Thursday 1 August 2013

Samarkand on the Elbe

Where's this? The clue is in the title: not in central Asia or the middle east, to which I so often long to return after years of untroubled wanderings there, but in Dresden. On the 'wrong' side of the tracks to the Altstadt, with the railway line running just past it, is this magnificent folly created on the earnings from smoke, the Yenidze Tobacco Factory. I well remember passing this neo-orientalist fantasy on our train journey from Berlin to Prague back in 1990.

 The Yenidze was lucky to survive the bombs as, of course, the city's other great dome, that of the Frauenkirche, did not. Designed by architect Martin Hammitzsch and built between 1907 and 1909, the factory took its title from the place where the Jewish entrepreneur Hugo Zietz established a tobacco business for import to Germany; Ottoman Yenidze in Thrace is now Greek Genisea in another part of the world redolent of a personally significant train journey, our InterRail travel to Istanbul.

Wiki, the only source of any detail, tells me the edifice  'has 600 windows of various styles; the dome is 20m high'. Detail is impressive, as in this gateway to what are now the office quarters, converted in the 1996 restoration.

I read that there was a cafe and restaurant just under the dome, so - following the night of our reason for being here, the Semperoper performance of Der Rosenkavalier - off we went after our morning's exhaustive visit to the treasures of the Neues Grünes Gewölbe and eventually discovered the narrow passageway at the north end leading to the lift up to the Kuppelrestaurant's beer garden at the north end.

The terrace beneath the stained glass dome was as we imagined it, the service by a spirited young east German waiter delightful (aided by 'wanderer' John, who's very chatty with any new acquaintance he warms to) and the food a good deal better than we'd expected in such a setting. You can't go far wrong, though, with seasonal white asparagus, and the salmon and potatoes accompanying it were fine.Good views, too, over the old town, .

the hills and the river as far as the sandstone quarries. Though nothing can surpass the splendour of the dome; I'd like to have seen it lit up at night.

Not inappropriately, we made our way back to the palace museums to look at the gilded, bejewelled weaponry and the gorgeous tents of the Turkish wars. The heat then drove us back to our splendid bargain of an apartment just off the Neumarkt. I don't think many readers will be unaware of the colossal civic gesture involved in the resurrection of the Frauenkirche, which began life in 1736 as a people's protest to the Catholic conversion, with attendant Hofkirche, of Augustus I (an expedience owed to his Polish regnancy).

More generally known is that it was flattened in 1945, leaving only two walls standing. That was how it stood until 1993, rubble like so much else in Dresden due to the painful lack of funds in East Germany, and so that's how I saw it on my first visit in 1990. This image from 1973 comes from the Deutsche Fotothek.

After the reunification there was a colossal drive towards what seemed like an impossible reconstruction, supported by fellow organisations in Britain, America, France and Switzerland. 3539 of the original building blocks were used to send the Frauenkirche reaching skywards again

accounting for 45 per cent of the material used. The darker colour of the old sandstone makes them stand out (Dresden's blackening sandstone is due not to pollution but to the high proportion of iron). Though the interior is hideous - panels painted in what looks like Italian bathroom style of the 1990s - and packed with tour groups throughout the day, that's not the point: the gesture is as heroic as the rebuilding of Warsaw's old town, and literally crowned by reforged bonds between the city and its destroyers in the shape of the orb and cross.

They were constructed in 18th century style, with help from London's Grant Macdonald Silversmiths,  by Alan Smith. His father had been part of  the 'Bomber' Harris' squadron which flattened and incinerated a great city. The thought of that restitution certainly brings tears to the eyes: we can move on, we can go some way to repairing the sins of the past.

And so the vast square in front of the Frauenkirche easily absorbs the thousands of daytrippers - much reduced, I was told, in the week following the floods - and the souvenir stands. The facades aren't exactly like the ones in Bellotto's famous view, but will do. The angle from which I took this photo is at least taken from the same building, and the same staircase, featured from a distance on the same side in Bellotto's panorama.

One remnant of the DDR era remains as an oddity in the Neumarkt, the Kulturpalast still used as the Dresden Philharmonic's concert hall - Marek Janowski resigned when plans for a new hall came to nothing - and on one side only they've left the rather splendid mural as a reminder of the ideals that soured.

