I’ve spent the past two weeks going to interviews with families and officials about German names in between epic bouts of hide and go seek and baking adventures at home. Several days last week, Emma & I kept ourselves (and the girls) occupied by driving into Leipzig. Leipzig is the largest closest city to my temporary German home and I’ve loved exploring the cafes and cobblestone streets.
I hadn’t heard much about Leipzig before I arrived so I was pleasantly surprised to be so close to such a great city. Leipzig is one of the two largest cities in Saxony (Dresden is the other) and has a population of about half a million. (People tell me that before German reunification there were closer to a million people living in Leipzig, but once the wall fell many people chose to move west to find work). Leipzig has a history of being a major trade city and became a large urban center for the GDR after World War II.
This monument is a Leipzig icon and was constructed in 1913 to commemorate the Battle of the Nations in 1813 which took place in Leipzig between Napoleonic France and a coalition of Prussia, Russia, Austria and Sweden. According to Wikipedia, this was the largest battle in Europe prior to World War I and ended Napoleon’s presence in Germany.
During World War II Leipzig was partially destroyed by bombings (although nowhere near as much as nearby Dresden) and then it changed quite a bit when it became a part of the GDR in 1945. Walking around the city today, the different styles of architecture you can find are pretty amazing. There are countless 1950s-style apartment buildings built when Leipzig was East Gemany next to brand new modern houses that have been renovated from bombed ruins. Wandering the streets, it is hard not to fall upon buildings with a lot of history….
St. Thomas church, for example, is the place where Johann Sebastian Bach worked as a cantor and is also home to the renowned St. Thomas boys choir. This is also where you can find Bach’s grave.
St. Nicholas church is particularly interesting because it is said to be the site where the Peaceful Revolution first began. In October 1989, “Monday demonstrations” began leaving from here and walking around the ring road of Leipzig’s old town. The protests grew bigger and bigger each week, until finally, in early December, citizens occupied the Stasi central office and branches. In the months leading up to this, when police tried to enforce a curfew to have cause to arrest the protesters, those working at St. Nicholas church invited everyone to take refuge inside. The events in Leipzig were the most prominent mass protest against the East German state.
The so-called “Old Town Hall” was built in 1556 and is currently used as a museum.
Auberbachs Keller is the bar where Goethe spent a lot of time and where a scene from Faust takes place.
I also spent an afternoon at the Rounde Ecke museum with Chris and Anne, two new friends who are students at the University of Leipzig. They showed me some other sights around the city (with a stop for the all important German tradition of “kaffeetrinken”-- 3pm coffee and cake). Rounde Ecke became the home base for the Stasi (secret police) in the GDR and today it houses a museum devoted to artifacts and documents from this time. The museum was eerie and fascinating and gave me a lot more information about what life was like in the GDR.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the museum is that it’s all preserved in authentic surroundings. As a brochure at the museum puts it, “The linoleum floor, the lattice bars on the windows, surveillance cameras and, not least, the typical GDR smell, which still lingers today in the former offices, are all reminders of the former use of the building.”
Because people weren't allowed to travel in the GDR, they hosted their own Olympics in Leipzig called the "Spartakiaefeuer." At the time, Chris's father even won a medal for his high jumping.
Also interesting were letters from schoolchildren that had been taken by teachers and mailed to the Stasi because they thought these students showed signs of being against the state. There were countless tools for spies, complicated letter openers, photos of the guillotine that was used from 1960-1968 and so many fake mustaches. It is one thing to read about this time in history books, and another thing to see the stacks of cassette tapes of “western music” that the Stasi had confiscated in the mail.
Because Leipzig was a trade center, it is made up of “passages” (outdoor tunnels filled with covered shops and markets). The one pictured below houses a superstitious fountain that (with the right pair of hands) can be coaxed into making music.
Chris & Anne having a go.
Besides touring these monuments and churches, there have been multiple stops at cafes that stretch into hours, many many pee breaks with the girls, and stops to look at fountains in department stores. The occasionally frustrating but surprisingly pleasant thing about exploring with kids is that it forces you to slow down. I'm finding that they are helpful reminders to not only look at the buildings and remnants of history, but also at the snowflakes, the bikes, the birds waiting to be fed.