Kaysersberg is a picturesque village which lies nestled on the eastern slopes of the Vosges mountains, a short drive north-west from Colmar. The name means ‘Emperor’s Mountain’ in German, and was changed for a short time after the French Revolution to Mont-Libre, in the hope of showing support for the new regime. The village is dominated by the ruins of a castle, built around 1200 for an important representative of the Roman Empire and lived in by various lords of the fiefdom. The castle was abandoned toward the end of the 1500s, yet it remains a dominating feature of the village landsacpe. The town is built around La Weiss, a lively stream which adds to the charm of the village. I’m told by one of my local Alsatians that Kaysersberg hosts one of the best Marchés de Noël, ‘Christmas Markets’, of the region and that cars can line the road leading to the village for several kilometers during mid-December. “We come here anyway,” she explains, “it’s worth the crowd.”
Click on images to view accompanying captions
The mayor of Kaysersberg, Henri Stoll, is considered a little radical in his thinking – or at least not particularly conservative. He’s a member of Europe Écologie Les Verts, ‘The European Ecology Greens’, a small French political party with strong links to Les Verts, ‘The Greens’, and seems to be very engaged in the fight against injustice, at least symbolically. A public display of support for the victims of the January attacks in Paris can be seen on a sign erected in the village square, and the flag of Tibet hangs illegally (it is forbidden to fly any flag other than that of the French state from a public building) from the town hall in a sign of solidarity with Tibet and as a request for recognition of the independence of the Tibetan people and their nation. In a newsletter I found from 2008, he explains his fight for a ‘Better World’ with this challenging citation from Albert Einstein: “The world is dangerous, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who stand by and let them get away with it”. I’m not sure how effective his politics are, or how he makes judgments on what constitutes political evil with so much corruption in this world, but I admire his quest for justice nonetheless.
My local guides also tell me that Kaysersberg is home to one of the largest crucifixes in France. “It sure is one of the largest,” says Dédé, “but I wouldn’t say it’s one of the most beautiful.” The medieval church housing the crucifix is a simple stone structure, much less showy than the big churches of Colmar, although the roman inspired door and floor mosaique which marks the entry is quite impressive. Inside, the sequential lighting leads us through the sacred space. As much as the sculpture is not outstanding as an artistic masterpiece, I think we are touched by the consecration of the space which it inhabits, the quiet solace of a place dedicated to tradition and faith.
We finish our tour with a walk past the ‘Kessler Tower’ , also known as La tour de la haute porte, ‘Tower of the High Door’. Constructed in 1371, the door to this prison tower was built high within the wall and was accessed by a ladder which was then taken away to prevent contact with the offenders. Our guides explain that the tower was used in the war of 1939-1945 as a storage chamber for those resisting the Hitler regime. A plaque on the side of the tower stands ‘..in memory of the 79 prisoners deported and interned, victims of the brutality of the Hitler regime. On the 15 of Febraury, 1943 …violent demonstrations took place and 30 people were arrested. Twenty resisters were imprisoned in this tower whilst awaiting their tragic fate. The patriot Henri Jaegle, taken to camp Struthof and shot.’
The image of twenty people crammed on top of one another in the tiny tower and being left there to die is a shocking reminder of the horrors that can be committed in the name of power. It gives a new dimension to the Alfred Einstein quote. The city came under seige in early December 1944 and on the 17 December 1944, was liberated by the French army along with American aid. The village was damaged by fire from artillery and battles in the streets.
Today, the horrors of the tower’s past are hidden ghosts that are barely visible. A family of storks have built their nest on the peak of its roof, and we stood watching as one came in to land, timing the angles of its descent to match with the wind. Lower and lower, round and around, until with a sudden swoop she landed by her nest. As much as the past can be painful, life, in all its beauty, continues.