Publication: Land Forces Academy Review
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 113225
ISSN: 15826384
Journal code: LFAR


Erwin Wittstock (1899-1962) is one of the leading representatives of German language literature famous for his talent as a storyteller. Carrying on the tradition of realistic German prose, Wittstock presents the life of Transyivanian Saxons, their relations with the Romanian and Hungarian people, the middle and lower classes being his favorites.

In the summer of 1955 during the works of the Congress for Romanian Writers, Wittstock was to give rise to a true spiritual revolution when he urged the Romanian writers to take a stand against the tragedy of the German people in Romania who were suffering from deportations, deprivations of rights and liberties and incarcerations. Deeply touched by that tragic reality, Wittstock was at that time working on his novel Januar 45 oder Die Höhere Pflicht (January 45 or The Supreme Duty), the manuscript of which would later on by confiscated by Security agents. It is only a few decades following Wittstock's death, in 1998, that his manuscript was to see the light of day. Highly determined and hard-working, Wittstock would never give his ideas up and would finally manage to get his message through in a metaphorical approach to the painful experience of his Transyivanian co-nationals.

1. Erwin Wittstock and the Judgment Day

Just as on Whit Sunday, German literature lovers rejoice over remembering the beginning of poem Reinecke Fuchs (Reineke the Fox) of Johan Wolfgang Goethe- "Beloved feast of Whit Sunday is here/ The hills and woods are clad in vernal bloom/The full-awakened birds, from tree to tree/Make the air ring with cheerful melody/ Sweet were the meadows after passing showers/Brilliant the heaven with light, the earth with flowers (Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Reineke the Fox) - German-language literature lovers from Romania like to rememorize Wittstock' s posthumous novel Das Jüngste Gerich in Altbirk (The Last Judgement in Altbirk).

Erwin Wittstock' s novel, The Last Judgment in Altbirk, left unfinished, in which the author envisions the judgment day of the Saxon community from Transylvania was written in very difficult circumstances, during the author's last three years of life. The entire work resonates with the difficulties and troubles he had been beset by, the disease he had had to endure and his approaching death. Wittstock had thus had the opportunity to hide behind his work which was the expression of an exacerbated creative pathos. The tragic degeneration caused by the diseases he had been suffering from, during the last years of his life, prevented Wittstock from finishing his project. This explains why certain parts of his novel seem to have been roughly completed, why the analysis of political and historical issues does not always resonate with a corresponding inner justification and why the end of the novel - which the author had made many hints at so that there would be no doubts as to how the novel would end - had been left unfinished.

Born and raised in a learned family, with his father and grandfather both being priests, Erwin Wittstock afforded to associate, from the very title of his novel, the most grandious process ever in which the entire humankind will (allegedly) be called on to justify all the things they have done in a lifetime and an insignificant vineyard area from Transylvania. By putting these two dimensions together, Wittstock somehow manages to reduce the concept of judgment day to those tumultuous days of trials when, according to old Saxon traditions, the neighborhoods of Altbirk participate in settling disputes and crimes committed by the Saxon community members. By referring almost exclusively to the Transylvanian area, the author has in fact set his mind on a precise objective. The education he received in his family, replete with references to the religious text, allowed Wittstock to transpose the German community's drama during the first half of the 20t century into an artistic language and thus save it from the inquisitive eye of communist censorship.

Starting from the religious text and moving towards the philosophical one, Wittstock refers to Sein zum Tode (Existence unto Being), which according to Heidegger characterizes Sein zum Leben [1] existence into Christ. He who has lived in communion with God will rejoice the last judgment day in the light of the Throne of Slave and in the light of God, while the others will suffer and will be punished for their sins. Depending on the good or evil of their earthly lives and on how much they have stood by the word of God, people will on the Judgment Day be held responsible for all their acts. Judgment Day and Doomsday, the end of the world, will take place simultaneously. No one knows the exact moment but according to Saint Simeon of Thesaloniki the end will come when "love disappears, inhumanity flourishes and goodwill perishes" [2].