I dug out my 1990 pictures and saw that there was more decoration on the south side, not to mention the Lenin group in the Altmarkt, now gone along with the Inter Hotel behind the Kulturpalast. The Altmarkt remains a sterile space.

How things have changes, too, around the Residenzschloss and the Hausmann Tower. 1990:


Pristine now, too, is the Augustusstrasse, though again clogged with halting tour groups. Buskers of superior quality to your usual boring statues liven up the scene beneath the 102-metre 'Procession of Princes' , painted in the 1870s by Wilhelm Walter. Its original stucco was covered over in 2006 with 25,000 Meissen tiles. Wasted effort? The jury's out on that one, but grand it is. Anyway, we enjoyed the man with permanently windswept tie and toy dog on a lead who spun around every couple of minutes

and a top-notch brass trio from St Petersburg intoning Verdi's Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves among other anniversary hits.

Back, then, to our packed touristic day. We took a late afternoon siesta and met up with John for an evening stroll in the balmy summer weather. The old town spires and putti were silhouetted in the sunset

and along the Elbe on the Neustadt side students and young people were all out peacefully chatting, drinking and smoking.

Here's more or less the famous view by Bellotto, as unspoilt as the Thames above Richmond and a good deal grander (a picture frame actually marks the spot).

And so along to the lovely grounds, open to all, of the Japanese Palace, where I enjoyed a chat with a delightful old Dresden lady very proud of her city and the nearby palaces, with views across to the Yenidze. A blissful evening, a real midsummer night's dream of peace and reconciliation in a once-troubled city.


David Damant said...

I have found over the years that many historical sources are suspect, and now that all sources are repeated and summarised over and over again the problem of discerning the truth is even more difficult. But there are some indications that Bomber Harris did not see Dresden as a target. At Yalta and afterwards Stalin had argued for support during his last attack on Berlin and Dresden was a possible railhead for the transfer of German troops from the West in order to build up the defence of Berlin. Not true, but it might have been, and anyway Churchill and Roosevelt were still anxious to keep Stalin on side when discussing the freedom or communisation of Poland and the other central European countries. We can now see that they were deluded in supposing that Stalin would do anything but establish his new empire, but at the time the future of all Europe was at stake.Facing these tremendous questions, Churchill suddenly said " after this we shall have to sleep for a billion years" It is not inconceivable that Bomber Harris was ordered by higher authority to put Dresden on the list of targets. Afterwards, Churchill was miserable.

David said...

You show the complexities of the background, David. Yalta certainly muddied the waters. But it's hard to believe Churchill didn't know what Stalin's longer term aims might be. Anyway, we all have the benefit of hindsight and no idea of what it was like in the thick of it.

Laurent said...

I had forgotten about the Yenidze factory. We do have to return to Dresden in the not so distant future. Beautiful photos as always.

Laurent said...

Reading David Damant's comment it reminds me of the saying that If you believe official history it is the same as believing a convicted criminal on his word.

David Damant said...

One must also remember that the power of America was then becoming dominant, and Roosevelt took more time to see the truth about Stalin. When Churchill made his Fulton Speech in March 1946 (sic)describing how an iron curtain was falling across Europe the reaction by in America was not at all favourable, and it took another year before their opinion came round to the truth. So in 1945 Churchill had two powerful and difficult allies to deal with in coming to any policy decision such as that on Dresden

David Damant said...

To comment on the comment by Laurent one has to look critically at absolutely all written history. And the best point to start is ( as Talleyrand said) to look at the original documents.Even in translation one can feel in what they wrote the personalities and the viewpoints of for example Hitler, or Talleyrand himself ( a marvellous intellect). It is a serious fault of nearly all history written today that original quotations are mostly frozen out in favour of narrative. I suppose that narrative sells more books.

David said...

Exactly so, David: the same applies to biography. Letters and diaries are always the best at capturing the moment; memoirs by people who 'were there' are already liable to falsification. I note a recent work by a colleague of mine on a subject close to my heart, which if I wrote about it in the press I'd be accused of sour grapes over: he frequently writes 'X felt...X behaved' where you want to say, how do you know? Where is it documented? And history has to be made sexy, it seems. Which is of course the work of masterly fiction like Hilary Mantel's.

