Saturday, January 02, 2021

a city on the border

#lostcities episode 7: Aachen

Aachen is still there, physically, just lost to my family who left it behind. Today a city with 250,000 residents, it is doing quite well out of its technical university and the historic sites linked to Charlemagne who was crowned emperor there on Christmas Day 800. Located close to the point where the borderlines between Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium meet, it is also terrifically well connected with the high speed trains from Frankfurt and Cologne stopping there on their way to Paris or Brussels.

Aachen Hauptbahnhof in 1938, with the Haus Grenzwacht (which ironically never was the customs office although its name seems to suggest some sort of border protection function, but I think it refers only to it being an unusually high tower block for its time and close to the national border, so I suspect from the top you could probably see Belgium and the Netherlands. The Hauptzollamt is behind the viewer's back.

My grandfather worked at the customs office, and got moved around frequently, typically being relocated to a new city each time he got promoted. By the time he was posted to Aachen in January 1936, he had an official car and more than 100 people to boss around so it was kind of a last hurrah before the war from which he didn’t return.

When you step outside the main station, the former main customs office (Hauptzollamt) is on your left, it is now a listed building and looking very well kept, although I couldn’t find a postcard of it. Instead, the one above shows what may very well have been the view from his office window. The family lived in Mariabrunnstraße, just a block away from the Hauptzollamt and still close to the railway line. The street is a cul de sac for cars but has a footpath passing under the rails.

Although I have stayed at Aachen a couple of times and visited the sites mentioned, I haven't formed much of an attachment. One issue I have with the place is that I am missing the structure provided by a decent river. There is some water flowing from the Elisenbrunnen in the city centre and the area around that is ok, and the cathedral is an UNESCO World Heritage Site of course. I am also slightly spooked by the fact that the relevant time frame falls entirely into the Nazi era, so one can imagine the spirit prevailing in the main customs office, which by then would have been cleared of anybody who didn't go with the flow.

A modern photo of the Hauptzollamt (2014).
Source: Wikipedia

#lostcities series so far:

  1. Elberfeld / Wuppertal 1919 - 1961
  2. Strasbourg 1901 - 1908
  3. Minden 1903 - 1952
  4. Tangermünde 1888 - 1916
  5. Rheydt 1923 - 1935
  6. Königsberg 1935-1945
  7. Aachen 1936-1940

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