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The remarkable story of Helga Weyhe

Helga Weyhe in her shop in Salzwedel in 2018. When Weyhe began work at the shop, the Red Army was on the march toward the town, Hitler still clung to power and Sartre had just published No Exit - Credit: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the remarkable story of Helga Weyhe, a shopkeeper who operated in gentle defiance of both the Nazis and the communists, to satisfy her customers… unless they liked detective stories.

There’s a tangible stillness hanging over Salzwedel, a small town halfway between Berlin and Hamburg. Time seems to pass more slowly there, emphasised by a well-preserved medieval town centre that reaches back to a distant past in the Hanseatic League. The old buildings bring a trickle of architecture tourists following the national Deutsche Fachwerkstraße, the Timber-Framed Building Trail, but otherwise time passes agreeably gently in Salzwedel.

It’s always passed particularly gently at a shop on a corner of Altperverstrasse, close to the town centre. The door opens onto a cobbled pavement and a cobbled street leads up one side of the building, where the wall bulges and undulates after nearly two centuries quietly battling gravity. An ancient white stone leans against the outside corner, placed there a long time ago to stop carriage wheels striking the building as they turned up the street. The sign stretching over the shopfront announces in brown letters on a beige background Buchhandlung H. Weyhe with the date of its opening added at one end. Having been there since 1840 the Weyhe bookshop is older than Germany itself.

Until January this year the shop had boasted only four owners in its 180 year history. With the death of its most recent custodian, Helga Weyhe, announced on January 4, Germany lost its oldest bookseller and Salzwedel one of its best-loved residents.

Helga Weyhe had celebrated her 98th birthday in December and was still opening her shop six days a week, working single-handed to bring literature to the townsfolk even in these pandemic times. Bookshops are designated essential services under Germany’s coronavirus restrictions, allowing Helga to keep up the routine she had established as far back as 1944 when she began working for her father. She wasn’t particularly worried about catching Covid-19, she told the German tabloid Bild on her birthday in December, because she was too old to worry about catching Covid-19.

Her death, which is not thought to be Covid-related, brings to an end an extraordinary life in books, one that despite being spent almost entirely in one building – she died in the flat over the shop, the same flat in which she was born – saw some of history’s darkest and most dramatic times sweeping through even a quiet town like Salzwedel.

Helga Weyhe had never intended to stay any longer than she had to but, like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, circumstances held her there until she came to not only love the town that made her but become a vital part of its fabric.

When Johann Dietrich Schmidt built the shop in 1840 Goethe had not been dead a decade. Browsers would not have found Great Expectations, Moby-Dick, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights or Vanity Fair on the shelves for the very good reason that they hadn’t been written yet.

In 1871, as Germany became a unified country an aging Schmidt sold the shop to former employee Heinrich Weyhe, 24 years old, newly-married and recently returned from fighting in the Franco-Prussian War. Heinrich made a few cosmetic changes, including the construction in 1880 of the solid wooden shelves around the walls that still hold the shop’s stock today, and shortly after the First World War passed the business on to his son Walter, Helga’s father.

Helga was born above the shop a few days before Christmas 1922. The business was truly a family affair: Helga’s mother Elsa worked with her husband and even before Helga was old enough to help out behind the counter her parents would give her new children’s books to read, soliciting opinions for informed recommendations to customers.

On leaving school in 1941 Helga became the first woman in her family to go to university, studying German language and history first at Breslau, then Königsberg (now the Russian Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad) and finally in Vienna, until the war brought a premature end to her studies before she could graduate.

She began working in the shop after returning from Austria in 1944 in what was only supposed to be a temporary arrangement: Helga’s peripatetic studies had left her planning a life away from Salzwedel. The small town, she said, depressed her. Yet what began as a spell helping out until something better came along turned into more than three-quarters of a century of unbroken bookselling during some of Europe’s most extraordinary times.

Initially this was due to the machinations of German history – “first the browns were here,” she said of the rise of the Nazis, “then the war came, then it was the reds” – but Helga Weyhe came to realise how much she belonged in a shop that effectively became such an extension of her it was unthinkable she would ever leave.

When Helga took over management of the business after her father’s retirement in 1965 she began stocking only books she wanted people to read. No title made it onto her shelves until she had read it, or at least read enough to approve its inclusion among her stock. This selectivity was aided by German legislation that prevents large chains – and more recently Amazon – slashing prices, allowing the nation’s 3,500 independent bookshops at least the chance to compete on their own terms and the whims of their owners. That’s why fans of detective fiction would find slim pickings in Salzwedel: Helga was not a fan.

“Too many broken men,” she would complain of the genre. “You won’t find mystery novels here unless they’re something special.”

The rare exceptions were books by Agatha Christie and the German thriller writer Ingrid Noll. Indeed, Helga’s favourite writers tended to be women. Her shop was one of very few outlets where you could find the work of Alice Berend, for example, who wrote a series of novels about the Berlin middle classes before her Jewishness saw her banned in 1933 (the Weyhes stored copies of banned books by Jewish writers for the duration of the Third Reich despite a strong SS presence in Salzwedel after a satellite of the Neuengamme concentration camp was established in the town).

Helga’s favourite book, one she made sure was always stocked next to the till where everyone could see it, was Stoffel fliegt übers Meer (‘Stoffel Flies Over the Sea’), a 1932 children’s title by Erika Mann, the daughter of Death in Venice author Thomas Mann. Having read it as a girl when her father gave her a first edition Helga maintained a lifelong adoration for a children’s story that’s been otherwise long forgotten.