The literary work of novelist Erwin Wittstock with its diverse topics and approaches to the social reality gives absolutely no clue to the authors' inclination towards the fantastic and the religious imaginary. It does however include many scenes that approach people's natural way of living and their truthfulness and unpretentiousness in their relation with the Divinity, an attitude characteristic of Christianity in its early beginnings. All these minutely portrayed images resemble Renaissance paintings which by making such a waste of colour and movement when depicting the last judgment try to express not only the sufferings, but only the will to live in the profane worldly reality. Wittstock metaphorically approaches the perspective of an upcoming Judgment Day without necessarily intending to describe the actual divine judgment. His novel gives a minute account of the fear and hopelessness all the inhabitants of Altbirk had been overcome with, and this makes some passages as impressive as those old Renaissance paintings which depict the Judgment Day. This topic, regardless of the way in which it is presented is inherently tragic, a fact which becomes apparent throughout all passages. The direct approach to the tragic scene of Judgment Day is what I believe worth noting, a scene which the author considers extremely relevant for a thorough dimensioning of Judgment Day and all its implications.

This novel is not about judgment day as we know it from the biblical text, but about an event that took place in the beautiful town of Altbirk [3]. Lying in a geographical area between Medias in the North and Agnita in the South, Altbirk might as well be Biertan, a place where Wittstock had spent a great part of his childhood and youth. This beautiful small village, a quiet and nice place [4] is where the author places his action. Here, on Whit Sunday people used to put a small tree in front of the houses where young girls lived, in front of the school and in front of the church. It was in fact an old custom of German tribes, marking the rebirth of nature, a celebration of spring, which the Transylvanian Saxons have consecrated as a tradition. According to this old custom, 40 pails with a drink made from fresh birch sap, a tea specific to Altbirk, would be prepared on the Saturday before Whit Sunday. They said that this tea "made girls more beautiful and thus more likely to get married, whereas the elders praised its healing powers" [5]. Few days before this holiday the chemist from Altbirk, a hardworking man able to make money out of thin air, had taken upon himself to prepare this "pure birch tea of Altbirk" [6] which had to be boiled in huge cauldrons and seasoned to give it flavor and make it strong.

Jakobus Antilopus Schio a merchant of natural home and herbal remedies tricked the locals into believing that he had discovered a medicine called "antilopa maxime radicala" [7] that he prepared from an infusion of leaves and stalks from the poisonous plant called hog's bean. This medicine could be used both externally and internally as an alleged cure for rheumatic diseases and joint pains, and stomach cramps, ulcer or painful tumors, and even cough. Jackobus Antilopus Schio became partner with Albert Turk who allowed him to prepare his medicine in the same cauldrons where Turk used to boil the tea for Whit Sunday. The hog's bean poison had narcotic effects inducing headaches, dizziness, sickness, drowsiness and even deliriousness. That morning, Sara Elges, the chemist's servant, poured the birch juice and prepared the Whit Sunday tea into the same 25 pails where the medicine had been prepared. There's no telling whether the symptoms all the inhabitants of Altbirk felt on the first day of Whit Sunday after breakfast were due to the hog's bean or to the seasons added into it, but the fact is that after drinking the tea, most of the inhabitants had been overcome by a hallucinatory state which radically changed the way they acted and spoke. The first two characters that started to talk irrationally after drinking the tea were Procks, the teacher, and his wife. The man started to babble and to experience rapid mood swings that ranged from excitement to apathy. The woman was asking her subjects to have faith in her by proclaiming herself to be the queen of hope: "It's Judgment Day and you will be punished for not keeping your word of oath. But I will pray for your forgiveness" [8]. With a remarkable talent, the author skillfully depicts the discrepancy between the joyful atmosphere and the strange behavior of some of the inhabitants - that peaceful morning of long-awaited celebration that foretold of the chaos that was to come.

