Childhood in Basel 1881-1886

"My relationship to Basel is as old as I am, and older even, for not only my father served in the mission there but also my mother's father, one of those scholarly missionaries who would occasionally amaze young Indologists by revealing that he was able to not only read Sanskrit but could also speak it, and who had made a name for himself on account of his knowledge and work as a grammarian and lexicographer of Malayalam and other Indian languages. This Swabian grandfather (the other was the Russian one) was, half a century ago, a familiar figure for visitors to the Basel mission festival as the man who always delivered the opening address in the Martinskirche. His daughter, my mother, was brought up in Gundeldingen near Basel and spoke Basel German as well as she did English or Malayalam. Her youngest brother was married to a woman from Basel. Above and beyond all that, however, there was also the Basel Mission and its supreme authority, the "Committee," an ever-prevailing force in the lives of the parents and grandparents that was mentioned on a daily basis. So I was aware of Basel and had a distinct image of the place even before I, when approaching the age of four, beheld it myself for the first time. It was then that my father was posted to Basel, as a teacher at the mission house, and we children were excited about the change not only because it was a change and meant a journey but also because we had a marvellously alluring image of Basel, for we had been told not only about the mission and the mission house but also of the Rhine and the bridges, of the beautiful old town, the Münster and the Lällenkönig, and we knew many of these curiosities from pictures we had seen. From 1881 to 1886, we then lived in Basel in a house on Müllerweg, opposite the Spalenring, through which, at that time, the Elsässer railway line ran. The sight of the trains, and the frequent times spent standing and waiting at the level crossing when we wanted to go into town, are among my earliest impressions of Basel. During those years, my father had applied for the civil rights of the city of Basel, which he was duly granted. Our Müllerweg and the surrounding area was probably a rather modest suburban district, yet for us children it was a paradise and jungle in which there was no end to the discoveries and adventures. The countryside began right near our house; a farm, off towards Allschwil, and a gravel pit nearby gave us a chance to engage in rural games and pursuits. And the vast and, for someone as small as me, infinitely large open space on Schützenmatte, then still undeveloped land, extending from the Schützenhaus out to Neubad, was my butterfly hunting ground and the scene of our cowboy and Indian games. Many of the recollections from this period are captured in the childhood chapter of Hermann Lauscher. Gradually, on Sunday walks with my father, I got to know the centre of town better, the Rhine with the ferry at Blumenrain and the bridges, the Münster and the Pfalz, the Kreuzgang, the historical museum, which was then in the building over the Kreuzgang. And of the impressions I gained from the museum of art as it then was during the guided tours my father took me on, I found some to still be very much alive when I returned to Basel twelve or more years later; these memories included Böcklin's frescoes in the stairway, Holbein's family portrait and the Dead Christ, Feuerbach's Aretino and the children's idyll, and the picture by Zünd with the cornfield, which I was particularly fond of as a child. In the last two or three years of that time in Basel, the fair in October was also a big event and exciting experience with the sideshows and merry-go-rounds, the street ballad singers on Barfüßerplatz and the sweet "Meßmocken," and the many organ-grinders, who were to be seen and heard as far afield as the suburbs where we lived. When I was just nine years old, I had to leave Basel again; my father had been posted back to Swabia, and we children had to get used to new schools and forget the German spoken in Basel. Yet the links to Basel remained, and visitors from Basel often came to see us. With the exception of one brief holiday trip, however, I was not to see the city again until I was an adult."

Hesse, Basler Erinnerungen, from "Kindheit und Jugend vor Neunzehnhundert," Vol. 2, p. 614ff. Copyright Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main.