The beautifully written article of our contributor Stephanie inspired me to share one of my experiences of “historical empathy”, the phenomenon she describes so well.
Some years ago I visited the museum in the native town of Theodor Fontane, the author who had characterised brilliantly the society in Berlin and its surroundings during the 19th century. I had quite a special relationship to this writer: he was something like an icon in my father’s family which hailed from a small village nearby. As I associated him always with the old generation in my family, I considered him antiquated and fusty. This prejudice could not been changed even by reading, as a teenager, his novel „Effie Briest“, which I loved.
Fontane's birthplace with a memorial plaque and a picture of the author in the shop window
But then, studying literature, the turning point arrived. For a paper I had to know all his novels and to my surprise I enjoyed the reading very much, especially because Fontane describes his characters with such a deep understanding for human behaviour of all kind. There was another, more personal reason, why I began to feel connected to him and his writings.
As a child, growing up in the Western part of Berlin, even though I visited the GDR regularly, the area where Fontane and my family hailed from, had remained an abstract phantom in my imagination. But then the wall came down and Brandenburg became real. Moreover going to university in Bavaria, I discovered my Prussian identity and Berlin and its surroundings became important for me. Since then Theodor Fontane is one of my favourite “heimat authors”.
Hence, I was excited when I was for the first time in Neuruppin and was eager to visit the small museum. Only some few personal properties of Fontane were shown there, among them a clock which I knew from my readings had been dear to him. By accident I came to stand in front of the clock just at noon and was taken aback when it began to stroke. Here it was – the Magic Museum Moment.
Unexpectedly, I suddenly felt such a strong connection to this author who, I realised, had heard once the same sound. How Stephanie writes, historical empathy is neither quantifiable nor measurable and nothing you can debate. My guess is that this special Magic Museum Moment could happen because I had not reflected before how the reception of sounds can be influenced by other factors and such altered through time. So, my analytical mind could not spoil the magic of this moment which I tried after my visit to catch in a poem:
we were one