Wittstock's refined art of storytelling allows him to bring the tension to a climax by gradually moving from the serene atmosphere of that pleasant place to the turmoil generated by the state of insecurity and hopelessness which had slowly but surely got over the entire community. Bertleff, the Sexton, having suddenly been paralyzed with fear started to cry breaking into a cold sweat and waving his arms up in the air: It's Whit Sunday! The Holy Ghost has descended upon us! [9]. By referring to Jesus' triumphal arrival in Jerusalem, the author hints back at the early beginnings of this German community in the IntraCarpathian space. Treated as "hospites" by the Hungarian king Geza IV, they had been given the right to use a space which they were free to manage according to their will. That was to be the moment when a community bringing with it the values of a European civilization that would radically transform the historical perspective of the area, settled into the Transylvanian space of the 12th century. Wittstocks suggest two parallel planes, a first one of the inhabitants of Jerusalem celebrating Whit Sunday and of the Saxons being welcomed to Transylvania and a second one of Jesus' crucifixion and German community's martyrization by the communist regime during the period following WWII.

The writer's talent is also apparent in the way he describes the state of mind of a community facing the Apocalypse and waiting for the Devine Judgment, and thus making everything seem predictable. This state is entailed by the fact that neither the fear of Judgment Day, nor the assumptions as to what it was supposed to be like had been drawn from a visible reality but from pure imagination. Having entered the land of chimeras, the writer passes with ease from one stage of perception to another, quickly going through all the stages of a mental disorder. The pessimism resulting from the tragic character of those days is surprising at a writer such as Wittstock whose early and especially later works had been replete with humoristic notes and frequent witty remarks on human nature vices. And yet the novel Last Judgment stands in proof of Wittstock's pessimistic attitude, the Judgment Day leitmotif serving as a pretext for Wittstock's belief that the existence of the community of Saxons from Transylvania was threatened.

"The end of the world is near! The day will come when you will be punished for your sins! The quicker the word is spreading around, the more terrifying it becomes. These words stare you in the face and make you think of Golgotha" [10]. We are once again dealing with a metaphor which hints at the martyrization and sacrifice of the German community from Transylvania. It is the end of the world, a world which the Saxons had wanted so much and which Wittstock's ancestors had been able to create into the Transylvanian space, after centuries and centuries of efforts. Wittstock transposes the harsh reality the German community was confronted with, after WWII: discretionary internments, abusive seizure of property, the stigma of "fascists" imputed to the entire German community, all these being elements that foreshadowed the end of that world, a world of communist dictatorship, of arbitrary and contempt, a world in which the Transylvanian Saxons didn't fit any longer. Relevant to Wittstock's theoretical and practical organization is his minute description of both individual diurnal scenes and major imperatives of the entire community as a whole. This aspect is also to be found in the dialogue between the characters, the judge and the notary, two characters the viewpoint and status of which differ enormously. Thus, the two try to define the dimensions of the Judgment Day and of those called on in front of the Supreme Judge to justify all the things they have done in a lifetime.

Considering it necessary to get into more details, they present the entire community with a set of clearly defined norms, all the inhabitants will have to observe in order to escape the supreme punishment. Thus, a Notice on the Behavior of the Inhabitants of Altbirk on Judgment Day was issued. Deeply touched by the need to purify their souls, the inhabitants of Altbirk issued that notice which listed, as minutely as only a German would, the imperatives to be followed during the few days remaining before the supreme Judgment Day. It presented a series of extraordinary decisions which were to come into force as soon as possible and which regulated the public order, the health safety and the fire control, as well as the instructions on dealing with breading animals on their last moments of life [11]. It also stipulated severe measures and sanctions against those who would fail to comply with these norms.

Wittstock brings Judgment Day to a climax when the members of the German Community understand that the praiseworthy history of their town will be lost when an age comes to an end. In other words, when no one is able to let the gentle and clear light of their spirit fall upon their traits, thoughts and method of organization, their very essence will die out. By giving the former teacher Moser an extremely important part to play on Whit Sunday the author transcribes, through the feelings and behavior of his characters, the very tragic idea of Transylvanian Saxon community's destiny. The former teacher considers that the falling apart and more or less rapid disappearance of the Saxon community is inevitable and he strongly believes that "our people no longer has a future" [12]. The author manages to relatively soften this message by using Moser, a character with a relative credibility within the community of Altbirk, as his spokesperson. Moreover the author tries to counterpoint this idea by introducing us to his forefather, Heinrich Wittstock, a dynamic and level-headed person, whose wide life experience allows him to call Moser to order. Towards the end, the collective scenes also point to the fact that the German ethos and people's tenacity and will to assert themselves will prevail in that much tried community of Altbirk. Managing to escape the nightmare of that morning and the hallucinations of a deranged mind, the inhabitants of Altbirk return to their natural behavior and resume their activities. It is not Moser who has the last word but the entire community. The purely theoretical universe of Moser' s ideas is contrasted with the reality of a community which, not through its erudition but through its vital force, manages to deny Moser's opinions.

