This half-timbered house, the one with the blue timbers and red window frames, is identified by a metal plaque as the birth house of "Philipp Reis, inventor of the telephone, 1834-1874". The house is located at the beginning of the street called Langgasse ("Long Lane") in the Old Town of Gelnhausen.
Reis went to primary school in Gelnhausen, but was sent to Friedrichsdorf and later to Frankfurt am Main for his further education.
He spent most of his adult life teaching physics and other natural sciences at a school in Friedrichsdorf, where there is now a museum about his life and work.
Philipp Reis really did invent a device which he called a Telefon in German, but he never quite got it to work reliably. It particularly refused to work on those occasions when he set it up in courtrooms to press his claim to the invention. In court it only squawked, evidently, and the judges were not impressed.
1. The house in Gelnhausen where Philipp Reis was born
2. Plaque on the birth house of Philipp Reis
1. Grimmelshausen House, now a hotel
2. Plaque on the Grimmelshausen House
3. Schmidtgasse with Grimmelshausen House
The Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) had already begun when Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen was born in this house around 1621 or 1622.
At that time the house was already some 450 years old, since it already existed in the twelfth century when Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa founded Gelnhausen and gave it the rights and privileges of a city. Originally this was a knight's house, but from the fourteenth century it was used as a bakery and a pub.
Gelnhausen was looted and burned to the ground at least three times during the Thirty Years' War. Grimmelshausen describes one of these attacks, probably the first, in his novel Simplicius Simplicissimus or The adventurous Simplicissimus.
At the age of twelve (or so) he was kidnapped by marauding soldiers and forced to become a musketeer. In other words, he was what today we would call a child soldier. At some point he was captured by Croatian troops and later fell into the hands of Hessian soldiers, who took him to Kassel. Later, as an adult, he became a regimental clerk and finally regimental secretary in the regiment of Colonel Schauenburg.
After the war he converted from Protestantism to Catholicism so he could marry Catharina Henninger, the 21-year-old daughter of a lieutenant in Schauenburg's regiment. He never returned to his home town of Gelnhausen, but eventually settled in Renchen, a town in the Rhine Valley between the Black Forest and Strasbourg, where he had a position as a magistrate. It was there that he wrote most of his novels and stories during the last decade of his life.
My first encounter with Grimmelshausen's great novel was on a dark winter's night around 1960, when I read parts of it from a tiny yellow Reclam edition by the light of a tiny round reading lamp in a Greyhound bus on an all-night run from Chicago to New York, on my way back to college at the end of the Christmas vacation.
These Reclam books are really tiny paperbacks, measuring 14.7 x 9.6 centimeters (that's 5.75 x 3.8 inches), that have been published in this form as "Reclam's Universal Library" since 1867.
By contrast, the edition of Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus that I have on my desk right now measures 28.5 x 18.5 centimeters -- nearly twice as high and twice as wide -- and is much heavier and has larger print.
And I'm sure I understand a lot more of it now than I did back then on the Greyhound bus, since Grimmelshausen's 17th century German prose was a bit challenging for an American undergraduate who had never even been to Germany. I remember that I soon stopped looking up words and just let myself be swept along by the story, leaving the details for some other phase of my life. (Which turns out to be now.)
My reason for reading Simplicissimus at the time was that it was assigned reading for a German literature course that I was taking at college.
1. The restaurant "Zum Löwen" in Gelnhausen
2. Plaque on the restaurant
The plaque on this restaurant says it is "one of the oldest restaurants in Germany, first mentioned in 1506 (by Dr. Johannes Faustus). Owned by the same family since 1639."
"Zum Löwen" means "to the lion", and Dr. Johannes Faustus was a German alchemist, magician and author who lived from about 1480 to about 1540. Not much is known about his life, but there is evidence that he was in Gelnhausen in 1506 as a performer of magic tricks and horoscopes. After his death he became the protagonist of numerous folk tales, puppet shows and finally serious works of literature such as Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
And of course there have been several operas based on the Faust legend or on Goethe's Faust, including the marvelous "dramatic legend" called The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869).
The Gelnhausen Town Hall was first built in 1333 as a market hall, but has been used as the Town Hall since the 16th century. To this day the mayor and city administration have their offices here.
In front of the Town Hall there is a life-size statue of a lantern lighter, recalling the days when the gas lanterns had to be lit individually at nightfall.
During the Nazi dictatorship the Town Hall was the scene of one of the very few acts of civil courage in which a Gelnhausen resident tried to protect a Jewish person from the Nazis.