Thanks, Laurent, for the compliment. I'm so sorry you didn't make Dresden this year - but you did get Salzburg at its best.

Susan Scheid said...

This is (once again) going to be an aside, but I hope I will be forgiven, for, in thinking about the complicated history of Dresden (about which I know little) and the conversation that has ensued, I'm reminded, on the one hand, of our trip yesterday with our visitors to the FDR house and library and, odd though this may seem, on the other hand, of my recent reading about Prokofiev and Poulenc. Even as a mere undergraduate in history, I tended to view second-hand narratives as suspect and preferred going directly to the primary source materials. Needless to say, I come to governmentally-sponsored exhibits with well-developed skepticism, but also curiosity, about both the vantage point from which history is presented and what is lying in the gaps. (I'll have to say that, despite such issues, the exhibit on display was well done—and, remarkably, our British friends, always on the look-out for America's particular brand of hagiography, thought so too. Not so the tour to the house, with a tour guide who was so wildly inappropriate in the conclusions he marshalled from selected “facts,” that, while I generally try to restrain myself, I felt duty-bound to object at one point.) Reading the Poulenc correspondence, I felt much more comfortable that I was truly "inside" his time and place than I would have reading a biography about him. Indeed, when I was in the midst of my recent Prokofiev pursuit, I was frustrated by both Robinson's and Morrison’s biographies, which seemed to go in repeatedly for unsupported, and I suspected likely unsupportable, generalizations. (Very unlike your book, David, which was a thoughtful, well-documented examination of his life and work.) Now, when it comes to Shostakovich, the poor man is buried under such a heap of speculative rubble it seems beyond redemption. If one is going to read fiction, much better that it be by a master (like Mantel, Tomasi di Lampedusa—or Tolstoy).

David said...

Wise and true as ever, Sue (or maybe that's just a way of saying I agree with you). Shostakovich comes out from under the rubble in three volumes, I think. The letters are often so careful that they lack all flavour, but perhaps not the ones to Isaak Glikman available in a handsomely annotated edition. Some people find Laurel Fay's biography very bland, but I respect her attempts to try and present the truth as clearly as she can. And Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich Remembered, though it uses remininscences which can always come under suspicion, gives such an array of them and explains the background with such wonderful objectivity that I think it may be the closest we're going to get.

There's also an excellent DVD by Larry Weinstein which caught so many of Shostakovich's contemporaries talking about him shortly before they died that it's an invaluable document.

wanderer said...

Fond memories David and this brings back another special day and evening, which ended with another bubbly meeting with Helene (from Joisey) as I recall, and her wide-eyed German husband, bicycle and wife in hands, both with such generous and genuine smiles, those smiles I remember most.

The lunch at the tabacco factory was completely surreal, then and even more so now, and the difficulty in access seemed to exaggerate the stepping outside the usual boundaries of time and place, like a David Lynch movie - beyond the railway, the wrong door, the empty corridors, an office with a woman alone at one desk, the lift up, the bizarre elongated shape of the roof space, the alarmingly friendly waiter (or was that me?) ...

As for the War, my latest (as mentioned elsewhere) is the Oliver Stone version, which if nothing else has the most incredible movie footage, as for example, Churchill making that Iron Curtain speech, with Stone's context for it, of course

That DVD (Shostakovich vs Stalin) I have here, and would welcome thoughts on Testimony, which seems to have escaped mention.

David said...

Well, wanderer, you trump me there with your Lynchification of our Yenidze pilgrimage, and though I don't think you mentioned it at the time, it seems exactly right. And yes, of course, the vivacious Madame Schneiderman, such a good Annina and clearly the momma of the cast, and her unusual husband whose demeanour I found so instantly engaging.

Trouble with Testimony - an early copy of which I chose as my school sixth form classics prize - is that the rubble is overwhelming, but the still small voice of the real Shostakovich does seem to emerge. It's certainly good as a work of fiction even if it wasn't, as Volkov claims, all 'related to' him in the way he says it was. Scholars now dismiss it but I find it useful for quotation of the Gogolian style, always with the necessary caution attached.