Wandering and Wondering

Schwarzwald-Odenwald, Southwest Germany, Wed., Oct 12, through Fri., Oct. 14, 2011

Freiburg Cathedral

Bear with me as I detour briefly from the travelogue to a personal reflection I had on leaving the serenity of Dornach for the mysterious and somewhat melancholic region of southwestern Germany where I was now headed. After all, every worthwhile journey, actual or virtual, pits our inner world against a further aspect of the outer world, and we come away changed by the experience.

My mind—and, I assume, most minds—tends to drift towards certain scenes and subjects somewhat involuntarily. As I mentioned previously, this was true of Dornach; and it was even more true of the places I found myself approaching on Wednesday morning, October 12.

To be sure, there was a matter of family history here: my mother was born in Freiburg, the day’s destination, an hour north of the Swiss border. Some of my earliest memories are of stories she told and pictures she showed, with uncharacteristic nostalgia, of this, the Black Forest region, where she was born. She would speak, her eyes gleaming, about skiing there and in neighboring Switzerland in snow so deep that they zoomed over the roofs of houses buried beneath on the way down the mountain. She taught us German Christmas and hiking songs, cooked and baked meals with long German names, and knitted socks and scarves with sub-Alpine patterns—sounds, smells and feels that my child’s mind attached idyllically to this corner of the world.

Black Forest

In the hills of the Black Forest. In its depths it is indeed black.

But, as I learned a bit later, there was a tragic side to this, my mother’s homeland, and that too hung in the air as I went there. She had talked about one of her first memories: watching, as a three-year-old, the dejected German troops crossing back over the Rhine in defeat at the end of World War, her father among them, permanently disabled by the poison gas used in the trench warfare. And the tragedy in her life increased as she grew older: that same father eventually left his wife and three children; he could not continue his career if he remained married to a Jewish woman. His ghost, our purely German side, although none of his grandchildren ever met him, also haunted the region.

But family roots don’t explain all personal fascinations for a specific place. When I was in Turkey researching The Anathemas, I had a similar intuition without family connections to that country. But there is always something familiar (funny, that pair, family and familiar). (By the way, New York City, my current abode, is another example. No matter how far west I move, time after time I find myself back in the Big Apple.)

Ok, enough of a digression into a parallel universe. What was I trying to do and what did I accomplish in my three days in the Black Forest-Odenwald area?

My first stop north of the border was the mountain hamlet of Muggenbrun. Okay that you’ve never heard of it. Strictly a research stop: where my protagonist hid, away from his Nazi superiors’ eyes, to write undisturbed. I had seen a photograph of him there with identified acquaintances, all sitting on the porch of a house with distinctive background scenery, and copies of letters to and from him there but without a street address; no surprise as the town even now is small.

Things can change radically in seventy years, but in Muggenbrun not so much. Given the language barrier, I couldn’t just chat around, so I walked the roads and climbed the hill behind the town, video camera in hand, recording everything visible so I could compare the footage to the photo later. In the only open store, I asked the clerk, without much hope, if there was a book about Muggenbrun available. I must not have been the first to ask. She whipped out a good-sized volume, in German, but with lots of black- and-white pictures, mostly family portraits but also several useful panoramic shots, some dated in the 1930’s, the decade I was interested in. I bought it. As with the video, it was the very sort of thing I had to go “on location” to obtain.

Muggenbrun took the heart of the Wednesday, and, after finding the hotel, often an adventure in itself, I had only the evening and little energy left for Freiburg. Of course, I visited it and reported back thus to the immediate family: “Thought I’d write a quick note to you all from the town where Mom was born. Didn’t have too much time to explore the city (a large and modern one now) in detail, but I did stop into their medieval Gothic cathedral and wondered if Mom sat in those pews as a little girl just under a hundred years ago.” Our mother was raised Catholic and remained so all her life, which made it all the more shocking to her and many other “converts” that the Nazis designated them as Jews, with all the dire consequences, because they were of Jewish ancestry.

Driving about a hundred miles north the next morning and surviving a standstill of several hours on the autobahn, I could only give the beautiful river city of Heidelberg a drive-through and then hustled on to Heppenheim, where I settled for two days, Thursday and Friday. I came to this area, the Odenwald (Forest of Odin), to steep myself in the background, natural surroundings and cultural environment of my protagonist, who had been born, raised and returned often to this region. Without giving away the story, I’ll note that my target was a paradox: a passionate and mystical writer and researcher who had also worn the dreaded black SS uniform. Dachau showed me what went into making a SS man; in the Odenwald I hoped to discover what might have contributed to making my protagonist an idealist and mystic at the same time. Using his two published books, only recently translated into English, as guides to the places he loved and revered, the majority of them in the Odenwald (he wrote nothing about the SS other than semi-official letters), I wanted to walk where did and see what he saw, hoping thus to uncover how he came upon the ideas about which he wrote—the Stanislavski method transferred to writing.

The town center of Michelstadt in the Odenwald

The town center of Michelstadt in the Odenwald

The hotel in Heppenheim was on Sigfriedstrasse, and another main road was called Nibelungenstrasse, cumbersome names but clues to the region’s claim to fame. The Nibelungenlied, translated as The Song of the Nibelungs, is a medieval epic poem in Middle High German that tells of the dragon-slayer Siegfried, how he was murdered, and of his wife’s revenge. The Brothers Grimm, too, lived and worked in the neighborhood, recording the folk tales of the locals that Walt Disney later turned into memorable motion pictures: Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, to name a few. No wonder the romantic, mystical and magical were integral to my protagonist. I visited his birthplace, Michelstadt, now surrounded by factories and malls, but with its walled central plaza preserved to look like it did when my man was a child. His writings showed him to be in tune with Nature; and walking through the surrounding Odenwald, now a national park, gave me a clue to this inclination. The forest was strikingly beautiful the day I visited with pines so tall and clustered that the sun did not reached the uncluttered ground. I imagined, though, that in the rainy season or winter it got cold and gloomy enough to stir one’s shadow side. My protagonist’s radical mood swings could be blamed on the Odenwald.

There was much more I saw and learned in that region: Amorbach, with its rococo cathedral, Roman ruins in nearby Wilderburg, the remains of a Carolingian abbey under reconstruction in Lorsch, and all sandwiched between the whirling mechanics of a thriving modern economy. But Saturday morning came, and, all disposable time used up if I was to complete the rest of my travel plan, I had to move on. So I headed further north, another phase of the mission accomplished, a clearer but more complex image of my man and his story packed away in my mind.

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