The Border That is No More
25 December 2006

Christmas in Alsace! It didn’t take much marketing from the Region’s tourist authority to persuade our family to pay another visit to the famous Strasbourg Christmas market and to the lovely Ecomusée, where old traditions are re-enacted by staff and volunteers.

We have always enjoyed renewing our relationship with a province where we have so many good memories, family connections and cultural affinities. When we used to live nearby, our children experienced many an unforgettable moment in the Ecomusée, harvesting grapes with grapes-pickers, looking for eggs hidden in the garden by the Easter rabbit, watching black pudding being made from pig’s blood in a farm yard on Saint Martin’s day. (Seeing it for the first time myself, I was impressed by the amount of local white wine required for the recipe. You won’t taste it in the end product but it is obviously essential to keep the butchers going.) They watched carnival farces in Alsatian dialect around the Spring bonfire, and puppet theatre in French, tried their skills at the potter’s workshop, rode in an oxcart and, in the Advent, baked Christmas cookies and sang Christmas carols in French and German.

We were late in deciding to go and discovered how efficient the Alsacian tourist authority had been… Cradle of the Christmas tree tradition, home to an exceptional culinary tradition, the region was fully booked throughout the month of December. We should have called several months ago, we were told. What could we do? The Holy Family would have knocked at the door of a full inn. We tried lateral thinking – why not Germany?

Perhaps our French compatriots, deterred by the language barrier, would have spared some rooms in Baden-Wurttemberg? Indeed, at the first try, we got rooms in a hotel barely two miles across the Rhine. And language was no barrier. Detecting my accent, the hotel manager instantly put through a French-speaking receptionist. She gave us directions in flawless French, indicating beyond doubt that she was herself from Alsace. ‘It’s fairly straightforward, just take the first right after the border…’; she suddenly paused, feeling the need to warn me, ‘well, in fact, there is no border any longer...’

Although politically disputable, that remark made good practical sense: I might have driven on much too far into Germany, had I expected to be stopped at a border control. But what a wonder! We could now go freely over the very bridge where Hansi, the militant pro-French Alsacian artist, once drew a defiant French soldier facing Germany next to this sign, ‘Here begins the country of Liberty,’ The heritage of three wars, the sadness, the anger, the political ambition to fight and conquer have been put away in the name of a better tomorrow.

This reminded me of an interview of Louis Jung, an Alsatian personality, Honorary President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; he had told us: ‘The border used to play a very important and often very negative role, with its customs controls and the separation it implied… The suppression of the border check points, the abrogation of passport controls and free circulation have had a deep impact on the daily life of the inhabitants.’

I can only concur, from my family’s history point of view. One branch of the family became German, courtesy of the Vienna Treaty which set the northern limit of Alsace on the river Lauter. That was some time back, five generations away, but the border has remained there. While my ancestor Fanny lived in an Alsatian city, her brother Johann-Jacob stayed in the Palatinate, both areas having been united for centuries under the Prince of Zweibrücken. Johann-Jacob remained the mayor of his city for 35 years, first being called Herr Burgermeister, then Monsieur le Maire and eventually Herr Burgermeister again. He believed in liberty and adhered to the French Revolution, was disappointed by Napoleon’s hijacking of the ideals of the Revolution, and eventually became one of the founding fathers of German nationalism.

Just two generations away, a teenager, my granduncle, was spending a few weeks with cousins in Germany to perfect his German. He had to be sent back to France in emergency through Switzerland because war was breaking out. Contact was lost for ever after that; both families had strong nationalist feelings and enlisted young men likely to have died on the battlefield. Crushed by grief, full of indignation and blame, our family could not face the idea of getting in touch again. And judging by the results, our German cousins must have felt the same.

What a wonder that we now may just drive over that particular border!

But anger and grief are still the daily bread in other places; at Christmas, I cannot help but think of the dire situation in and around the Holy Land. After long and bitter wars, this area deserves to experiment the joy of reconciliation in daily life. Since the French and Germans have managed it, God willing, we know it can be done. This situation should top the prayer list in every synagogue, church or mosque. And each prayer is also a personal commitment to do whatever it takes to advance what we pray for.


I found your article very interesting indeed. I could not help wondering if you had ever contacted the descendants of your family cousins.
Finlay Moir, 02 January 2007

We tried but unfortunately could not trace their descendants.
Antoine Jaulmes, 03 January 2007

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