Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers Silver Winner: Alsace’s Unique Character, Through the Eyes of a Local

By James Ullrich

In a corner of eastern France, a unique, hybridized culture has evolved from two very different sources.

Jean-Claude Schroeder, the kind old man with the French first name and the German surname, looks out over the tree-carpeted Vosges Mountains. The Black Forrest is in the distance. He can see into Germany. Squinting in morning the sun, he lifts a liver-spotted hand and 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 province, 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.

We climb into his battered 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.

Aficionados 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 they cruise around the Route du Vin, the ninety mile loop tying the region’s towns and vineyards together, admiring the film-gobbling villages nestled in the green hills.

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

A few moments later, we stop at the adorable medieval 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, looking like it manifested straight out of a storybook. My friend points to the rows of medieval houses along a crooked street. They provide a vivid reflection of how the DNA of French and German culture merged in Alsace. “See the half-timbering?” asks Jean-Claude. “That’s German. They used that building style in the Middle Ages.”

But there is something about the houses that doesn’t quite fit. “Look at the window shutters,” he says. “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 those 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 says. “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 and a bit of mischief flashes in her eyes. “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 made 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, while France believed that German territory should stop at the Rhine.

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

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, and was 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.

Jean-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 and post-card pretty villages passing by the window bear little evidence of the region’s tumultuous history. He pulls over near an older man on a tractor. The man is clad in the local grape grower’s uniform: overalls and tall green rubber boots. His skin is leathery from a long life spent in the vineyards under the warm sun that bakes the region. I’m wiping sweat from my eyes. The salinity stings them.

They pair obviously know each other and converse for a few moments 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 picturesque village, Eguisheim, he parks along the crooked street. Another 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 relatively 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. Lots of them. Come with me.”

A moment later we are in his minivan and headed out of the mountains and back toward a small 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. An experience that shaped his life.

“Alsace came under German control again when they invaded France in 1940,” Jean-Claude began. “The area escaped most of the fighting until the very end of the war. Then we definitely got our share.”

Jean-Claude and his neighbors woke up to artillery fire on New Year’s Day 1945. They didn’t know what was going on. The Germans had chosen the Vosges Mountains and the area around Colmar as their last offensive action of the war. They made their last, desperate stand against the Allied advance in these hills.

He recounts how US paratroops, still weary and battered from fighting in the Ardennes, rushed south from Belgium to fortify the Allied defenses. The US generals were keen to avoid the kind of “Battle of the Bulge” situation they’d just experienced. Instead of a “bulge” the German attack created the “Colmar Pocket.”

We turn off onto a narrow country lane as Jean-Claude points to the rugged hills around us. “The Allies and Germans fought savagely in that terrain in sub-zero temperatures,” he says. “It must have been an icy hell.”

Just a few minutes after leaving the almost-too-cute village of Eguisheim, we approach an altogether different community, its severe drabness jarringly 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 want to fight for the occupiers, so he ran away. Shortly after, there was a knock at our door. It was the SS.”

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.

“The SS officer informed my mother that in retaliation for my brother’s disobedience,” he said, a shadow crossing his normally smiling face, “my family was to be shipped to a concentration camp.” Though the events are now far in the past, the terror is still palpable; the emotion is clear in his voice. It sends a shiver down my spine.

“Fortunately,” he continued, “a well-connected family in the area intervened, and we were spared. My brother was allowed to come home. He was lucky. Most Alsatian draftees were sent to the Eastern front, never to return. Twenty thousand are still missing.”

“There is another place I’d like to show you. Many people do not know of its existence, it that is a crime.”

We pull off the main road and onto a path with a steep incline. Driving further into the Vosges Mountains, the roads become narrower and less well-marked. Soon we came to a small complex of aging buildings. “Natzweiler-Struthof,” Jean Claude said, “the only concentration camp established by the Nazis in France.”

We climb out and gaze at the memorial in front of the complex. “The camp and its annexes were overseen by the SS and housed mainly fighters from the French resistance movement,” he says, “but also anti-Nazi fighters from Poland, the Soviet Union, the Netherlands, France, and Norway. The total number reached an estimated 52,000 over three years.”

“It’s not for the tourists,” he added, a somber tone in his voice, “but you need to see it.”

“Though there were several detention centers scattered about the country,” he continued, “this camp was designed by the SS as a ‘terminal’ stop. It was one of the most murderous camps of the Nazi system, nearly 22,000 deportees having died here. The writer Boris Pahor and wrote his novel Necropolis based on his experiences here.”

One of the first concentration camps discovered and liberated by American forces in Western Europe, today the site retains its crematorium and gas chamber, as well as barracks, a museum and a monument to the resistance fighters who perished there.

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 says as we drive 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 the internet.

“Alsatian identity is still strong,” he says, a note of confidence on his strong voice. “In recent years the French government has been very supportive of our efforts to retain our heritage. After a long decline, our dialect is beginning to make a comeback. Don’t worry,” he says with a smile and a twinkle in his watery blue eyes, “we’re quite resilient.”

We reach Colmar and Jean-Claude drops me off at my hotel. It’s a German-looking building with French shutters. I thank my friend for sharing his time and his stories with me. He smiles, waves, 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. I decide to find a quiet café and have nice glass of wine.

Passing a park, I heard a strange language coming from some kids at play. At first I was baffled. Then I recognized the dialect.

They were speaking Alsatian.


James Ullrich is a freelance travel writer and tour guide. His expertise is European travel. James has helped lead tour groups around Europe and his travel writing has been published in nationally distributed publications including The New York Examiner, World War II, Aviation History, Renaissance, Global Aviator, Backpacker, This England, Writers Weekly, Travel Post Monthly, Travel Addict, and Military, among others. The May/June 2014 issue of Business Jet Traveler, for which James contributed an article, won the 2014 Folio Award for Best Full Issue of a Travel or Transportation Consumer Magazine.

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