From My Life: Poetry and Truth - Book 1, pages 13-18


about piano playing and singing. She found it necessary to acquire knowledge and proficiency in the Italian language as a result.

We usually spent all our free time with grandmother, in whose large livingroom we had an adequate space for play. She knew how to keep us busy with various amusements and how to refresh us with tasty treats. Her crowning achievement was a puppet show she had staged one Christmas night. A new world was created in the old house. This unexpected theatrical performance had a powerful influence on young minds. The boy was particularly impressed and it led him to imitate it in a large, long-lasting work. *

At first we were shown the miniature stage with its silent characters, but then the figures came to life in dramatic performance. This became even more precious to us children because it was the last legacy of our grandmother, who soon after withdrew from us because of her illness and then was taken from us forever by death. Her departure had great significance for our family because it completely changed our circumstances.

As long as my grandmother was alive my father tried to make as few changes to the house as possible. However everyone knew the house was in need of major renovation. Now these were initiated. In Frankfurt, as in many old cities, people gained living space not just by adding wooden additions to the first floor but by overextending the upper floors. Thus the adjacent streets


became dark and gloomy places. Eventually a law was enacted whereby new construction of upper floors could not extend beyond the first floor foundation. My father, who did not want to sacrifice the room provided by the second floor extension, was not concerned with the external architectural features. He merely wanted to enchance the internal space and comfort of the house. He used the excuse, as so many had done before him, that he wanted to provide support for the upper floor while replacing old materials with new ones. Once all the old materials were replaced the building was entirely new, however it was still considered repair work rather than new construction. Since demolition and construction occurred gradually, my father decided not to leave the house. This way he could supervise and give instructions. He had a keen understanding of building techniques. However he also did not want his family to move. This new epoch was an amazing and unusual time for the children. The rooms, in which they had been so tightly confined and in which they had fretted with little joy over their school lessons and work, the hallways, in which they had played, the walls, which had been so scrupulously cleaned and maintained, the children saw these things fall before the masons' axes and the carpenters' hatchets. Things torn down from the bottom up and support beams swaying in the breeze while trying to attend to a certain lesson and apply oneself to a particular task — all these thing created confusion in young heads, which made it difficult to settle back down. Certainly the boy felt less discomfort


because it gave him more room to play than before since he had the opportunity to shimmy up the beams and swing off the rafters.

Stubbornly the father proceeded with the first stage of his plan but once portions of the roof were taken down and rain made its way right up to our beds despite the number of oil clothes spread out where the carpets had been taken up, he decided, though begrudgingly, to allow the children to stay with generous friends who had extended the offer earlier in the process and to send the children to a public school.

This transfer had some unwelcome results. Up to this time these had been segregated, clean, noble and strictly supervised children. Now they were thrown in with a crude mass of young creatures. They were unprepared to deal with common, mean and vile situations because they lacked all the weapons and abilities needed to protect themselves.

It was at this time that I first became aware of my father city. * I moved about with increasingly greater freedom and without hindrance, sometimes alone and sometimes with playmates. In order to properly communicate the first impression that this ponderous and majestic environment had on me it will be necessary for me to provide a description of my birthplace as it opened up before me in its various aspects. Best of all I loved to walk on the Main Bridge. Its length, the solidness of its structure and its beautiful appearance made it a remarkable ediface. It stands as the single memorial of an earlier time to the foresight, which world authorities owe their citizens. The beautiful river drew my gaze back and forth, and when the sun shone on the bridge cross with the golden cock on top it was


always a joyful sight for me. Usually there was then a stroll through Sachsenhausen and one could comfortably cross the river by ferry for a Kreutzer [less than a penny]. On this side one could prowl through the wine market marveling at the operations of the cranes as goods were taken off ships. We especially enjoyed the arrival of the marketships where one saw so many strange figures of humanity disembark. Going into the city one reached the Saalhof, which supposedly stood on the site where the castle of Charlemagne and his successors was located. One could lose himself in the trade district especially on market day when the crowds assembled around St. Bartholomew's Church. From the earliest days on, crowds of sellers and merchants pressed in upon one another. In more recent times a roomier and brighter place couldn't be found because most areas were taken up in residences. The stalls in the so-called Pfarreisen were particularly important for us children. We often carried many small coins there in order to purchase colorful sheets of paper with golden animals printed on them. However one seldom wished to push his way through the crowds of the cramped and dirty market place. I also remember fleeing in horror from the tight and ugly butchers' stalls. Römerberg was a much nicer place to walk. The path to the new city through the new retail district was much more cheerful and delightful. It only annoyed us that there wasn't a street connecting directly to the Church of Our Lady and we had to detour through Hasengasse or Katharinenpforte. What drew the attention of the children most often was


the many small cities within the city, the strongholds within strongholds, the walled-in cloisters, and the fortresses pointing back to earlier centuries. Thus there was the Nuremburg Hof, the Kampostell, the Braunfels, the ancestral home of the von Stallburgs and many other places which in later times became residences and trade shops. At that time there was nothing which was architecturally impressive in Frankfurt. Everything pointed to very disquieting times long ago in the city and the region. Forts and towers marked the boundries of the old city while farther out more forts and towers, walls, bridges, embankments, graveyards surrounded the new city. All this spoke of the upheaval, which must have prompted the building of these structures, and the need of the community to provide itself with a certain level of security. The newer, broader and prettier plazas and streets were created only by accident and not through conscious planning. A love for antiquity took hold of the boy, which was nourished by the old chronicles and wood engravings, especially the carved image of the siege of Frankfurt. This also aroused another passion in the boy to comprehend purely human circumstances in their diversity and their natural state without deference to individual interests or a sense of beauty. For this reason we attempted a couple times each year to take our favorite walk through the gate and around the city walls. Gardens, courtyards, out-buildings tightly drew everyone in. One saw many thousands of people living their tiny, domestic lives in their closed-off and hidden residences. From the ornamental gardens of the rich to the fruit groves established by individual citizens for their own use,


from the factories, the bleaching works and other facilities, and even to the cemeteries — a small universe existed within the various districts of the city — people went about in their diverse and wondrous lives in an every changing drama, of which our childish curiosity could never get enough. Indeed, the limping devil, who lifted the roofs off the houses in Madrid for his friend *, could scarcely have revealed more than what we saw under the clear blue sky and the sunshine. The keys one had to use to get through the various towers, stairways and small gates, were in the hands of key masters and we never missed the opportunity to curry favor with their subalternates.

Even more significant and otherwise fruitful for us was the town hall, which was named for the Romans. We were only too happy to lose ourselves within its vaulted halls. We gained entry into the large, very plain session room of the council. Paneled to a certain height, the walls were as white as the arches and they bore no trace of artistic painting or portraits. However on the center wall up high one could read this short inscription:
      One man's voice
      Is no man's voice:
      One must listen closely to both sides.

In the ancient fashion the benches provided for the members of this assembly formed a ring around the wall and they were elevated on a platform above the floor. It was easy for us to understand why ordering of our senate was divided into benches.


Go to pages 19-24


Text provided by the Lockwood Library, State University of New York at Buffalo.
Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks