October, 2002 – Leipzig, Germany
My father, Rudolf, was born in eastern Germany, and grew up in Leipzig, a major trade and intellectual center in pre-war Germany. WWII then erupted and he, as well as many of his schoolmates, went off to fight the war. When the war ended, some of them came home, many did not, and some moved to other places as the Soviet block was established and Leipzig fell under control of the communists.
In the decades since WWII, my Dad settled first in England, married an English woman (Iris, my mother), had 3 kids (my 2 sisters and myself), and eventually emigrated from England and to the US, where I grew up.
Of course, Leipzig is still his “home,” – where he was raised – as Hampton Bays, NY, will always remain mine. In the years following our immigration to the U.S., Dad had only been back to Leipzig twice – once in the late 80’s when it was still under communist control, and once in the late 90’s after reunification.
Recently, through some detective work on his part, Dad had gotten in touch with a long lost school and military buddy, Ali. Ali had ended up back in Leipzig after the war. The best of friends while they were in school, and in the military, they were separated in POW camp in the U.S. and had lost touch with each other since. Somehow, my dad found out his old friend was alive and living in Leipzig, traded a few letters with him, and decided he’d like to go back to pay a visit.
As an adult, I’d only ever been to Germany once before (in Darmstadt, for a conference), and certainly never to Leipzig and never with my father. I was frankly curious as to what this part of Germany was like – after all, it is a part of my heritage. So father and son decided to return for a visit and a reunification with long-lost friends.
We stayed with another of my Dad’s old school friends, Hellmut, who certainly made us welcome. Hellmut lives in Paunsdorf, a suburb on the outskirts of Leipzig, where my Dad actually grew up.
One the primary impetuses for the trip was a chance for Dad to visit with Ali, his old school friend. Before this trip, Dad and Ali hadn’t seen each other for over 50 years.
One afternoon we had some extra time, so went over to the old neighborhood where my Dad grew up and wandered around, revisiting old memories – the house and street he grew up on, the church, the school, the pub where his uncle used to have his beer – all still there. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of Hampton Bays, NY (where I grew up) will be recognizable in 50 years time. Half of it is completely unrecognizable already, 20 years later.
One morning Hellmut took us in the car to another part of Leipzig, the site of the “Battle of the Nations” memorial. On this site, on October, 1813, combined Austrian, Russian and Prussian forces fought, and won, a decisive battle against the army of Napoleon I. Approximately 130,000 died in the battle. According to Hellmut, many of their bones still remain buried in the soil in the area of the monument.
The monument is, well, massive is the first word that comes to mind. A reflecting pool in front of the monument provides a nice place to walk around. The monument itself has
steps leading halfway up the outside, which I took the opportunity to climb, gaining a birds-eye view of the area surrounding the monument and the city-center not too far away.
We all spent a chilly afternoon wandering around the Leipzig Zoo. The zoo apparently has been around for quite some time, and is known for it’s lion breeding programs. It was cold enough that we would wander around outside for a while, then duck into one of the tropical exhibits to warm up.
The Hauptbahnhauf (main train station) in Leipzig is apparently one of the largest in central Europe – Leipzig serves as a rail hub for much of Eastern Europe. Damaged during the war, it has been extensively renovated and a brand new, modern two story shopping mall built in two floors underneath the main level of the station.
Leipzig is an interesting city, architecturally. Old pre-war architecture mixes with communist-era architecture and monuments. Although rebuilding is still ongoing
on a large scale, you still run into remnants of the former East Germany here and there.
The city saw an out flux of people after the war when the communists took over, and another exodus more recently when reunification happened. Hence, it shrunk in population from 5th largest in the country to something closer to 35th. Consequently, there’s a glut of apartment buildings and housing. In the suburbs, modern housing developments and renovated apartment buildings stand next to old, bombed out buildings that have yet to be rebuilt since the war. There’s some concern that, as young people leave, the town will go into further decay and slowly dwindle further.
The center of town has been largely rebuilt, though, and is a vibrant shopping, restaurant, and commerce era, busy during the day with workers and shoppers and bar and night-club goers at night. It certainly didn’t give me the impression of a dying community – rather, of a growing, thriving place. On the way out to the airport, there’s a big sign with the Porsche Cayenne on it, announcing that it is manufactured in Leipzig. Apparently, Porsche has just built a large plant there. Let’s hope the city can manage to grow and prosper without destroying the architecture and rich cultural heritage it now enjoys.