North Sea Musings

Langeoog, North Germany

Thomas, a burly, bearded botanist turned IT-specialist in Basle, and I decided to make a Herrnnachmittag out of a sunny day, despite the clouds in the vast horizon of the North Sea Isle of Langeoog, where we were spending our holidays with our near and dear ones. There we were, two croonies spending the afternoon, after an extended walk along the shore’s shrubby dunes on our way to the traditional East Friesian tea-house.
In the isle of Langeoog they call the houses ‘Hus,’ so you have a Teehus (tea-house) a Spöölhus (a house where kidddies can play). Since we were both avid tea-drinkers, we decided to go the “Ostfriesische Teestube am Hafen,” and I must say I found it delightful. They even had self-baked cakes for diabetics, not that we had insulin problems, but I do remember that my diabetic Creative Writing Professor Bruce Dobler would order a sandwich, weigh it on his portable Waage meticulously. Every gram seemed to count. It was like a ritual after his Creative Writing lectures at the University of Freiburg and we went to an Irish pub called O’ Dwyers, behind the university library for a swig of Guinness stout, as we talked about literature, poets and writers.

The tea was excellent and the butter cakes delicious. Through the white painted windows we could see the blue North Sea and the boats. Trawlers were approaching the harbour bringing in their haul. Our table had a glass case filled with Darjeeling tea leaves.

Thomas asked if it was the First Flush or the Second? I told him that it was certainly the First Flush because the ‘two leaves and a bud’ were distinctly visible. After the excellent Fresian tea we went for a walk along the dyke to the harbour. To our left was the Watt, which had been laid artificially, and which had become a habitat for all sorts of birds among them naturally a numerous sea-gulls. 

Behind us we could see the bunkers built during the Third Reich, td been constructed though the iron-door leading to it was closed. Where the tarmac had been constructed for the German Luftwaffe, was now a dense forest, but the impeccable landing area was still intact. Private twin-motored planes took-off and landed now and again.

On August 3, 1941 some 450 Soviet prisoners of war were brought to Langeoog. The island chronist and teacher Richard Windemuth described them this way: ‘ We were all excited to know whether they looked the way the magazines and weekly shows described them. What we saw were figures in rags and uncouth due to the imprisonment, a very depressing picture. According to the SS-guards the POWs had rebelled and didn’t want to board the ship at Bensersiel. They were scared that they’d be left to drown in the icy waters of the North Sea.

The POWs, according to an observer from Wangerooge, were put up in a barrack in the Garden Street (today it’s House Meedland). The youngest POW was 15 years old, and they had to work at the airport of Langeoog. 113 of them died due to the inhuman treatment meted out to them, and buried in mass-graves in the outskirts of the dune-graveyard. After the krieg the island community is said to have created a passable memorial.

On August 26, 1941 came the French prisoners of war to Langeoog. They were soldiers who’d tried to escape from the Lagers (prison-camps) in Germany’s mainland. The treatment was harder than usual in the Isle of Langegoog, but not comparable to the treatment of Soviet prisoners. The chronicler says: ‘ They got the same food, even tobacco and Schnaps (German alcohol) like the German guards.’ Not so the poor Soviets who were called ‘Ivan’ in those days. 

It might be noted that the Führer (Hitler) in his big speech demanded from the German public to pray for the blessings of the Almighty for the German Waffen (soldiers) in the Eastern Front. The population statistics of 1939 show that 95 % of the Germans belonged to one or other of the Christian religious societies: evangelic and catholic.

Just before midnight on September 7, 1941 Langeoog was bombed again. To the south of the airport 200 incendiary bombs were counted. One of the exploding bombs destroyed the Meider’s Bridge at the harbour. A ship under construction received 15 splitters and the harbour building was completely destroyed.

At the dune-graveyard you could visit the grave of the famous chanson singer Lale Anderson, who’s haunting, melodious song ‘Lili Marleen’ woke longings in the hearts of the U-boat crews, Luftwaffe pilots and German destroyers and other battleships, away from their Heimat and the danger of being blown to pieces by the US, RAF and Allied airplanes, depth-charges and artillery and flak. 

‘No one knows the secret of freedom, unless you are a prisoner,’ said Dietrich Bonhoffer in 1944 when he was imprisoned by the Nazis. He knew through his own suffering and experience what freedom meant, and he also knew what personal freedom one had to sacrifice to achieve freedom for all, for freedom is not only a word. Freedom means words and deeds, as is evident in the Tibetan issue where people around the world are reacting and agitating for the fundamental rights of a country called the Roof of the World.
Meanwhile, you could discern a hoot from an outwards bound ship or the red catamaran which commutes between Langeoog and Benzersiel, and the incessant cries of the sea-gulls vying with each other to get a morsel of fish from the trawlers that were coming to their home-harbour.

