My dear friend Christian Hirsch is dead. I met him in 2007 when I first stayed in the house I rented every summer until this year in Bayreuth. He was our neighbour. Born in 1922, he was a goldmine of information about the Nazi period that he experienced as a teenager, his membership of the Hitler Youth - We had to join, it would have been dangerous if we hadn't - and the Second World War, that he entered in 1940, aged 18. He spent a few years in Russia before being posted to France. A tailor, haberdasher, gentlemens' outfitter - call it what you will - Christian was a lifelong pacifist, devoted to his namesake faith and an enthusiastic Gideon. I still have the Bible he gave me. I particularly remember him running up the steps to our house - he was 86 at the time - imploring my help to pick up his other neighbour who had fallen over and who was too weak to get up on his own. He'd already tried, but needed another pair of arms.
Christian would pop round with a pot of honey from his bees, a punnet of strawberries or anything else seasonal he picked up. He never stopped thinking about other people and loved to speak the little French he knew to the Fingernails. His father had built the house where he lived. It's semi-detached, the neighbouring house having been built by one of Siegfried Wagner's boyfriends so he could be near the theatre and the object of his affections. It is now the property of a wonderful family who seem to have taken great care of him over the last few years.
These last two summers, I saw much less of Christian. Age was catching up with him, despite strong family genes. His father had lived to the age of 99 and his GP had not been tender to the son concerning his lack of progeny: With genes like those of your family, and you have no children? Why, it's almost morally reckless! After asking the gardener and his niece when a good time would be to see him, I was told to ring around noon, pretty much any day. The following day, I did. His wife told me he'd be out in a few minutes and that I was to wait in the gazebo. It was a wonderfully sunny day. Five minutes later, Christian came out of the front door and started singing an old German summer camp song at the top of his voice. 'Do you know it?', he asked? 'No'. He then gave me the entire history of the song before we sat and chatted about World War II and what had happened since. He was eager to see Mrs. F and the Fingernails, whose chatter and singing he loved to listen to as it wafted over from our garden.
Living where he did, he was well-placed to comment on an important slice of German history. Just behind the Festspielhaus, he remembers hearing the Sieg Heils raised in honour of the Führer's speeches from the terrace of the Königsloge (pictures a-plenty on Google…), greeting Furtwängler, and, a few years later, Harry Kupfer, as they passed in front of the house on their way to work (Furtwängler rented a flat in Dalandweg, just off Isoldenstrasse where I lived; Kupfer a couple of doors down from me). Isoldenstrasse runs into Christian's 'street' via a footpath; it's traffic-free, pollution-free and as near to urban paradise as you can get: at the end of the path, you can either turn left and go straight to the Festspielhaus, right to go to the Sankt Georgen Forest or straight on into meadows. Christian knew how fortunate he was to live in Bayreuth and loved his home town till his dying day.
I probably won't be going back to Bayreuth ever again, but it's not seeing Herrn Hirsch that touches me more.