It’s in winter, in a traditional little chalet hotel in the Black Forest. I’ve noticed a collection of photos on the wall and investigated; they’re signed photos of the writer Ernst Jünger at various events, including his 100th birthday. So I ask the owner about them. (I’ll call her Hedda.)
I’ve read ‘Storm of Steel’, in translation into English obviously, because my German is limited to how to ask for drinks and food. I respect his abilities and the fact that he’s seeing the Great War from a different point of view (the German side); but I am uncomfortable with his, well, cool enjoyment of the war process and its mechanics. Still, I know a bit about his past and the Foreign Legion and his War.
Hedda is (a) amazed that a British person has read ‘Storm of Steel’, (b) ecstatic that I respect it and see its value, and (c) wildly enthusiastic because it’s touched a personal nerve for her. She settles down next to me, with a drink which she pushes absently round the table throughout the chat, and talks, and talks, and talks, and talks, all the time exuding an infectious passion for the man.
Her parents used to own a little gasthaus near the Bodensee and Ernst Jünger used to live fairly close. Every weekend he used to go over there for rest, recovery and food, and he used to take a lot of interest in little Hedda as she was growing up, and eventually – huge honour – they were on Ernst and Hedda terms. She continued to mix with him socially, and she read all his works, and he gave her signed originals of them all. Eventually she owned her own little hotel in the Black Forest and they kept in touch. She’s a talented cook and hostess, and a lovely person and dynamically hard-working.
When he was 100, the German state organised a banquet to celebrate and he asked that Hedda be invited to provide the catering. So she and her little team from the little hotel in the Black Forest set to and created a menu and did the cooking for Ernst Jünger and the German President Roman Herzog, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and President François Mitterand, and lots of esteemed names; and they transported the food across to its destination and it was a fantastic, honourable, once-in-a-lifetime occasion. Hence all the photos.
When he died, she was devastated as she’d lost a friend.
Ernst Jünger’s widow, who’s well into her late eighties, periodically comes to the little hotel in the Black Forest and she’s given a talk a couple of times about her life with Ernst, here in the double dining room among the wooden panelling and the portraits and and the gingham table cloths and the animal heads and the cuckoo clocks and each time it’s been packed and out of the door with crowds of admirers.
So here is Hedda, in 2004, talking in breakneck English with her heavy accent and getting her constructions muddled because she’s so excited … will I make allowances please?… talking to a British woman who is one of the few people who’s noticed her photos, realised their significance and asked her about them.
One moment please… and Hedda rushes off, vanishing in a flurry of dirndl (yes, really) and skirts, and I think the phone must have rung or something urgent. Then she reappears, flushed and excited, with a very special present for me. When Ernst died, she bought a special collection of the stamp issue to commemorate this great writer whom she loved as a person and whom she knew so well, and she has treasured them ever since. And she would like me, please, to accept two of them, to remember our conversation by.
I am almost in tears, and deeply affected, and tell her that I’ll take care of them and frame them. (I have done.)
Next morning it’s as though she’s never, ever, let her emotions show.
(Note: this refers to an encounter in 2004)