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In a corner of eastern France, there exists a unique culture that has evolved from two very different sources. I spend time with a local and friend who explains how the area developed its unique identity. Traveling with him, I see through his eyes how the region has retained its identity despite centuries of invasion, subjugation and an ever-changing world around it.

Jean-Claude Werner, the kind old man with the French first name and the German surname, looks out over the Vosges Mountains. The Black Forrest is in the distance. He can see into Germany. Squinting in the morning sun, he points eastward toward France’s old enemy.

“See how close we are? That’s how we developed our identity. One culture bled into the other over time.” Then he grins. “And we had plenty of time.”

The older gentleman exudes a certain poise; a polite geniality. It’s what one might describe as an “old-world” charm. He loves this Alsace, his home since birth. His bright eyes, easy smile and youthful energy belie a long life and some difficult experiences. It occurs to me that it parallels the traumatic past of his picturesque home, the French province of Alsace.

Jumping into his minivan, Jean-Claude shifts into drive and putters back down the hill and onto the main road. As he motors back toward his home near the town of Colmar, he passes by the lush, rolling vineyards which grow the grapes of France’s legendary Alsatian wine.

Alsace 2Aficionados from around the world come here to sample the local product. Sylvaner, Riesling, Muscat and Cremant d’Alsace are all celebrated wines of the region. Between tastings visitors cruise around the Route du Vin, the ninety mile loop lacing the region’s towns and vineyards together, admiring the picturesque villages nestled in the green hills.

Few of the visitors, however, take the time to speak to men like Jean-Claude and learn about the Alsatian community’s fascinating and complex history. If they did, they would be privileged to hear a story that is complicated, sometimes heartbreaking, but ultimately inspiring.

A few moments later, we stop at one such village, a tiny hamlet called Riquewihr. “I think this will help you understand what I’m talking about when I say ‘cultural hybrid,’” he says, hopping out of the minivan. “Come with me.”

We enter the quaint village, which appears to be straight out of a storybook. My host points to the rows of medieval houses along a crooked street. They provide a vivid reflection of how the essence of French and German culture was merged in Alsace. “See the half-timbering?” asks Jean-Claude. “That’s German. They used that building style in the Middle Ages.”

But there was something about the houses that didn’t quite fit. “Look at the window shutters,” he said. “They’re French. The influences of both cultures are reflected in the way people build. The mix of German half timber and French accents express how intertwined these cultures are in Alsace.”

He points to the little metal plates affixed to the timbers of the houses on the corner of the street. They bear the street names—in two languages. “The region changed hands so many times in the past millennium that the people decided it was safer to put up signs in both languages, rather than switch them constantly,” he says.

Approaching a small shop, he points to the old iron-wrought sign hanging above the door. It features German (Old Style script) and French language, as does almost every other merchant’s sign in the village. “Like the street signs,” he said. “The people never knew when the alternative would be needed on short notice.”

Ducking into the shop, he nearly bangs his head on the low wooden beams that still hold up the ancient ceiling. He greets the merchant with a hearty “allo,” and they chat for a moment. She is a short, stout woman in middle age. She has blonde hair and blue eyes. “This is Marie,” he tells me. “Marie Vogel. You see, even our names are hybridized.”

I converse with the friendly merchant in German for a few moments. With my limited linguistic ability, I ask her if she’s lived here long. “I was born here,” she replies. 

“Oh, you’ve lived here your whole life?” I ask.

She smiles. “Not yet,” she says.

Jean-Claude exchanges a few more pleasantries with Marie and we exit. Back on the street, now beginning to crowd with tourists in comfortable shoes, my friend points to a small café. Time for lunch.

I’d had Alsatian cuisine before. It’s hearty and tasty, and its German influence is dominant; sausages, onions and sauerkraut are the major elements. He suggests trying the Alsatian baeckeoffe, a stew of sausage, potato and garden vegetables. Once in the café, I opt for the rosti, a baked potato and cheese combination. It’s filling and delicious.

Afterward, we resume our drive along the Route du Vin and Jean-Claude explains to his puzzled American friend how such cultural hybridization developed. “History, politics and geography,” he says, “they are intertwined and defined the Alsatian identity.”

The region’s location, between the Vosges Mountains to the west and the Rhine River to the east, was the main point of contention. Germany had traditionally insisted that the natural border of the two nations should be the Vosges, thus entitling them to control of the river valley, while France believed that German territory should stop at the Rhine.

Consequently, French and German dukes struggled over ownership of the prosperous wine producing region throughout the Middle Ages, and Alsace changed hands several times over the centuries. Treaties, backroom deals and outright conquest decided which country the area was aligned with and the people who lived here had little voice in who would rule them.

In the seventeenth Century, Imperial France annexed the area, and the issue seemed settled at last. The empire eventually declined, and Alsace once again found itself a pawn in international politics. The Franco-Prussian war ended with Alsace in German hands, only to be returned to French control at the conclusion of World War I. The war-weary Alsatians did not know the hard-fought peace—and their freedom—would last only twenty years.

