I grew up a first generation American of German parents. This meant that the bedtime stories read to me were decidedly German.
And I’m not talking about Grimm’s fairy tales.
If you think Grimm’s fairy tales are violent and disturbing, you’ll be shocked at the bedtime stories my brothers and I listened to – and, oddly enough, loved!
This is Der Stuwwelpeter (or, as I pronounced it, “Shtroo-bel-payter”).
According to Wikipedia, “Der Struwwelpeter (1845) is a popular German children's book by Heinrich Hoffmann. It’s comprised of ten illustrated and rhymed stories about children. Each has a clear moral that demonstrates the disastrous consequences of misbehavior in an exaggerated way.”
I found this book at the Bavarian Meat Market at Pike Place Market. I was shocked to see it there and enthusiastically explained to the store keeper that I’d grown up hearing the oh-so-violent stories in it. That launched me into a rhyme that my parents recited to us while bouncing us on their knee:
“Hoppe, hoppe Reiter,
Wenn er fällt, dann schreit er.
Fällt er in den Graben,
fressen ihn die Raben.
Fällt er in den Sumpf -
macht der Reiter PLUMPS!”
…which means something like:
when he falls, he is screaming.
When he falls into the ditch
the ravens eat him.
When he falls into the swamp,
the rider makes plop.”
Incredibly, the storekeeper joined in and we sang together! I’ve never known anyone who knows that rhyme except my brothers, cousins and me! As we recited it together I got a huge lump in my throat! (Then we ordered semmel rolls and gelbwurst, gobbled them up, and left!)
But I digress.
Der Stuwwelpeter had a story for each of my three brothers and me. Aren’t we lucky!
My oldest brother’s story is Die Geschichte von Hans Guck-in-die-Luft or The Story of Johnny Head-in-Air. Poor Johnny drowns because he’s a day-dreamer.
Lesson to Michael? Do not daydream! Hilarious, considering that Michael became a film producer, among the daydreamiest of professions!
Stephan’s story was Die Geschichte vom Suppen-Kaspar (The Story of Kaspar who did not have any Soup). Kaspar, a healthy, strong boy, declares that he will no longer eat his soup. Over the next five days he wastes away and dies.
Stephan is still as skinny as a rail!
And then there’s Christopher’s story. Oh, my poor baby brother, Christopher! He sucked his thumb. His story – poor child – was Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher or The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb in which a tailor cuts of the thumbs of a little boy who shares my brother’s habit.
Curiously, Chris is about as normal as they come. Phew!
My story? Well, my story was really the only story that featured a girl (because not only were the stories violent, they were apparently chauvinistic), Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug or The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches. In this delightful (cough) story, a girl burns to death because she played with matches.
So the message for me is… um – that it’s a good thing that I’m not smokin’ hot? That I can’t die because my kitties would miss me? Hell, I have no idea, but my memories are definitely filled with both fear and curiosity.
In our next Violent German Stories post, we’ll explore Max und Moritz… or why bread with lots of fiber isn’t always a great thing.