It tells of a boy named Stoffel who stowed away on a transatlantic Zeppelin in order to visit an uncle living in Manhattan, a tale that so enchanted the young Helga that she was still recommending it to customers right up until her death. As well as reminding her of a world outside Salzwedel that she longed to see, the fact she also had an uncle living in Manhattan only added to the impact of Mann’s creation.

Erhard Weyhe had emigrated to USA in 1914 and by 1923 had opened a combined art bookshop and gallery on Lexington Avenue. Weyhe became such a key figure on the New York art and book scenes, not least by organising Matisse’s first exhibition in the US, that when he died in 1972 he was afforded an obituary in the New York Times. Helga would hug her copy of Stoffel fliegt übers Meer and dream of crossing the Atlantic to see her uncle but, with the coming of war then Salzwedel falling into the GDR, Stoffel’s adventure looked to be as close as she would ever get to Manhattan.

During the 1970s stringent travel restrictions were relaxed for East Germans once they turned 60, meaning that in 1982 Helga finally made it to New York. She flew on a rusty Ilyushin rather than in an airship, but she was able at last to walk into her uncle’s shop even if it had to be 10 years after his death.

“Imagine what it’s like as a young person having to wait until you’re 60 to be able to travel,” she told an interviewer in 2017, sitting beneath framed pictures of New York and the ‘794 Lexington Avenue’ sign, the address of her uncle’s shop, that had pride of place on the wall.

She could have retired at 60 but chose not to, partly because she knew that if she ever gave up the shop it would fall into state hands but mostly because she was enjoying herself. Salzwedel was close to the border with West Germany and when in the later years of the GDR there was limited cross-border traffic a mixture of former customers and those wishing to take advantage of the much cheaper prices in the east were able to visit a shop that somehow escaped being taken over by the state. “I don’t know how we did it, someone must have been speaking up for us,” Helga mused.

She was careful to keep the window displays restricted to state-approved school textbooks and works by communist thinkers, but customers came to realise that if they asked for a work of classic literature or modern fiction unavailable in state-run outlets there was a good chance Helga either had it or could get hold of it.

Then at the turn of the 1990s the Berlin Wall came down, Germany was reunified and, in Helga’s words, “things became really exciting”. For one thing, she was able to reintroduce the author readings her father had instigated during the 1920s, staging regular events that packed the shop. She even allowed the occasional concession to changing times, investing in a computer with which she was able to print out her favourite literary quotes and stick them in the window.

Other than that, little had changed in the shop since the days of her father and even her grandfather before him. When she reached her 90s Helga made one allowance for her advancing years, closing for two hours at lunchtime instead of one, allowing herself a nap to refresh herself for the afternoon shift.

In December 2012, on her 90th birthday, she was made an honorary citizen of Salzwedel, the town she was once so keen to leave, and five years later was honoured by the German book trade with a lifetime achievement award. Even then, at the age of 95, she showed no sign of slowing down. “As long as I am healthy, I will continue,” she promised.

Helga celebrated her 98th birthday in December by settling down with Joe Biden’s Promise Me, Dad ahead of approving it for sale. She had two books about Sophie Scholl lined up to read next; the anti-Nazi activist executed in 1943 was born just 18 months before her.

The coronavirus had brought tough times, she said, the worst the shop had seen since the Great Depression of 1929, but Helga was optimistic about the future. “Next year looks really exciting,” she smiled.

There are hopes Helga’s grand-niece might take over the shop, keeping the business in the family and, who knows, still stocking copies by the till of an ancient children’s story that once gave a little girl in a small town a dream that never died of flying to a land across the sea.

FIVE GREAT BOOKS BY GERMAN WOMEN

CASSANDRA

Christa Wolf, trans. Jan van Heurk (Daunt Books, £9.99)

Christa Wolf was arguably the best writer to emerge from the GDR and this re-imagining of the life of the king of Troy’s daughter is arguably her best book. Endowed with the gift of prophecy but doomed never to be believed, Wolf’s Cassandra is a prisoner of the Greeks shackled outside Agamemnon’s Mycenae piecing together fragments from her life and the fall of Troy.

THE SEVENTH CROSS

Anna Seghers (Virago, £9.99)

“A tale that makes it possible to get to know the many layers of fascist Germany through the fortunes of a single man,” is how Seghers summarised her novel about an escape from a concentration camp. Of the four copies of the manuscript, one was destroyed in an air raid, a friend lost another fleeing the Nazis, the Gestapo acquired the third but the fourth survived and was sent to her publisher in America as Seghers herself escaped Nazi-occupied France.

I HAVE NO REGRETS: DIARIES 1955-63 

Brigitte Reimann, trans. Lucy Jones (Seagull Books, £25)

“I enjoyed success too early, married the wrong man, and hung out with the wrong people; too many men have liked me, and I’ve liked too many men.” Brigitte Reimann was dead from cancer before she reached 40 but she left behind a string of novels and several years’ worth of diaries that shed vivid light on life in East Germany from the 1950s to the 1970s. This volume picks up her story shortly after a suicide attempt following a miscarriage.

THE PHARMACIST

Ingrid Noll (HarperCollins, £14.99)

Praised by Val McDermid as “a first-rate example of the Eurocrime novel”, Noll’s third book finds protagonist Hella in a Heidelberg hospital bed unburdening herself to the woman in the next bed, telling a story of love and poisonings that comes back to haunt her. Too few of Noll’s books are available in English, this is the pick of the ones that are.

AFTER MIDNIGHT

Irmgard Keun, trans. Anthea Bell (Penguin Modern Classics, £8.99)

Another author banned by the Nazis, Keun took the unusual step of attempting to sue the Gestapo for loss of earnings. After Midnight was written after she fled the country and is a typically sharp-witted depiction of the horrors and hysteria of the era.