22nd September 2018
There is a tenuous sporting connection to this blog, as discussed below.
My sister, Rosie, and I have recently spent several days in the Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) Land of Germany visiting some of the places associated with our family history. Our grandfather, Alfred Edgar Niblett, was born in Osnabrueck in 1888 to an English father, Charles James Niblett, and a German mother, whose maiden name was Anna Karoline Borstelmann.
It was a highly successful trip. I knew that Anna Karoline Borstelmann died in Ludwig Strasse in Osnabrueck in 1938 at the age of 84. The city’s cemetery authority had previously informed me that the street no longer exists, but, in a local bookshop, I came across a map of the Osnabrueck tram system of 1906 on which the location was marked. It is now called Ludwig Baete Strasse (after a 20th Century writer and historian) and is a pleasant tree-lined street of post-Second World War housing.
In the small town of Elze, to the south of Hannover, we visited die Peter und Paul-Kirche, in which Charles and Anna had married in 1873. It was curiously empty on the Sunday lunchtime, apart from two middle-aged women – the organist and a singer – who held a long practice session, perhaps 40 minutes or so, for the time we were there. The melodic sounds resonated down from the balcony and around the clean white walls of the church’s interior.
Outside, I found the statue of Martin Luther, erected in 1883 on the 400th anniversary of his birth, to be both powerful and moving. The inscription read: Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir. Amen! “Here, I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen!”. This is reputed to have been Luther’s statement to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, at the formal hearing in Worms in 1521. (In his monumental A History of Christianity, published in 2009, Diarmid MacCulloch notes that the phrase was only attributed to Luther after his death by the editor of his collected works).
For the following day, we had hired an excellent local guide – Almuth Quehl – to show us around the village of Kirchwalsede and the town of Visselhoevede, including the two beautiful parish churches. At the former, Almuth had arranged for us to see some of the original church records. We started by finding the baptism record of Anna Margreta Marquardt – the mother of Anna Karoline Borstelmann’s father, Johann Friedrich Borstelmann, (and my great (x3) grandmother) – in 1772. I felt the lump in my throat as I saw her name on the page: I just about held it together.
I have previously spent some time examining the comprehensive online database of Lutheran church records in Niedersachsen and was familiar with the long direct family line that goes back through the Marquadt, Lange, Dieckhof and Henke families to the baptism of Harm Henke in 1582. We looked up some of the other original records: the burial of Gert Dieckhof in 1713, the burial of Casten Henke in 1691, and so on.
An unexpected bonus was that the written records contained additional information. Even in the Lutheran church, the type of service was, to some extent, dependent on the amount spent by the worshippers. Hence, the burial of Anna Marie Henke in 1711 was accompanied by “a sermon from the pulpit”. Elsewhere, the causes of death were given: the unfortunate Johann Lange died at the age of 56 three weeks before the Christmas of 1686 when a stone fell on him as he was digging a hole (presumably in the graveyard).
The baptism of Harm Henke in 1582 was, of course, relatively early in the history of the Protestant Church; it had been only two generations earlier that Luther had nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Or, to put it another way, it was six years before Philip of Spain sent his Armada into the English Channel. As I looked around the church in Kirchwalsede, its interior neatly decorated with flowers from a recent wedding, I was aware that, even though it had been modified and repaired many times over the centuries, this was still the space in which my great (x9) grandfather had lived and breathed. And it was now, in a different context to Luther, that here I stood.
On the Tuesday, our family researches completed for the time being, Rosie and I did the tourist run in Hannover. The bus tour took us past the Eriebnis Zoo and out to the Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen. Towards the end of the route we passed the HDI Arena – the home of the Bundesliga 1 side, Hannover 96 – the street in front of which is called Robert Enke Strasse.
Robert Enke was a goalkeeper who played for Hannover 96 for five years from 2004. He also played for Benfica and Borussia Muenchengladbach, amongst other clubs, and won eight caps for Germany. He took his own life in 2009 at the age of 32. (The excellent A Life Too Short: the Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng, published in 2011, is a detailed and poignant biography).
After the bus tour, Rosie and I briefly went our separate ways and I paid my three euros to take the escalator to the top of the dome of the Neues Rathaus (the New Town Hall) for the views across the city and the surrounding plains. Then, in the late afternoon, I walked back to the football stadium, even though I knew that the gates were closed and access was not possible. (This was an obvious flaw in the schedule I had planned: Hannover 96 are at home to FC Nuremburg next Tuesday). As I returned to the hotel, I attempted to marshal the conflicting themes that the overall visit had generated in the back of my mind.
There is an obvious point about continuity and longevity, even amongst the turmoil and destruction that the centuries have brought to this part of the world. The Rathaus in Osnabrueck, heavily damaged in the Second World War, has been repaired to the Late Gothic design of the 1512 original; it was where one of the treaties of the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648 to bring an end to the Thirty Years’ War. In Bad Muender am Deister (where my great (x2) grandmother, Anna Perlasky, was born in 1829), the door of the imposing Steinhof is dated 1721 and names the family who owned the property at that time. Even in the Marktkirche in Hannover, also destroyed in the War and impressively rebuilt in red brick subsequently, the striking triptych at the altar dates from 1480.
The theme of continuity is also evident in the robustness of the family line in Niedersachsen, irrespective of whichever of the various armies – Swedish or Napoleonic or Hannoverian or Prussian – have marched through the territory to claim the land. The local inhabitants – farmers, shepherds, builders, et al – got on with their lives and raised their families and prayed to God and kept going from one generation to the next.
At the same time, I am conscious that there is also transience and fragility. In this respect, although I have mentioned the late goalkeeper of Hannover 96, I doubt that – on reflection – this is a blog about sport at all, not even tenuously. If it is, it is only a reflection of sport’s peripheral place in the much grander scheme of things.
Rather, I might suggest that the blog is principally about connections and relationships and how, against the deep background of the long centuries, there is an inevitable impermanence to our being – whether 32 years for Robert Enke or 56 years for Johann Lange or 84 years for Anna Karoline Borstelmann. We all dip our hand in the flowing stream – some just a finger, others up to the wrist – and, in the rippling of the water, we leave the memories and traces for those that are left behind.