Daily Archives: 1 September 2022

A Night in a German Workhouse, 1933

From A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 1, NYRB Classics, 2011), Kindle pp. 46-47:

I asked a policeman where the workhouse was. An hour’s walk led to a sparsely lit quarter. Warehouses and the factories and silent yards lay deep under the untrodden snow. I rang a bell and a bearded Franciscan in clogs unbarred a door and led the way to a dormitory lined with palliasses [tick mattresses] on plank beds and filled with an overpowering fug and a scattering of whispers. A street-lamp showed that all the beds round the stove were taken. I pulled off my boots and lay down, smoking in self-defence. I hadn’t slept in a room with so many people since leaving school. Some of my contemporaries would still be there, at the end of their last term, snug, at this very moment, (I thought as I fell asleep) in their green curtained cubicles, long after their house-master’s rounds and lights out with Bell Harry tolling the hours and the night-watchman’s voice in the precincts announcing a quiet night.

A long stertorous note and a guttural change of pitch from the next bed woke me with a start. The stove had gone out. Snores and groans and sighs were joining in chorus. Though everyone was fast asleep, there were broken sentences and occasional laughs; random explosions broke out. Someone sang a few bars of song and suddenly broke off. Lying in wait in the rafters all the nightmares of the Rhineland had descended on the sleepers.

It was dark in the yard and still snowing when the monk on duty supplied us with axes and saws. We set to work by lamplight on a pile of logs and when they were cut, we filed past a second silent monk and he handed each of us a tin bowl of coffee in exchange for our tools. Another distributed slices of black bread and when the bowls had been handed in, my chopping-mate broke the icicles off the spout of the pump and we worked the handle in turn to slosh the sleep from our faces. The doors were then unbarred.

My chopping-mate was a Saxon from Brunswick and he was heading for Aachen, where, after he had drawn blank in Cologne, Duisburg, Essen and Düsseldorf and combed the whole of the Ruhr, he hoped to find work in a pins-and-needles factory. “Gar kein Glück!” he said. He hunched his shoulders into his lumberjack’s coat and turned the flaps of his cap down over his ears.

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