Travel Talk Photos 021Jean-Claude points out that, like so many other regions of the world whose borders often shift, the Alsatian people eventually developed their own identity and a fierce sense of independence. “The street signs and architecture are just outward examples of the Alsatian culture. We’re a resilient people and have our own uniqueness. No one was ever able to take that away.” The bucolic scenery bears little evidence of the regions tumultuous history.

We pull over near an older man on a tractor. The man is clad in overalls and tall, green rubber boots. His skin is leathery from a long life spent in the vineyards of this dry, sunny area. They obviously know each other and the pair converse for a moment in a language that sounds like German, but was not. Even my untrained ear was able to detect the difference. “What were you speaking?” I ask him when we pull back onto the road.

“Alsatian, of course!” he says with a smile. The pride is evident in his voice. “It’s similar to German, but it’s an independent dialect. It must be spoken to be kept alive.”

Stopping in another post-card pretty village, Eguisheim, he parks along the crooked street. A row of colorfully painted half-timbered buildings in the German tradition line the street. He points to the town’s World War I memorial, near the church. Many towns in Germany and France have one, listing the young men who left for the trenches and never came home. “Look at the names,” he says.

A long honor roll of young Alsatians, most with French first names and German surnames, or vice versa. We meander down a cobbled side street. “I’ve noticed that the area bears few scars from the last war,” I say.

Jean-Claude nods. “That is a subject the tourists and visiting wine enthusiasts are not interested in, but it’s a major part of our history,” he says, looking down at the uneven cobbles. “But there’s a place which bears scars. Come with me.”

A moment later we are in his minivan and heading out of the village. As we pass bicycle riders out for a pleasant ride along the Route du Vin, Jean-Claude begins telling me about Alsace’s traumatic World War II experience.

“We woke up to artillery on New Year’s Day, 1945. We did not know what was going on. It turns out the Germans had chosen the Vosges Mountains and the area around Colmar as their last offensive action of the war. They made a last stand against the Allied advance right here in our mountains.”

Just a few minutes after leaving Eguisheim, we approach an all together different community, shockingly out of place in the storybook splendor of Alsace: Bennwhir.

“This town dates from the post-war period,” Jean-Claude says. He didn’t need to tell me; it was evident immediately. The buildings are square and colorless, and exude the sort of soulless utilitarianism indicative of post-war architecture. “German units took positions here and house-to-house combat ensued. The original village was flattened by the fighting. What you see was put up as fast as possible for the survivors after the battle ended. The tourists pass this town on the way to the others, and rarely stop. Not much left to see.” He shakes his head.

This reminds him of the darkest chapter of his life, the German occupation of Alsace. “We prize our Alsatian identity,” he says. “The Germans tried to strip us of it, and outlawed the use of our dialect. But we spoke it behind closed doors. We wouldn’t let them stop us.”

To further exploit the population, the Germans instituted forced conscription. “As the war became worse for them,” he recalls, “the Germans decreed that all able-bodied young men were to report for military service in the German army. Fortunately I was a bit too young to be called. But my brother wasn’t. He was conscripted. He refused to fight for the occupiers, so he ran away. Shortly after, the SS came to our home.”

I listen in rapt attention as Jean Claude and I walk along the streets of the drab post-war village, knowing that I am listening to a piece of history that deserves to be remembered. Though the events are now far in the past, his recollections send a shiver through my body.

“The SS officer informed my mother that in retaliation for my brother’s disobedience, the family is to be shipped to a concentration camp. We were terrified. Fortunately, a well-connected family intervened and we were spared. My brother was allowed to come home. He was very fortunate. Most Alsatian draftees were sent to the Eastern front, never to return. Twenty thousand are still missing.”

Finally, after more than a month of fierce combat in the vineyards and hills, the German advance was driven back and the “Colmar Pocket” was collapsed. Hitler had lost his last gamble and the Allies drove eastward into the heart of the Third Reich.

“Liberation Day came, as we knew it would,” Jean-Claude said as we drove back to his home in Colmar. “We didn’t let them take our freedom, our language or any of the things gives us our identity. They occupied, they terrorized, but they did not conquer.”

I ask him how the unique culture is surviving in the modern era of McDonalds, iPods and internet.

“Alsatian identity is still strong,” he said, “In recent years the French government has been very supportive of our efforts to retain our heritage. And, after a long decline, our dialect is beginning to make a comeback. Don’t worry,” he says with a smile, “we are quite resilient.”

We reach Colmar and Jean-Claude drops me off at my hotel, a German-looking building with French shutters. I thank my friend for sharing his time and his stories with me. He smiles and drives away. I amble down a cobbled lane in the enchanting old city as the sun begins to set. It’s been a long day and I decide to find a quiet café and finish it with nice glass of wine.

I order in Alsatian.

© James Ullrich

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