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Saturday, April 19, 2014

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Quedlinburg – Germany’s capital of half-timbered architecture

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Quedlinburg is a UNESCO World Heritage site. [Sheldon Kirshner photo]

QUEDLINBURG, Germany ­— There is no place quite like it in Germany.

Quedlinburg, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1994, has 1,300 half-timbered buildings, more than any other town in Germany.

Not bad for a municipality with a population of only 28,000.

Half-timbered architecture, which incorporates traditional techniques of carpentry, is found in a variety of European countries, particularly France, Poland and Denmark. But in Germany, this style of timber framing, or fachwerkhauser, reached a sophisticated level of development from about the 14th to the 18th century.

And nowhere else in Germany, not even in the storybook towns of Bamberg or Rothenburg ob der Taube, was this method of old-world construction cultivated and preserved to such a high degree.

Indeed, the oldest such house of its kind in Germany stands here, next to a canal. It’s a two-storey white and brown 14th century structure that has been converted into a museum that celebrates half-timbered architecture.

Quedlinburg, which is nestled in the foothills of eastern Germany’s Harz Mountains, preserved its architectural legacy due to a combination of factors.

Since the town is off the beaten track and has not grown in decades, there was no rush to tear down historically significant buildings to make room for newer ones.

During World War II, a stray American bomb slightly damaged the 11th century Romanesque St. Servatius cathedral, a landmark on a hill where the first German king, Heinrich I, is said to lie in state in a crypt.

Quedlinburg, a sea of red roofs as glimpsed from an observatory at an adjacent castle, got off very lightly during the Allied bombardment of German cities during the war. Not a single half-timbered building, encompassing a period of some 600 years, was destroyed.

Yet Quedlinburg, which was in East Germany before German reunification in 1990, was not entirely spared, said Thomas Bracht, the director of its tourist board.

During the communist era, which ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East German government made half-baked attempts to renovate important half-timbered buildings, importing Polish craftsmen to carry out the work.

At the same time, Bracht claimed, hundreds of such structures were levelled and replaced with purely functional apartment complexes lacking any character.

Quedlinburg, a member of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of European merchants and guilds from the 13th to the 17th century, is famous not only for its exquisite ensemble of half-timbered buildings.

The castle next to the cathedral contains ceiling frescoes and figurines hundreds of years old, as well as rare books encrusted with precious jewels. One of these books, stolen by a U.S. army officer right after the war, was returned 20 years ago.

During the Nazi interregnum, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Gestapo, visited Quedlinburg on several occasions in an attempt to turn the cathedral and the castle complex into a Nazi shrine.

In a gesture of triumphalism, Himmler, who vainly regarded himself as Heinrich’s successor, replaced one of the murals in the church with a stylized Nazi eagle. After the war, it was hastily removed, and today, fragments of the eagle lie broken in pieces in the basement.

Before and during the Third Reich, Quedlinburg, a bastion of the Nazi movement, had a small Jewish community consisting of approximately 20 families.

But since there was no synagogue, the Jews of Quedlinburg went to shul in neighbouring Halberstadt, said Quedlinburg’s mayor, Eberhard Brecht, a former member of parliament and currently a vice-president of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities in Saxony-Anhalt.

Brecht, who was interviewed in his spacious office in city hall, said that the Nazi reign of terror against the town’s Jews began in 1935 with the passage of the restrictive Nuremberg Laws, which marginalized German Jews.

“During Kristallnacht, a lot of Jewish shops were destroyed, even a store belonging to a Jewish merchant who was awarded the Iron Cross,” he said in a reference to that military medal.

 As Kristallnacht unfolded, he added, a Jewish man was forced to carry a large crucifix through town on his shoulders. He later committed suicide.

Brecht’s great-aunt and her Jewish husband tried to obtain a U.S. visa, but when they realized in despair that they would not receive one, they killed themselves.

By his reckoning, one-third of the Jews in Quedlinburg emigrated, while another third perished during the Holocaust, a topic he began researching in earnest in the late 1980s as the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht approached. As for the remaining Jews, their fate is still unknown, he said.

Brecht wants to invite former Jewish residents back on a visit, but he does not have their addresses and, therefore, cannot contact them.

The last remaining trace of Jewish life in Quedlinburg, ironically, is the fenced-in 19th century Jewish cemetery, entry to which is possible only with a key.

One solitary tombstone, engraved with a Magen David and adorned with a plaque, is all that remains. The rest of the gravestones, having been vandalized by hooligans, were hauled away in 1976 and used at construction sites.

There are no signs directing visitors to the cemetery. Asked to explain the absence of a sign, Brecht replied, “Maybe I’m too careful,” he said, suggesting that neo-Nazis might consider it a tempting target.

As it is, one neo-Nazi is a member of city council today. Brecht dismissed him contemptuously. “He doesn’t play a role,” he declared, adding that neo-Nazis are primitive.

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