The 2500 inhabitants of Langeoog are facing a tough time battling against Nature. The sea, which is washing away the island is one factor, and the influx of people with a lot of capital from the mainland is the other factor. The dunes are very important for the islands and coasts just as the wind, water and sun. Like the Watt and salty meadows, the dunes and other habitats also underlie special dynamic changes and some flora and fauna need these changes. Strandhafer, Strandroggen and Stranddistel live here. Brandgeese and sea-gulls breed primarily in the dunes. 

The dunes serve as a protection for endangered animals and also for the inhabitants of Langeoog because there’s no need to build dykes, where there’s a protective shield of dune-chains around the island and along the coast. The dunes are much higher than the dykes and a lot broader. Every year, the west-wind and west-waves bring thousands of tons of sand from the East Sea to the North Sea. The protection of the coast and nature conservation go hand in hand. And visitors to the isle are admonished to walk only along the prescribed paths to the benefit of humans and Mother Nature

Even I’d contemplated how wonderful it would be to build at least a holiday-houses at Langeoog. Instead we’ve decided to build one in the Black Forest right below a hill with pine trees, with an excellent view of the hills in the vicinity of Rosskopf.

The old fashioned Tante Emma shops are dwindling, giving way to supermarkets—like in France’s Atlantic Isle of Oleron. One remarkable feature of the Isle of Langeoog is that it has been long declared a car-free zone. The main means of communication in the Isle is with an old, gaudy diesel-driven train that brings you to the town from the harbour. After that you can hire a horse-driven taxi, bicycle or go on foot. The cars remain in Bensersiel (mainland). And unless you know someone in the island who has a plane, everyone is obliged to take the ferry.

We walked along the north-west beach into the small town. The beach was littered with churned sea-shells, sea-weed and plastic garbage of the tourists. A team of workers who belonged to a jaw-breaking measure (Arbeitsbeschaffungsmaßnahmen ABM) came with a tractor and a trailer to clear the beach.

“Ordnung muss sein, even on the beach!” remarked Thomas. The people of Langeoog have to separate their garbage and put them in the respective bins—as everywhere in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Green bins for paper, brown for biological or organic garbage and yellow plastic bags for PVC and plastic garbage.

Watt n’ Erlebnis: The walk along the North Sea Wattenmeer, along the shore of Langeoog was interesting and strenuous and the local guide Uwe G. turned out to be a bearded, blond East Friesian bloke with a gift of the gab. He introduced us to the dangers and secrets of the Watt, which is typical for Germany and Scandinavian countries. We walked every 100 metres into the sea, and Uwe dug his fork into the sea-bed and showed us the wonders of the North Sea Watt: crustaceans and molluscs, crabs, shrimps, worms and their habitats. How the heart-mussel and clams live, and how to get a glass full of shrimps swimming in water. He loved to tell you about the peristaltic of the worms in comparison to humans, their reproductive and digestive systems. It was what you might call a marine biology lecture carried at a hilarious, non-scientific level and the people loved him for it.

An elderly Germany couple thought the Uwe had a “Bundeswehr tone” to his talk. Another German said that he was definitely “Analfixiert” (anal-fixed according to Freud’s theory, wherein he speaks about people being ‘fixed’ in the oral, anal and oedipal phases of human development). But Uwe was very self-conscious and he went on candidly comparing humans with molluscs. The children and grown-ups had a good time.

By the time we’d reached the outer periphery of the Watt, the tide started coming in. And it got difficult to pull out the gum-boots out of the Schlack (dark, sticky, muddy water). It was a moment when I thought it would perhaps be better to leave my gum-boots behind. But I somehow managed to walk on. The Wattwanderung along the shores of the Isle of Langeoog was interesting and strenuous and we learned quite a lot about the wildlife and acquatic animas on the shores of the North Sea Wattenmeer.

Another day it was a chilly, and we could feel the gusts of wind blowing to the island from the North Sea. Although we had our pullovers, jackets and gum-boots on, as we trudged along between the beach and the waves, busy gathering sea-shells, a woman in the autumn of her life, wearing a one-piece bathing suit in anthroposophical orange pastell colours, walked to the sea and began swimming in the cold, wind-swept water. Brr! She was very courageous, disciplined and trimmed for a hard life, I thought.

Downtown Langeoog reminded me of a sea-town in Britain with those neat brick-houses and white-painted doors and windows, cobble-stoned streets and sea-man’s kitsch on the windows. I couldn’t help it, I had to buy some of it: cards, Langeoogs water-tower in miniature with two sea-gulls and a red-white painted trawler, complete with fishing nets on two sides.


More by :  Satis Shroff

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