Friday, January 1, 2010

Tirschenreuth: One of Our Cradles

In the fall of 1944 the chance of war deposited our family in a small Bavarian town called Tirschenreuth. We lived there for five years, formative years for me. I was eight on my arrival and thirteen on departure. I look back to that time as a great grace, gift, or sheer luck. Tirschenreuth gave me direct experience, in the twentieth century, of what it might have been like to live in an earlier and much more religious era of Europe. The following excerpt from a family memoir will convey the feel of the place. The account is historical, but it really felt like that still in my day.


In 1692 Tirschenreuth was just a little village under the rule of the great Cistercian Abbey of Waldsassen to the north. That year the typhus struck Tirschenreuth. People called it the “searing fever.” The mother and sister of one Johann Zottmeyer fell ill. He was a shoemaker. He prayed to the Sorrowful Mother to heal his family and promised that if they recovered, he would fashion an image of Mary for her veneration. Untreated typhus kills 10 to 60 percent of those infected. Zottmeyer’s sister and mother survived. He then engaged the artist Adam Beer to make an image of Mary for him out of white clay. White clay, kaolin, is common in the region and is the source of Tirschenreuth’s famous china. Zottmeyer hung this image near the church in a grove of lindens. In 1714 a lens grinder named Georg Sandinger was traveling south from Eger. He stopped on his way. He had drunk some bad water before departure and gotten quite sick by the time he reached Tirschenreuth. He lay down under the linden trees; he thought that he was dying. He glimpsed Mary’s image up in the tree beneath which he had come to rest.

(Wonderfully mediaeval this story. The Age of Enlightenment had begun, but Tirschenreuth has always been behind the times—like me.)

Sandinger now prayed for relief. Instantly, it seemed, he felt fine again. In gratitude he fashioned a roofed frame for Mary’s image. Three years later a journeyman whose left side had been lamed by stroke was instantly healed when, awkwardly, he climbed the linden tree and lit candles placed on the little ledge Sandinger had made to frame the image. These stories spread. By 1719, pilgrimages began to arrive in Tirschenreuth and grew huge as scores of healing stories spread across the land. People came from as far as Hungary. The Cistercians in Waldsassen took notice. A group came south and organized this phenomenon into an annual event.

The pilgrimage was suppressed in 1803 at the culmination of a period of secularization carried out by absolute monarchs in Europe. The Abbey of Waldsassen was dissolved and lost all of its holdings.

We didn’t know, living in Tirschenreuth after the war, that the place had been something akin to Fatima once—and would be so again, if still only on a tiny scale. The pilgrimage was authorized again in the 1970s. Today a monthly pilgrimage takes place in Tirschenreuth on the 13th of every month. There is now a Legion of Honor of our Dear Lady of Tirschenreuth, and those who make the pilgrimage three times are named its knights. Tirschenreuth is getting ready for the coming dark age now preparing all around us…

In a way we experienced an echo of those times. Several annual religious festivals in Tirschenreuth preempted all other activities. Every spring the parish staged a so-called Mission at the main church on the square. Afternoon and evening sermons followed high masses in the morning. Vast throngs attended these emotional events. There was the organ, the choir, and the voice crying for repentance from the golden pulpit of a cavernous dark church. An Easter celebration caused the streets to deck out in flowery booths, and floats passed the watching crowds. In autumn we attended the Harvest Festival (das Erntedankfest). Christmas was always also rather splendid.

My sister reached the age of first communion while we were there. She received it in that magnificent church with many dozens of young girls all wearing splendid white dresses that had taken quite some labor to obtain and fit. The whole family this time, all of us together, sat dressed in our very best and watched her proudly as she made her way toward the altar. I think each girl carried a lit candle. There were boys there too, of course, but we only had eyes for our daughter and sister.

I was confirmed in that church.

In those days the church was dark, almost gloomy. Old, forbidding, but mysterious. It was a dark and mysterious time—and the preachers at the annual Mission had a ready audience. Years later, in the 1970s (but unaware that pilgrimages had resumed), Brigitte and I once—on a visit to Europe to attend a conference—entered that church mid-morning on some weekday. Eight women sat in a single pew toward the front and recited a litany in rhythmic, cheerful voices. I could barely believe my eyes. The church had been restored to its original baroque splendor. It was all bright and yellow and pink and gold and red and the blue of the sky. The statues were milky white. The marble had been cleaned so that it shone and showed off the fine graining of its native stone.

* * *

Throughout my earlier childhood, we had moved with such frequency all over Hungary—my father having been an officer in the Army—that no place left any deep impression, only a few sharp highlights. For this reason for me, and my sister Susie (our little brother was too small to have experienced this quite so sharply) Tirschenreuth became, oddly, our home town, one of the cradles of the Ghulfs.

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