In the fall of 2010, my wife Sheila and I visited Berlin, and my son Fred joined us there. On Fred’s initiative, he and I took a trip to Fürstenhagen, the village where I spent most of the war years. (See my mother’s “The Village” and my “Memories of ‘The Village‘”) He had read about Fürstenhagen in my mother’s memoirs and was intensely curious — much more so than I — what it was like today. I resisted at first — my memories were not the fondest — but gave in to make him happy. Getting there was a fast train ride on the ICE (Inter City Express) from Berlin to Göttingen, then a short hop on a regional train to the village of Offensen, and then a 3 km walk along a silky-smooth road to Fürstenhagen. (Map Link)
Fürstenhagen, in my childhood strictly a farm village, has reinvented itself as a vacation spot, or so the sign at the entrance proclaims. I gathered from the information kiosk that the town hosted a series of motorcycle rallies. A variety of hiking trails and a harvest festival also beckoned visitors.
Our first stop was at the Landsgasthaus Zur Linde (the country inn “At the Linden Tree”) for lunch. We found seats at the side of the bar; a group of German visitors occupied all the tables. The proprietor recommended the plate of mixed cold cuts, made in house by his brother, a butcher. The dishes were delicious and the portions generous. The inn also impressed with its state-of-the art Dyson hand dryer in the immaculate bathroom.
After pushing back the empty plate, I had a chat with the innkeeper. Told him I had spent the war years here with my mother in the parsonage (“Pfarrhaus”). Did the parsonage still exist? Yes, opposite the church, just up the road. He got on the phone and reached Frau Kempe, a volunteer with the church, who agreed to hop on her bicycle and meet us there.
Minutes later we were at the church. Frau Kempe appeared, gave us a friendly greeting, and pointed us at a two-story structure in the Fachwerk (timbered) style, opposite the church. She explained that the church had sold the property some years earlier to a private owner, but that the church rented a meeting room on the ground floor for classes and child care. She showed us the room. The rest of the house was inaccessible and the owners were absent. We admired the door and some of the details, and poked around on the grounds. The place did not trigger in me any epiphanies of recognition.
She also admitted us into the church, a cozy structure with a solid, minimalist, Protestant feeling to it. Frau Kempe explained that there were not enough parishioners to support a full time clergy person. A woman minister traveled among six different churches in the region and held services in Fürstenhagen about once a month.
Frau Kempe was born after the war and had no personal knowledge of that time. But she referred us to the local historian, Herr Alfred Görges. We walked a few short blocks to the vicinity of Görges’ house and stopped to ask directions of a middle-aged gent who was working on his manicured front lawn. He turned out to be Görges’ son-in-law, Hermann Müller, and told us that unfortunately Görges was in Göttingen at the moment getting dialysis treatment and would not be back until the evening. He invited us into his house and showed us three of Görges’ books: Wohnen in Fürstenhagen (Living in F.), Leben und Arbeiten in F. (Living and Working in F.), and Wir Waren Fast noch Kinder (We were almost just children). I bought the first two, and accepted the third as a gift. The “Wohnen” book is a history of the village from the 12th century forward, containing documentary and oral information about each and every house in the village. The second book is a survey of the town’s trades and occupations, with many historical photos. The third consists of wartime remniscences.
One of the books contains a photo of Pastor Feldmann, the local Protestant minister in 1940, and his wife. Feldmann was drafted into the German Army and was killed on the Eastern Front, like my father. Frau Feldmann was the main tenant of the parsonage while my mother and I were guests there; my mother writes about Frau Feldmann in her memoirs.
Herr Müller connected us with the head of the local historical society, Herr Heinrich Thiele, a few houses away. Herr Thiele drove us in his car a half mile or so up the hill to the former local school house, now the local museum, and unlocked its doors for us. The society had done an admirable job assembling tools, furnishings, photos and other artifacts from the village’s history and displaying them with helpful legends.
On our way back to the inn, where we stopped for a final cup of coffee and cake, I took note that the creek still ran down the middle of the main street; but it had been tamed, channeled, cleaned of weeds, and prettied up with potted plants. No more nettles.
I was impressed with Fürstenhagen, and grateful to Fred for dragging me on the trip. Since the war, we were told, nearly all the independent farm holdings that once were the mainstay of the community had been consolidated into the hands of two or three large landholders, and most of the residents now commuted to work in nearby towns. It was now a bedroom community, but it managed to reinvent itself as a vacation spot; it boasted an excellent country inn; and it had not completely lost its moorings but held fast to the images and artifacts of its history. The village is fortunate to have a diligent and capable local historian like Alfred Görges in its midst. The people we met were unfailingly nice and helpful to us. If I had met the boy who pushed me into the nettles or the girl who threw the rock in my face, and if we had recognized one another, I’m sure they would have sincerely apologized.
Here’s an album of photos from our visit on Sept. 19, 2010: