Lively, lovely Leipzig

Considering its important role in fomenting the Peaceful Revolution that eventually brought down the Soviet regime, Leipzig is a city that seems to radiate joy and happiness.

Maybe that’s due to its musical heritage, which includes Bach, Mendelssohn and Wagner. We visited St. Thomas Church, where Martin Luther introduced Leipzig to Protestantism, and Bach himself conducted the famous boys’ choir – which still performs. Luther is commemorated in one of the church windows, and in the gift shop’s pasta selection as well. Such is fame.

The Bach museum across the way houses many original manuscripts, portraits and some personal effects, including two instruments from his own orchestra.

And let us not forget Goethe, who studied at the famous Leipzig University for three years. He is immortalized by several monuments, two of which are flanking the entrance to the Auerbacks Keller restaurant, which he frequented, and used as a setting for scenes in Faust. Don’t ask me to explain further, but it does involve Mephistopheles making his deal with Faust.

But we could not avoid the recent past. St. Nicholas Church was the center of the Peaceful Revolution, starting with Monday prayer meetings that mushroom into candlelight vigils and prayers that thousands attended outside in the square. One East German officer was supposed to have said, “We were ready for anything…except candles and prayers.” While it did not go without notice, when 320,000 participated in demonstrations on October 16, 1989, the government began to topple, with premier Honecker resigning and disarray ensuing. Shortly after, the wall fell.

The end came because brave people seized the moment and were unrelenting in their protest.

Immediately after, people seized the secret police headquarters, where the Stasi detained and interrogated those suspected of being traitors. The museum that was quickly installed in order that key evidence of the terror of the regime not be lost has a very heartfelt quality, and its very personal and amateur displays only serve to reinforce the outrage of the people.

The Stasi kept records on everyone, and those went well beyond name, rank and serial numbers. With people they were quite suspicious of, they captured perspiration odors, saliva, handwriting and voice recordings – so that it would be easier to turn the dogs loose later.

Of course, when they knew the end was near, lots of file shredding went on. The volume of files was so high that pulping machines kept breaking down. The people stopped the file destruction as soon as they took over the building. Big pulping machines were constantly trying to turn paper back into mush. One can now go look at the actual files, though some people avoid knowing what was said about them – and by whom. Would you really want to know that your own family members had reported you for unpatriotic comments? Or your best friend or favorite colleague? Maybe better not to know.

Somehow, life moved on after the fall of the Soviets. When asked what happened to all those who were part of the Stasi army of 600,000 unofficial employees, the museum guide said that many went on to jobs like insurance sales and the building trades. There seemed to be no point in creating the reverse of the system that had made life miserable for so long. Wow.

But the city seems to be more forgiving even in its architecture. There is a sense of lightness and whimsy among the buildings that survived the war, and a more coherent style at work here than we saw in Berlin.

And to end the afternoon, we watched a Mardi Gras parade winding around the market square. It was good to see so much fun in a place that had also seen so much unhappiness. Also, the Christmas fair is still going on, as Leipzigers want to chase away the gloom of winter as long as possible.

We really enjoyed our day here. Food-wise, it started with an outstanding late breakfast and ended with tea and apple-laden sweets at the famous Cafe Baum, which claims to be the oldest coffee house in Germany. We also admired the offerings at the holiday fair and had to buy a pretzel to eat on the way home. Yum yum.

This place made us happy.

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