Rudolf Kraushaar, the janitor of the Town Hall, lived with his wife in a three-room apartment on the top floor. There in the spring of 1943 gave refuge to a 67-year-old Jewish woman, Feodora Kissing, who had somehow escaped from a Nazi prison in Lübeck.
Unfortunately someone denounced them. In April 1943 the Nazis found the woman in the Kraushaars' apartment and took her back into custody. Within a few weeks she was sent to Auschwitz, where she was murdered.
Rudolf Kraushaar was also arrested and was kept in custody until the end of the war. He died soon afterwards of tuberculosis, which he probably contracted during his imprisonment.
(This information is from an article by Claudia Raab in the local newspaper "Gelnhäuser Tageblatt" of August 7, 2010.)
1. Untermarkt with St. Mary's Church and Romanisches Haus
2. Untermarkt with parked cars
This "Lower Market Square" at the top end of Schmidtgasse has been nicely renovated in recent years. The square now has an attractive new cobblestone surface. The half-timbered houses are freshly painted and in good repair.
So now they have a really attractive little square here, and what do they do with it? Use it as a parking lot for cars, that's what. (Second photo.) So the square is convenient for a few car-owners but not much use to the rest of us.
By the way, the white stone house on the right-hand side of the first photo is the Romanisches Haus (Romanesque House), which is said to be one of the oldest remaining government buildings in Germany. It was built around 1180, during the reign of Friedrich I Barbarossa, at the same time as his castle was being built.
This small street near St. Mary's Church was well-known in the Middle Ages as the narrowest point on the trade route between Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig.
For this reason, the width of this street was officially declared to be the maximum allowable width for all horse-drawn wagons traveling along this route.
Of course we twenty-first-century know-it-alls immediately ask ourselves why they didn't simply built a wider street down by the river somewhere, but in the Middle Ages this was evidently not an option. Unlike people in Gelnhausen today, who are thankful that most of the through traffic bypasses their city on the railway or the A-66 motorway, the inhabitants in the Middle Ages (at least those who were merchants, hotel keepers or wheelwrights) wanted all that traffic to go right through town so they could do business with those who were passing through.
As in other towns along this route, such as Steinau an der Straße, the roads in Gelnhausen were not very smooth, so fixing broken wheels and axles was a mainstay of the local economy.
For the first century or so after the founding of Gelnhausen there was even a law, decreed by the Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa himself, that all merchants passing through Gelnhausen had to stop there and offer their merchandise for sale for three days, before continuing on.
Of course the hotel keepers were eternally grateful to Barbarossa for this law.
(Perhaps the German coalition government in 2010 had his example in mind when they passed a law lowering the sales tax = MwSt = VAT = GST on hotel accommodation from 19 % to 7 %.)
1. A gravestone in the Jewish Cemetery, Gelnhausen
2. A corner of the Jewish Cemetery
3. More gravestones in the Jewish Cemetery
In October 1938, earlier than in most other German cities, the local Nazi rulers in Gelnhausen proudly announced that their city was "judenfrei", free of Jews, or even "judenrein", cleansed of Jews.
This was the result of a systematic six-year campaign of repression, boycotts, threats and attacks against the Jewish population, which had numbered over two hundred people before the Nazis came to power.
Some of the Gelnhausen Jews managed to leave Germany during the 1930s. Others moved to Frankfurt, where they were later rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Altogether one hundred and nine Jews from Gelnhausen are known to have been killed during the time of the Nazi dictatorship.
1. The Jewish Cemetery in Gelnhausen
2. A wider view of the Jewish Cemetery
3. A gravestone in the Jewish Cemetery
The most melancholy place in Gelnhausen is the Jewish Cemetery, with gravestones from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries.
There were Jews living in Gelnhausen as early as 1242, but as in many other German towns (such as Bacharach on the Rhine) they were massacred in 1348-49 during the Black Plague, a pandemic which killed a third to a half or more of the European population in just a few years and also led to widespread persecution of the Jews and other minorities.
During the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) the Jewish Synagogue was destroyed along with nearly everything else in Gelnhausen, but it was re-built after the war in 1656. From then on, a small Jewish community flourished in Gelnhausen for over two and a half centuries, until the rise of the Nazis in the 1920s and 30s.
An unusual feature of the Marienkirche is this modern sculpture of The Burning Thorn bush (from the Bible, Exodus 3:2 among other places).
It seems they wanted a place in the church where they could light candles, but as Protestants they didn't want to do it under the pictures of any saints or such, so they commissioned this sculpture, installed it in a wing of the church and put a circle of chairs around it.
