My “Finding Reiner” blog continues to be a challenge in crossing historical time zones. Reiner’s old letters describe his school and neighborhood, and I search 1940s maps and the Internet to find my route to his past. If I had architectural training, as Reiner did, I might comprehend just how much of ancient Cologne——founded in the 1st century AD——was lost to WWII bombings. From what I can tell through old photos (see link below), Reiner might not have recognized his city had he come back to it after the war in 1945. http://www.anicursor.com/colpicwar.html
Cologne is barely an hour on the ICE train from the Frankfurt airport station’s track 6. I booked all our train travel in advance through RailEurope.com (link below), so my husband, Hans, and I hop on board, relax in our reserved seats, and jump off at Cologne’s busy Hauptbahnhof (HBF) station. The hour is enough time to orient myself and draw the walking route from our hotel to Reiner’s apartment.
The walk takes us thirty minutes on foot through Cologne’s industrial Neustadt-Sud section, along Luxemburgerstrasse into the Stadteil SÜlz. Reiner’s Klettenberg district is now a pretty, residential area with handsome apartment buildings and sculpted parks. We stop at the corner "Eckstein" bar on Siebengebirgsallee for a quick coffee before walking the last stretch to Reiner’s wartime home. I take comfort in this neighborhood "kneipe" where we collect our thoughts and rest our feet.
Then, without much conversation, we pay the barman and leave. Three minutes later, we round the bend in the street and see the apartment, now painted green, from a distance. Seventy years have passed since someone took the photo of the family apartment, but I recognize the building immediately. So much and so little has changed.
Standing outside Reiner's old home, I'm overwhelmed with hazy images from family photograph albums: Reiner with his artist father, Alfons, in their library; the family sitting along the Rhine riverbank; Reiner's parents alone during the war; Reiner’s mother, Lotte, at the piano; and the family’s last meal all together in November 1942.
Before I go inside, I notice the stolperstein at the next entryway. And, I wonder if Alfons and Lotte looked out their top-floor window and witnessed Nazi officers tearing the Lazarus family from their home in 1941 before sending them to certain death in German-occupied Riga, Latvia. Cologne has many such stolperstein, or “stumbling blocks,” to memorialize victims of Nazi insanity. The artist, Gunter Denmig, has dedicated himself to this project, which was detailed in a 2007 Smithsonian article that you can read here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/...ry-blocks-173123976/.
Inside Reiner’s apartment building, I rub my hands on the banister and imagine Reiner doing the same on his many trips up and down the stairs in the ten years (1934 – 1944) that he called KlettenberggÜrtel home. I look out the staircase window and wonder too if Reiner's family ever sat in the pretty courtyard below. In 1944, the building was bombed and left uninhabitable, but now I hear voices of mothers and babies from the hallway. I wish my mother-in-law, LÜtte, could be with me on this trip. She’d gather up those babies in her lap and smile at the continuation of life.
During the decade that Reiner’s family of six lived here, they struggled to survive on Alfons’s teacher salary. Alfons had previously taught at a prestigious art institute in Kassel, but after the Nazi government closed the school, he was forced to take a job teaching basic drawing to high school students. In his free time, he illustrated architectural guides to Germany’s regions, and this work somewhat satisfied his intellectual and artistic passions that he restrained during the Nazi regime.
At least Alfons had a job during the war, though, and wasn’t put into a Gestapo prison for his anti-Nazi sentiments. City officials did show up at his doorstep once and demanded that he go with them for a “discussion” with the local Gauleiter, Nazi Party leader. Somehow Alfons talked his way out of leaving with the men, and perhaps out of grim internment. He also managed to keep hidden his outlawed, shortwave radio that he and LÜtte used to listen to BBC news. From that day forward, Lotte was a nervous wreck, constantly fearing that the Gestapo would return for her husband. One trip to Cologne’s El-De Haus, the former Gestapo headquarters, shows me how lucky Alfons was to have escaped detention there. This museum is a must-see for Cologne visitors.
After visiting KlettenbergÜrtel, I find Reiner’s school, Hansa Gymnasium, on Cologne’s Hansaring. This beautiful building was bombed as well, but it now bounces with life. The administration grants me permission to tour the school, but the students are not in session when I go. An English teacher tells me that some of the kids have made a field trip to Auschwitz and returned to mount an exhibit in the school’s basement. They make good use of the basement shadows to illustrate Nazi cruelty. I am comforted to know that young Germans learn the details of their country’s history and share the depth of their reactions through homework assignments.
After a long day of traipsing through Cologne's sadder history, Hans and I decide we need a break for a glass of German Riesling in Cologne's hip Belgian Quarter, to listen to Sunday choral music at the Dom, and perhaps to buy a bite of Niederegger marzipan at the chocolate museum.
I'll be back to "Finding Reiner" next Sunday, but in the meantime, I'll relish the knowledge that the war is long over and that we can now sit at a German cafe and watch the World Cup game of the USA vs. Germany without losing our heads.
To follow the other parts of this series, click HERE
(Unless otherwise noted, all photos belong to the author)
The North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) announced Whitney Stewart won BRONZE place in the 2014 NATJA Awards Competition in the Travel Series - Online category for Finding Reiner.