Behind the arched windows on the third floor was once the riding school indoor arena.
Axel’s brother, Uwe, joined us in Wiesbaden, our last European stop. It was the first time in decades that the two brothers had been in the town together. We spent a few days traipsing along the paths of their youth, commenting about what had changed and what had not. I learned to duck, because at any given moment, one of them would suddenly spin and point at a building, or a fountain, or a particular tree with a gleeful, “it’s still there!” or a wistful, “Don’t you remember when that was the Cafe Blume? The sons of an officer who was long listed to represent Germany for the ill fated 1940 Olympic Games, and who died in World War II, they grew up riding in Wiesbaden. Axel chose to come to the US when he was 19 after earning his German silver riding medal, while Uwe went on to be the head rider at the famed Von Neindorf school in Karlsrue, Germany before emigrating to the United States several years later.
We arrived at their childhood home. It’s a handsome four-story house, with high ceilings, and grand staircase and huge windows, situated in a quiet, tree lined neighborhood. Before the war, their family had owned and inhabited the entire house. After the war, they were required to break the space up into several apartments. It has long since passed into other hands, and from the row of door buzzers, we could see that a design studio occupies the ground floor. I stood outside and listened to the stories Axel and Uwe told of their escapades: the fence that they were small enough to dart through in an emergency; the place where the hamster was buried; the narrow ledge that they used to dare each other to walk on; the house next door, rebuilt long ago, that had been struck by an errant Allied bomb.
A woman approached and asked if we needed help. The brothers explained that they had grown up in this very house. It turned out that she was a member of the design studio, and she graciously invited us in. Axel and Uwe were both tickled to see that the staircase remained unchanged, and that even the grandfather clock was still beside the front door.
Axel stood gazing through the window at the corner of the house. “I watched my father walk down that street when he left for the war,” he said. “It was the last time I saw him.” I tried to envision the scene in 1943, the street, overhung with linden trees, that ran down a gentle hill toward town, as a young officer in a long grey coat strode away.
We said our thanks and good byes and walked in the same direction, passing the grade school, past the American Arms Hotel, still a military property but long closed, where Axel had worked as a teenager. We strolled around the pond in the Warmer Damm, where there were several broods of new ducklings. Through the Kurpark, past the lake with its paddle boats, past the Opera House, where they had spent their hard-earned money for standing room tickets to see Aida and The Magic Flute. We then arrived at a building that had seen better days: it was now a “teen cultural center” but there were weeds growing between the cobblestones in the courtyard and the walls were stained with graffiti tags. This had been the riding school. The indoor arena was on the third floor, accessed by a steep ramp. When they took horses off the property, they hacked them down the city street to the bridle trails.
Eventually we wound up drinking beer in the Market Square between the Rathaus and the Protestant church. The church bells began pealing the call for evening mass: the holiday of Pfingsten (otherwise known as Whitsun or Pentecost) was approaching. What struck me about our jaunt was that the furthest reaches of their childhood world could be walked to in twenty minutes. I thought of what a lovely place it must have been to grow up in, even in the difficult years after World War II. I enjoyed the scale of Wiesbeden, the walkability, the congeniality of the small city.
We drove out to the Schlosspark, seven kilometers outside of town, where the horse show would take place. Things were still being organized there, credentials were being doled out, horses were being jogged for inspection. Axel first rode in this show in 1951, when he was nine years old. How did you get the horses here, I asked, wondering what sort of horse van would fit through the gates of the riding school.
“We rode them to the show,” he replied. “We showed in our classes, and then we rode home.”
Almost four miles each way. Across the city, down the main streets. No groom, no golf cart, no tack truck full of spares. And people gripe about hacking to the rings from the back barns at Wellington.
We strolled around the grounds. The pink and white castle is beautiful and imposing. It presides over a picturesque stretch of the Rhine river, and its property is now an expansive public park large enough for the jumpers, the dressage and a three star cross country course. Axel pointed out a ditch, and announce that this was where he’d first met Reiner Klimke. “Not on purpose,” he explained. “I was ten years old, he was fifteen. We were all schooling, and I cut him off on his approach to this ditch. It took years before I had the nerve to talk to him.” I know that he went on to not only talk to Dr. Klimke but to judge him many times throughout his career.
The next day we took a drive to Karlsrue, where the Von Neindorf riding school is located. It was lunchtime and raining when we arrived, and horses were quietly munching their hay. In its heyday, this school was legendary for turning out excellent riders and trainers, including Uwe, who is now a fine trainer with an avid following throughout the US. The arena itself is an historic property, due to its unique wood span roof. I was surprised at the compact size of the arena: 18 meters by 36 meters, with piaffe pillars on the centerline. Not even as large as a “small” dressage arena. “You learned to do transitions, and you really learned to ride into the corners!” Uwe explained. The school still puts on quadrille performances in the space, which is even smaller on performance days because of the spectator seating that is added in the arena.
On our last day before the CDI started, we had a small memorial for Axel’s and Uwe’s mother, who went by the nickname Hex. By the time she passed away in 2003, she had been living in the United States for many years. But she had always had a dream of returning to Wiesbaden. So we visited her favorite places, and told stories about her exploits – she was a sassy woman who could spin a great tale. Wiesbaden must have held memories both good and bad for her: it was where she had fallen in love, and where she’d lost her husband; it was where she had ridden and driven fine horses, and where those horses had vanished into the war as well. It was where she had danced at society balls at the Casino, and where the war made food scarce. It was where she had great friends, and where she was turned in and arrested for helping Jews. But she wanted to be remembered in Wiesbaden…. And so that is what we did.
Axel and Uwe and their childhood house.
Axel and Uwe … I’m guessing that they slid down that bannister as kids!
The infamous ditch at the Schlosspark
Axel and Uwe at the von Neindorff school
Steiners, doing what we do best!
The grand hall of the Wiesbaden Casino
Ducklings at the Warmer Damm pond