If I had put my mind to it, I’m sure I could have found some distinguished and worthy historical personage to tour Hamburg “in the footsteps” of.
But the fact of the matter is that when I am in Hamburg I tend to loiter around (or loiter about, as our British friends would say) in the manner of an undistinguished, impoverished young Polish aristocrat called Schabelewopski — or “von Schabelewopski”, as he called himself in Germany, though that is actually a tautology since the –ski at the end of his name already means “von”. In English that would be “from”, which is logical since on the first page of his memoirs he lets on that he was born on the first of April (note the date) of the year 1795 in a town in Poland called Schabelewops, which as you might have guessed is not in anybody’s database.
Actually Schabelewopski wasn’t even a real person, just a fictional character invented by the German author Heinrich Heine (1797-1856). The reason this fictional Schabelewopski left his fictional home town of Schabelewops was that his fictional parents wanted him to go to Leiden, in the Netherlands, to study theology.
Unfortunately to get from Poland to the Netherlands he had to go through Germany (no cheap flights in those days), and when Schabelewopski got to Hamburg he liked it so much that he stayed for half a year. “I must confess that during that semester I occupied myself more with worldly things than with divine things.”
Hamburg at that time had 80,000 inhabitants, according to Schabelewopski, or “maybe closer to 100,000; I don’t know exactly, even though I spent entire days walking along the streets observing the people. But I’m sure I overlooked some of the men, considering that the women absorbed most of my attention.”
He said the women in Hamburg were not thin, but rather somewhat corpulent, “some of them adorably beautiful and often with a certain affluent sensuality which by no means displeased me. Although in matters of romantic love they are not notably enthusiastic, and although they have little knowledge of the great passions of the heart, this is not their fault, but the fault of the little god Amor, who sometimes spans the sharpest arrows of love in his bow but then out of wickedness or clumsiness shoots them much too low and instead of hitting the hearts of the Hamburg ladies only hits their stomachs.” (My translation.)
Now, over two centuries later, Hamburg has more than 1.8 million inhabitants and two bicycle sharing systems, StadtRAD and NextBike.
Since Schabelewopski lived (well, he didn’t, but never mind) several decades before the invention of the bicycle, it’s no wonder the women were rather corpulent in his day, at least the well-off ones. Today the ladies tend to stay in shape by cycling, jogging, swimming, rowing, playing volleyball and table tennis, going to the gym or at least going a bit easy on the Labskaus.
I’m not at all sure Schabelewopski would approve of the way they look today. Ruebens wouldn’t, that’s for sure.
The Jungfernstieg is a street in the center of Hamburg on the south bank of the lake called the Binnenalster.
The funny name of this street comes from the word Jungfer, which is an old-fashioned word for an unmarried woman (related to Jungfrau = virgin). The story is that in earlier times the wealthy merchant families used to get dressed up and go promenading on this street on Sundays to show off their daughters and any other unmarried women they might have had in their families.
Heinrich Heine’s character Schabelewopski tells of spending many a sunny summer afternoon sitting in front of one of the pavilions on the shore of the Binnenalster by the Jungfernstieg “thinking what young men usually think, namely nothing, and looking at what young men usually look at, namely the young girls who were passing by” — all sorts of young girls, like the ones with “winged bonnets and covered baskets which contained nothing” or the colorfully dressed girls from the delta “who provide all of Hamburg with strawberries and their own milk and whose skirts are still much too long” or the beautiful strutting merchants’ daughters “with whose love one also gets so much money” or the young nurse hopping around with a rosy-cheeked baby boy on her arm, whom she kept kissing constantly while thinking of her lover, or the girls who looked like priestesses of Aphrodite or “Hanseatic Vestal Virgins hunting with Diana” or “naiads, dryads, hamadryads and other preachers’ daughters” or two girls called Minka and Heloisa wearing pink-striped dresses.
Schabelewopski wasn’t the only one sitting there by the pavilion watching the girls. There were always some “virtuous young men” sitting next to him, who cried “gorgeous babes!” when Minka and Heloisa sauntered by. There was also a “big insurance underwriter who was always dressed up like a Pentecostal ox” who once said: “I’d like to have one of them for breakfast and the other for supper, and on a day like that I wouldn’t have any lunch.” And there was a sea captain who cried out “She’s an angel!” so loud that both girls turned their heads and then looked at each other jealously. Schabelewopski himself never said anything, but just thought his “sweetest nothing-at-all thoughts and observed the girls and the bright soft sky and the tall Petri Tower with its slim waist and the silent blue Alster where the swans swam around so proudly and charmingly and confidently.”
Of course this idyll couldn’t last forever. “Oh, that was a long time ago!” Schabelewopski wrote later. “I was young and foolish back then. Now I am old and foolish. Many a flower has withered since then, and some have even been trampled on.”
Poor Heloisa, “that gentle creature who seemed destined to walk only on soft flowery Indian carpets and be fanned with peacock feathers” met a nasty end surrounded by “sailors’ noise, booze, tobacco smoke and bad music.” When Schabelewopski met Minka again she “looked like Solomon’s temple after it had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and smelled like Assyrian cannabis – and when she told me of Heloisa’s death she wept bitterly and tore her hair out in despair and almost fainted, and had to drink a large glass of brandy to come to her senses.” (My translations.)
On the Jungfernsteg there is a building called the Heine House. It was named not for the writer Heinrich Heine, but for his uncle Salomon Heine (1767-1844), a wealthy merchant and banker who had a house on this site. His original house was destroyed in the great fire of 1842, but he replaced it with a bigger and better one.
That house in turn was replaced in 1903 by an attractive Jugendstil-building called “Heine House”, which after several renovations now (again) looks much the same as it did when it was first built.
Solomon Heine is remembered both as a benefactor of the city of Hamburg (when he died he left most of his fortune to various charities and worthy causes in the city) and as a benefactor of his famous nephew, whom he took in as an apprentice in his banking house.
It turned out that Heinrich Heine was a dreamy poet who was totally unsuited to the banking business. His uncle was disappointed but continued to support Heinrich with monthly checks which enabled him to study and to keep on writing.
Salomon Heine had two sons and also four daughters, two of whom their cousin Heinrich was in love with at various times. Unfortunately the girls did not share his feelings, so today Amalie (1800-1830) and Therese (1808 – 1880) are best remembered as the inspiration for some of Heinrich’s early poems of unrequited love.
My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2017.