As it was to be expected, the drink's hallucinogenic effect did not last too long: the horror, the fear of death were gradually vanishing and people were left with an honest desire to confess their sins and to yield to the overwhelming desire to be kind, generous and merciful. Visibly overwhelmed with emotion, men and women, young and old alike started to say in a loud voice: / have done wrong [13]. They were all aware that the sense of duty and compulsion to change their nature was dictated from above and that the oath taken would have to be observed with dedication and self-sacrifice. Erwin Wittstock portrays this tumultuous process of sudden change of feelings from remorse to compassion; with care and scrupulosity, constantly giving examples of how people find themselves and rediscover what binds them to their community, admitting that they have done wrong, people decide to redeem their mistakes. And of course, the transformation is by no means simple or linear and while some find it difficult to be indulgent, others dislike the idea of being held responsible. They do however agree that the word reconciliation itself is the epitome of a magical formula imbued with a wonderful mystery that can be shared.

Towards the end of the novel, a firstperson narrative characterized by elements of fantastic realism, Wittstock himself confesses that when he was young he witnessed several strange and bewildering events in the little town of Altbirk when all the inhabitants seemed to have been taken in by a profound spiritual feeling. Excited, he returned to Altbirk a few weeks later to study the hidden forces which had driven that series of events and finally decided to give a written account of Judgment Day in Altbirk: when I was young I happened to witness a series of unusual events, which had got over all the citizens of Altbirk and which had an implied meaning [14].

Sensing that he will have neither the time nor the strength to finish his creation, Wittstock feels the need to acquaint the reader with the profound rationale behind his artistic venture: "starting from the events that took place on that Whit Sunday, as my story unfolds it acquaints the reader with the people of Altbirk and its most famous representatives, it describes their customs, habits, mindset, principles, opinions and fears, their attitude to family, nation and state" [15].

2. Conclusion

Had the novel Judgment Day in Altbirk been finished it would certainly have become a landmark of Romanian German language literature. This is partially due to the profound implied meaning behind the literary text and to the hidden message it conveys, as both the features of his characters and the ideas animating them, at a time filled with such an emotional tension as is the judgment day, allow the author to hint at the feelings of despair and hopelessness felt by his coo-nationals during the first half of the 20t century. But even unfinished as it is, this literary work manages to be the living proof of an age long gone by, which foretells of a Europe in which the word reconciliation is not just a magical formula but an imperative of cohesion and universal harmony. Through this profoundly human message Wittstock becomes a visionary, a genuine European citizen aware of the fact that civilization and progress can be achieved not through harsh sanctions but through responsible joint efforts.


[1] See Martin Heidegger, Fiintä si timp, (Bucharest: Humanitas, 2003).

[2] Saint Maxim Märturisitorul, Epistola a doua catre Gheorghe, prefectul Africii; P.G. 91, col. 389, apud. Pr. Prof. D. Staniloae, Teologie Dogmatica Ortodoxa, vol.111, (Bucharest: Ed. Institutului Biblic §i de Misiune al Bisericii Ortodoxe Romàne, 2003), 276.

[3] alte Birke (germ.) = old birch.

[4] Erwin Wittstock, Judecata de apoi la Altbirk, (Bucharest: Editura Kriterion, 1987), 6.

[5] Wittstock, 5.

[6] Wittstock, 8.

[7] Wittstock, 7.

[8] Wittstock, 18.

[9] Wittstock, 16.

[10] Wittstock, 18.

[11] Wittstock, 45.

[12] Wittstock, 161.

[13] Wittstock, 208.

[14] Wittstock, 256.

[15] Wittstock, 256-257.

Author affiliation:

Lucia Larissa PALEA

"Nicolae Balcescu" Land Forces Academy, Sibiu, Romania

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