This afternoon I had the pleasure of taking my first real “ramble” in Leipzig. I love rambling. When I don’t have so many kids to take care of (my own, not my college students) I dream of doing long weekend rambles in Europe or England. Imagine a four day hiking excursion down the River Thames from Oxford. Or what about a hike through Saxon Switzerland? There is something thrilling about hiking, not knowing what one will encounter behind the next twist of the path, what small villages one will enter, what pubs will be there to warm the traveler.
During my ramble in Leipzig today I got to thinking about the rich mysteries that surround one in a city like this. Look at the picture above. On its face this seems to be just an abandoned building, little more than a brick shell with shattered windows and an abandoned smokestack. Walking around Leipzig, one can find buildings like this everywhere, old buildings that today serve as little more than canvases for local graffiti. But for every building in Leipzig, there is a story to tell, a history about the building’s origin, the people whose lives were shaped by time in this now abandoned space, the circumstances that led to the building’s decline. Increasingly I am intrigued and eager to learn more about these spaces, to hear these stories. Thus, today’s word(s) of the day, städtischen Geschichten, “urban stories,” beckons to the larger narratives that provide texture to what the hasty outsider might dismiss as nothing more than urban blight.
I would love to make a hobby of tracking down these kinds of stories in Leipzig. Unfortunately, my poor grasp of German makes archival research in the city far out of reach. Nonetheless, I remain eager to embrace those pieces of Leipzig’s history that I am able to glean. The most mysterious of buildings stands just a few blocks from my apartment. I haven’t taken a shot of the entire building, but today I photographed the most intriguing element, a large stone inscription in elaborate font that stands just above a wooden entrance. I think the building is still in use, though I can’t tell if it is an apartment complex or something else entirely.
Here I’ll solicit the help of readers more fluent in German. I can decipher the first two words of the inscription, Dem Vaterland. Vaterland is an English cognate, “Fatherland.” Dem is the masculine dative definite article. The third word is the feminine nominative definite article, die. Now things get tricky. I’ve had some difficulty with the last two words.
I believe the last work is Kraft, the German word for “force” or “strength.” The third word is tricky. The first two letters are G and A. I think the two vertical lines next to the A are an N and the squiggly vertical line next to it is a Z, which means the third word is ganze, an adjective which can mean “full, entire, or complete.” If I am correct, then the entire inscription reads, Dem Vaterland die ganze Kraft! But if this is correct, I need some help with the translation. The dative case is throwing me. The inscription seems to be saying something like, “To the fatherland, the entire force!” But what does this mean? Notice that the stone of the inscription is shaped as if it is a folded in on itself, with a portion of the inscription hidden. Is the verb that completes the inscription unseen?
Adding to the mystery, to the left of the entryway is space where some sort of painted signage used to exist. The lettering of the sign is mostly warn away, save for a few words that one can make out, tantalizing clues.
On the bottom left corner, one can make out the word Mittwock, “Wednesday.” At the top, one can barely make out the word Heilung, “healing” or “therapy.” Elsewhere on the sign (not pictured: I’ll post all photos on Facebook later this week) I can make out the word während d., “during [the] . . .]. Trying to decipher letters on the worn sign reminds me of the time I spent in graduate school trying to decipher Greek letters on ancient NT manuscripts. It’s also unclear: does the sign point to the building’s original use, or is it perhaps a later addition that altered the building’s purpose?
I’ve been puzzling over this building for a few weeks and have come up with a few speculations on what the inscription might mean. My first inclination is that the inscription might date from the era of National Socialism in Germany, where the idea of the German Vaterland was an appeal to absolute loyalty to the German state. If this is the case, then the inscription might point to the idea of a people that offers up it’s entire strength in service to the Vaterland. If this is the meaning, though, then what was the purpose of the building?
Here is another possibility: in contexts involving employment, Kraft can sometimes signify the idea of labor force. If the building originally served as a factory, then is it possible that the inscription hails from the DDR era and references the idea of the entire labor force of the factory being in service to the Vaterland? Another tantalizing possibility.
I’m happy to be back in Leipzig. There are so many questions to ask, so many places to explore. Future study abroad students, learn this lesson: there is nothing better to do with a weekend in your host city than to set aside 6 hours to ramble, to take pictures, and to explore places that most tourists will never see.