Spots of Time or Tricks of Memory in Leipzig

By Rob Packer

We left Berlin on the knife-edge of a summer’s day. The heat had built up for days and the air had a tang, as if the flap of a butterfly’s wing would bring the summer crashing down.

As we drove south across the plains of Brandenburg and Saxony, the blue skies greyed and between Wittenberg and Leipzig, a curtain of darkness had been drawn across the Autobahn. At some point my mother—this part of the trip was more pilgrimage than holiday for her—had put the ‘Goldberg Variations’ on the car stereo and they were our soundtrack as we drove who knows how many times around Leipzig, asking for directions: they kein Englisch, we kein Deutsch. The butterfly had flapped its wings and the city had become a labyrinth.

Had I understood the butterfly effect then, I would have imagined its wing-flapping in Bosnia. That summer, Bosnia was on all our minds as the war intensified and whispers of the horror of Srebrenica filtered out barely reaching us. Just six years after the end of communism, parts of Europe were tearing themselves apart as we watched powerlessly; peaceful areas seemed—at least from a Westerner’s perspective—part hopeless grey morass, part our continent’s new frontier. To me it also said future: it was the summer before I was to start German and Russian at school which, I imagined, would lead to me discovering my lost Romanian heritage—more about that in this blog—although life ultimately turned out very differently.

Seventeen years later these memories seemed all but disappeared, as I stepped into a honey-scented spring evening at Leipzig’s steel and glass airport and took the train to its enormous shop-filled station. In the centre the next day, memories did start to come back, but more as hazes of remembered images than real memory.

In 1995 it had started with flowers. Above us towered the Gothic Thomaskirche where, as I would find out later, Johann Sebastian Bach was cantor from 1723 until his death in 1750 at the prestigious Thomanerchor, the boys’ choir attached to the church, which even then was over 500 years old—today the Thomasschule is one of the world’s oldest schools. As we arrived my mother had jumped out of the car and disappeared. She quickly reappeared, but why was she holding bunch of flowers? We went into the white columns and red details of the interior and as she went to a grave by the altar, I suddenly understood that the flowers were part of the same pilgrimage as the ‘Goldberg Variations’ the day before.

A few streets away, the Nikolaikirche was the same wedding-cake of neoclassicism inside, but was now attached to learnt memories. The church was the meeting place of the Monday demonstrations that came to a head in the pressure cooker of 1989 East Germany, when the country began leaking people to the West and those who stayed seemed to lose their fear. Images and videos of crowds chanting “Wir sind das Volk!” (We are the people!) came back from studying the peaceful 1989 revolution at school. Memories the next day at Leipzig’s History Forum (Zeitgeschichtliches Forum) were more complicated with footage of people climbing embassy walls and surging through the Hungarian countryside that seemed to come from somewhere far deeper. Childhood memory is famously unreliable, but were these really memories of a seven-year-old or just the same learnt memories projected back in deeper recesses of my mind?

Between those two churches, the memory of a shop sign was crystal-clear. It was the wrought iron sign of Auerbach’s Cellar, a drinking hall (once for students, now for tourists) immortalized in Faust. Of all the places in the world, Goethe, who was a student in Leipzig, chose this as the first place for Mephistopheles to take Faust for some mischievous carousing. In a warning about not accepting drinks from strangers, after a few songs, Mephistopheles gets everyone a round of drinks that turns out to be something a bit like Greek fireand they make a hasty exit. But I was distracted by a narrow square opposite with a statue of Goethe and a small white baroque building behind.

Auerbach’s Cellar

Throughout a decade studying German and no matter the lectures on avant-garde playwrights like Brecht, Büchner or Wedekind, one particular image had always popped into my mind that came to epitomize German theatre for me. I’d always it had come from a photo, probably from Weimar or somewhere, that I’d seen once and reimagined—a narrow square, statue of a playwright and white boxy building. I had no idea it was a real memory that had shorn itself of links with place and time and burrowed into my unconscious to be recalled involuntarily with the words “German theatre”.

It felt like a mystery solved but a few seconds later I discovered that disembodied memory is never simple: the white building was the Alte Handelsbörse, or old stock exchange, not a theatre—although there is a concert hall on the ground floor. What for a split second had almost seemed like a Wordsworthian “spot of time” was actually memory misremembered.

“German Theatre”?

The Thomaskirche:

The Nikolaikirche:

The Town Hall:

Modern times.

Around town:

Real Life: An Introduction.


One Response to Spots of Time or Tricks of Memory in Leipzig

  1. I’ve really feasted my eyes and added to my knowledge on German heritage. Kudos!

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