder. Our group leaders were attractive young women who had, I guess, left Germany for political reasons. At siesta time they read to us while we lay in deck-chairs in the sun. The books were unlike any I had come across before. They were in German but printed in the Soviet Union – apparently translations from the Russian. I remember a tale of a boy who loses his parents in the turbulence of the great revolution. He has hair-raising adventures dodging ugly counter-revolutionaries until, finally, he finds his father, tall on horseback, riding with a crack Bolshevik cavalry regiment. Years later I learnt that, in the Stalin years, talented Soviet writers took to writing for children. It was safer than writing for adults. To me these books were far more exciting than the ones I read on the German side of the border.
In the late afternoon my parents came to collect me and took me walking, often to mountain restaurants. We passed the garden of one café where a group of elegantly dressed ladies were playing cards. They were conversing in a language I did not understand – French, I guess. They were smoking. Back home ladies did not smoke. Or if they did it was only in the privacy of their homes. I noticed one of them had a long amber cigarette holder. From under her chair emerged a little lap-dog who barked at us angrily. His mistress looked up at us and suddenly called out “Hansel” (the diminutive of my father’s name). He turned, took a step or two back and embraced her: “Luzie! My cousin!” She was one of numerous cousins I had never met – his father having been the youngest of twelve. We were invited for coffee at their apartment for later that week and to meet her husband. Then she returned to her game of cards.
I anticipated that this coffee afternoon would be a dead bore – adults talking about people I did not know nor wanted to know. I was wrong. Her husband, Dr Preminger was a “cure doctor”. Attached to their large apartment was his medical practise and attached to that was a large gym with exercise bicycles, rowing machines and dumb-bells. I was given the run of the gym. Luzie explained that they (and their little dog) spent the summer seasons at Marienbad, the rest of the year at Aswan in Egypt. At Aswan her husband had a second practise. Yes, the portly red-fezzed men we had passed on the esplanade were probably his patients.
`I played in the gym so I managed to escape adult conversation. The exercise bicycle was a bit of a struggle: my legs were still too short.
In those days there were, apparently, no rules to stop the Premingers travelling the world with a little dog. Alas! A year or two later, at Aswan, the dog contracted rabies and bit his mistress. She died a miserable death.
The spa buildings of Marienbad were built at the base of the valley. A ring of cliff-like hotels had been built on the gentle lower slopes. Beyond them the land rose steeply into dark pine forests. However excellently well-maintained footpaths zig-zagged through the forest. Such paths often led to a Baude on the crest – a log cabin housing a restaurant but some also had bedrooms or dormitories for overnight hikers. Others had rental shops for skis and toboggans for the winter snows.
That day we did not walk far. We stopped at a silent forest clearing with a single bench and a stone obelisk. A poem had been beautifully engraved into it – one of Goethe’s lyrics.
Ueber allen Gipfeln
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Voegelein schweigen im Walde,
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
I long believed he had composed it at this very spot. It seemed a poetic place. In fact, Wikipedia tells me it had been inspired by a forest in Thuringia.
English translations (and there are several) do little justice to Goethe’s original:
Above all summits
In all the treetops
Barely a breath;
The birds of the forest are silent,
Just wait, soon
You too will be at rest.
Fast forward 20 years or so:
My mother was now widowed at London – so was Mrs Wittelshoefer. They were surprised to meet again at the Café Cosmo at Swiss Cottage. Again, it should not have been such a surprise: It was at the Cosmo that one found Apfelstrudel as good as that in Vienna and Streuselkuchen much like that baked in Berlin. I, too, was taken along to see Mrs W. there. She was, by now, old and frail but alert enough to express shock when I did not recognise a quote from Goethe.
“I’ll leave you the collected works”, she said, “six volumes. But I don’t suppose you’ll read it all. I must admit I haven’t!”
Indeed, when she died a year or two later her housekeeper phoned she had had instructions that Mrs W’s three best friends were to help themselves to some memento from her household and I was to have the Goethe. I accompanied my mother. My mother chose a cut-glass vase from Bohemia that both she and I loved. Later I inherited it.
The crystal vase is shaped like a flower, opening slowly to the sun. It glows ruby-red, except where stars are cut into the crystal .These seem bright like firework sparklers. At first sight the vase seems unstable – too tall and likely to topple over. But looking more carefully, a precaution had been built into it: the vase hides a solid glass oval at its base to weigh it down.
I love that vase. To me it is a reminder of a world that I never knew. National hatreds had torn it apart before I was born: a world where one could cross borders without passports; a world that lampooned army officers, as the good soldier Schweyk did. National hatreds wrecked the Sudetenland. Bawling Nazis hailed Hitler as he marched in. Not much later he wolfed the rest of |Czechoslovakia. Czechs were relegated to second-class status. Great bloodshed followed. Hitler lost the war he had provoked. Czechs then took bitter revenge. German-speakers were expelled from regions their ancestors had inhabited since the 13th century. I suspect the helpful librarians were not exempted – they who wrapped books in brown paper to protect my father from snoopers, nor were the pretty girls who read to us from books published in Russia.
But to come back to the crystal vase: Despite its low centre of gravity one day someone knocked it over. It broke apart. I nearly wept, then spent over an hour gluing it together painstakingly: I have reassembled it, but not perfectly. There remains a gash. But perhaps that is apposite. The Old Testament tells us that when David heard of the death of Jonathan and Saul “he took hold of his clothes and rent them and likewise did all the men who were with him.” To this day orthodox Jews, when mourning, tear a lapel – the one nearest the heart.
National hatreds destroyed that old world. Hitler seized the Sudeten lands and they hailed him as their saviour – not all, but many thousands. When the fortunes of war turned the Czech drove the Germans out of these border lands.
But Europe – or some Europeans – did learn some lessons: Vaclav Havel, the poet/playwright who became president of Czechoslovakia, said the mass expulsions had been a crime. It did not make him popular at home but he had other priorities.