As I gazed up at the waning moon while leaving Johannapark, I couldn’t help but think of all the firsts I had experienced during the evening and all the wrongs that had been put right. About 50 of us had been on a torchlit tour of the park. (I mean the torch with fire, not batteries.) I remember meeting a guy walking the other way on the path. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”, he grumbled as he worked his way through the crowd. And, you know, this is one of those rare occasions when I well and truly thought, “Nope. I am doing exactly what I should be doing in exactly the place I should be doing it.”
We had all been to Heike Hennig’s DAS SCHICKSAL DER JOHANNA at the Ring Café. It was my first time there. I had heard stories of dancing and parties during the GDR. I thought it a great venue to experience the musical drama. It was an appropriately intimate environment with us sitting on three sides of the performers who shared with us a collection of readings and music interspersed with bits of movement. This was one of the times I’d wished my German skills were better, but even though I couldn’t understand every word I could feel the emotion. Nearly all of the work was from the Romantic period, the period in which Johanna lived, loved and died. All three performers gave excellent performances. The voices of soloist Carolin Masur and actor Axel Thielmann were genuine and engrossing. Pianist David Timm played the works of Schumann, Brahms, Schubert and Beethoven emotively. They had me from the first song when Johanna coyly played footsies with Wilhelm as they sat on a blanket.
The audience was quite mixed and I wondered what had brought them there. I soon found out how important the story of Johanna is to the community. At first Johannapark had been a short-cut to Plagwitz for me. Later I had heard one version of the story while on a city tour and later another version while on another city tour. I had shot wedding photos there and even told my version of the versions I had heard. It seems there is a lot of speculation and a lot of digging for the truth. Heike Hennig conducted a rich cultural journey to the emotional core of this real life tragedy that has spawned an important literal and figurative place of community.
One of the poems read, called “Zentimeter”, was by Hilde Domin. It was so beautiful I had to find out more about her. I hope Hilde wouldn’t mind my sharing my English version here:
The centimeters of our shyness.
I lie in bed and cry
and count the centimeters
like beads on a rosary,
twenty, thirty centimeters.
I kept my head down.
Your mouth met my hair instead
of my mouth
because of twenty, thirty degrees.
I did not raise my head.
How many tears
the next day
over the twenty, thirty
between two bodies.
It was too dark for my camera Friday night so I stopped by the park Saturday to get a few pics. As I was shooting the bust erected in 1896 of Johanna’s father, Wilhelm Theodor Seyfferth, I couldn’t help notice that he was facing away from the bridge, or at least I had thought there was one bridge before our tour the night before. There are actually two matching bridges that don’t connect physically, but obviously belong together. Between the bridge and the bust there was a wedding party happily laughing and posing for photos. “How perfect!”, I thought.
So the gist of the story is…..Johanna Seyfferth was madly in love with Wilhelm von Minckwitz. For whatever reason, she was forced to marry Dr. Gustav Schulz. Two years later she died of a broken heart at the tender age of 21. That’s what I knew going in. What I learned on the night really added a whole new dimension to the story.
Seyfferth had two or three daughters, all of whom died and left no heirs. How this came to be is a little blurry, but at the time of his death, he considered Wilhelm to be family and left him his estate, with the exception of Johannapark which he left to the city of Leipzig with the stipulation that it should always remain a park and bear his daughter, Johanna’s, name.
We owe a lot to the von Minckwitz family. Among many other generosities, they are responsible for the moving of the Seyfferth family plot to the Lutherkirche in Johannapark. It was previously located at Johanniskirche near where the Grassi Museum stands today.
Wilhelmm’s great grandson, Christoph von Minckwitz was there in his role as patron for the performance Friday night and I was very lucky to get to talk to him. This was when the story really developed for me. Being a silly romantic American, I asked if he had been brought up hearing about this story, but this isn’t Hollywood and things aren’t that simple here. Wilhelm died in 1922, so Christoph never knew him. Christoph’s father was one of four sons, three of whom were lost in World War Two. His father was seriously injured, but survived. After the war, Russia gave the order to “remove” the aristocracy. They were all herded in horrid conditions to Rügen, a small island far in the north. Many didn’t make it and his grandmother became seriously ill. She only lived a couple years following the experience. Christoph grew up in Celle and later moved to Hamburg. I imagine his Dad felt displaced being torn from his home and his family’s historic heritage. When the Wall came down he brought Christoph on a tour that included Johannapark. Being only 25 at the time, he didn’t really fully understand the importance of it. He hadn’t grown up with the story of his great grandfather’s first love. While on the tour of the park we passed lovers on benches, friends laughing and enjoying themselves, dogs running and barking. I noticed Christoph warmly interacting with the others. When I talked to him I could see in his eyes that he was glad he had come and shared this event with us and was proud to be part of such a rich history. I am so grateful to Heike Hennig for bringing the story to life.
This is truly an example of enduring love. Johanna may have died, but her Dad, Wilhelm, the von Minckwitz Family and the city of Leipzig have kept her essence alive. Today in the middle of town is a place of joy, laughter and love.