1. St. Mary's Church (Marienkirche)
2. As seen from the roof of Barbarossa's castle
With its tall pointed towers it is sometimes mistaken for a castle, but it's actually a church -- the Marienkirche or St. Mary's Church, Gelnhausen's most prominent feature, which can be seen from all over the valley, also from the train and from the motorway.
So if you've been reading on the train and you look up from your book and want to see where you are, when you see this distinctive church up on the hill you know you are going through Gelnhausen.
Currently the church is raising money to replace three of the five bells in the large bell tower. The 680-year-old "Our Father" bell came loose and fell down and was broken. Two of the other big bells have to be replaced because after only eighty years they are getting worn out; they were made in the 1920s as (relatively) cheap replacements for the original bells that were melted down to make cannons during to First World War.
The two smallest bells are originals from the 14th century and are still in good condition after seven hundred years of service.
If you click on the link below and then click on the green box you can hear what all five bells sounded like when they were rung in 2009.
1. In St. Mary's Church (Marienkirche)
2. Modern art in St. Mary's Church
A small village church was built on this site in the year 1120, and over the centuries it was gradually expanded.
For over four hundred years this was a Roman Catholic Church, belonging to a nearby convent, but in the year 1543 it became a Protestant church on the basis of a contract with the city of Gelnhausen. Unusually, the transition took place peacefully, so there was no destruction of medieval artworks as happened in many other places.
1. Bust of Philipp Reis (1834–1874) in Gelnhausen
2. "To Philipp Reis, the inventor of the telephone"
As an experiment I recently asked half a dozen German adults (who happened to be in the same room with me) who invented the telephone. One didn't know, but the others said it was Alexander Graham Bell -- thus confirming my suspicion that the German school system isn't what it used to be.
In former times (until 1933, to be exact), every German schoolchild knew that the telephone was invented not by some foreigner, but by a German physics teacher named Philipp Reis (1834–1874), who was born and raised in Gelnhausen.
French schoolchildren, on the other hand, knew perfectly well that Charles Bourseul (1829-1912) was the inventor of the telephone.
Italian schoolchildren had trouble deciding between Antonio Meucci (1808–1889), who called his invention a "telegrafo parlante" or "talking telegraph", and Innocenzo Manzetti (1826–1877), who also invented a bicycle and a clockwork automaton that could play twelve different arias on the flute, then stand up and bow.
When the Nazis came into power in Germany in 1933 they expunged the name of Philipp Reis from the schoolbooks, not because they had any doubt that he was the inventor of the telephone, but because they thought he was Jewish. (Which he probably wasn't, but never mind.)
1. CDs of the opera Simplicius Simplicissimus
2. Program of Simplicius Simplicissimus at the Frankfurt Opera
The opera Simplicius Simplicissimus by Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) begins with a spoken prologue, which at the Frankfurt Opera was spoken by individual musicians from down in the orchestra pit, with each musician speaking one sentence:
In the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and eighteen there were twelve million people living in Germany, twelve million people in Germany.
Then came the great war, the belief in the one God was split, the holy empire was dismembered; princes rose up against the emperor, knights against councilmen, farmers against city dwellers, soldiers against soldiers, and bitter death was the lord of them all. [. . .]
Thirty years later:
In the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and forty-eight there were no longer twelve million, there were only four million people living in Germany.
And there was one who nothing of the court, far away, in solitude, a little boy with the sheep, who knew neither God nor people, neither heaven nor hell, neither angels nor devils, who couldn't tell the Good from the Bad, the most simple-minded of all: Simplicius Simplicissimus. [my translation]
Of course Grimmelshausen's huge novel is much too long for an opera, so the composer just chose three scenes from the childhood and youth of Simplicissimus.
In 2004 the stage director Christof Nel created a brilliant production of this opera in Stuttgart, and in 2009 this same production was bought and staged by the Frankfurt Opera -- with two of the same singers, mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke as the boy Simplicissimus and tenor Frank van Aken as the Hermit. (Both these singers are now members of the Frankfurt Opera ensemble and both have been guests at my opera courses.)
This model in the Kaiserpfalz Museum purports to show what Gelnhausen might have looked like in the year 1200, ten years after the death of Barbarossa.
Personally I am a bit skeptical, because I have read elsewhere that the original buildings in Gelnhausen were not half-timbered but were made mostly of stone, to provide secure storage of the merchandise belonging to the many merchants of the town. Half-timbered buildings only came into fashion in the second half of the seventeenth century while the city was being re-built after the destruction of the Thirty Years' War, because it was cheaper and faster to build that way.
Also I have read that St. Mary's Church was built in several phases over several hundred years. In the model it looks very much like the church we can see today, but I am not convinced that it already looked like that in the year 1200.