Where Germans Make Peace with Their Dead
By Burkhard Bilger
Through a practice that is part therapy and part séance, children of war come to terms with their history.
|Illustration by Miguel Porlan|
My great-grandmother Luise Gönner had a keen eye for dead people. She would see them sitting by the side of the road sometimes when she worked in her garden in the morning, or waiting by the village crossroads at dusk, a look of mournful reproof in their eyes. Whether the sight alarmed or consoled her, I can’t say. Luise was born in 1871 and died six months after my mother’s birth, in 1935. I know only the stories about her that my mother heard growing up. She says that Luise was in most ways a sturdy, commonsensical soul, so I like to imagine that she took her visitations in stride: old friends and neighbors stopping by to pick up the conversation where they’d left off.
Herzogenweiler, the village where Luise was born and spent nearly every day of her life, lies in the heart of the Black Forest, hemmed in on three sides by dark ranks of pines. The land belonged to the Prince of Fürstenberg in Luise’s day and was worked by tenant farmers not much better off than serfs. Although the people of Herzogenweiler were deeply devout, theirs was a pre-Reformation sort of Catholicism—a murky brew of folklore, superstition, and pitiless religion. Even the boldest farmers hurried home before nightfall, lest some dire spirit overtake them, and the Devil was more than an idle threat. He was the dark stranger who might come knocking at your door some windy night; the man with the hooded eyes at the end of the bar, lazily flipping a coin in the air.
Luise was the village midwife, so mortality was never far from her mind. The closest doctor was in Villingen, two hours away on foot in the next valley, so she took care of all but the most grievous injuries. The villagers cut lumber for added wages, often in the depths of winter, so mishaps were common: falling timbers, piercing splinters, blades that skipped off bark and bit into ankles and thighs. Luise got used to sending bodies large and small to the walled-in graveyard in the meadow below the village, only to meet them again later on the road.
My mother and my eldest daughter owe Luise their middle name—a keepsake of the Old Country, like a lock of hair or a finger bone. Although they haven’t been known to socialize with the dead, a strain of second sight is said to run in the family. My great-aunt Regina, who was born in Romania, worked as a fortune-teller in Herzogenweiler during the Second World War, scanning coffee grounds and tarot cards for news of fallen soldiers. My mother, too, has had her share of strange premonitions: accidents foretold, telephones answered before the first ring. She’s a historian by training and a sober thinker by nature, but she has never quite shaken her belief in ghosts.
It’s an old German habit of mind, this mixing of the mystical and the scientific. You can see it in medieval sages like Meister Eckhart and Hildegard von Bingen, and in the aisles of any German drugstore, where modern pharmaceuticals sit side by side with homeopathic tinctures. “To our modern way of thinking, this all sounds quite insane,” Rudolf Steiner, the patron saint of organic agriculture and alternative schooling, declared in 1924. He had just urged an audience of Silesian farmers to fertilize their fields with cow intestines stuffed with chamomile blossoms, and stag bladders filled with yarrow root (stag bladders being “almost an image of the cosmos”). Steiner claimed that he, too, could see spirits in his waking life. “Just as in the body, eye and ear develop as organs of perception,” he wrote, “so does a man develop in himself spiritual organs of perception through which the soul and spiritual worlds are opened to him.”
To my mother, the best evidence of this was a story she often told about her grandmother. In the spring of 1918, Luise was asleep one night in the upstairs bedroom of her farmhouse when she woke to the sound of footsteps outside. The village was deserted at that hour, her daughter and husband asleep. But she knew that shuffling gait and heavy footfall. It could only be Josef, her eldest son, home at last from the war in France. She lurched up in bed to greet him, then stopped and listened again, more intently this time. No. It wasn’t him after all. It was just his spirit come back to pay them a last visit. She lay down and shook her husband by the shoulder. “Jetzt isch de Josef gstorbe,” she told him, in her soft Black Forest dialect. “Now Josef has died.”
A week later, they received word that he’d fallen at Flanders—on the same day that his ghost had passed by. >> read more >>
Publicado en NewYorker.com el 12 de septiembre de 2016