Hamilton and her partner atop the Riesengebirge (Giant Mountains), overlooking her Oma's homeland.
By: Liesel Hamilton
I met a shapeshifter atop the rocky peaks of the Riesengebirge. He hid in granite nooks and disappeared into swaths of firs, their dark green needles clustered together, blocking out the sun. He wandered freely across the border, disappearing into the Czech Republic and returning to bask in Poland’s icy alpine lakes. In giant leaps, he crossed fields of edelweiss that painted the bare mountaintops in a delicate lace of white petals and yellow pistils. As I climbed steep paths laid neatly with flat stones, over time, my joints aching as my feet pounded the hard rock, I watched the sky crack open, purplish bolts piercing bare rock, sheets of rain drenching my thick brown hair, and I knew that the shapeshifter had assumed his demon form. I could see him tossing his antlers across the sky, swinging his pointed tail, his beak-like mouth opening in an echoey cackle, a long, wet tongue slithering into the sky. Mostly though, the shapeshifter met me in his humanoid form—his long white beard grazing his knees, his cloak dragging across thick sheets of granite, his staff cracking against rock with each step that he took, forever wandering through his beloved home.
I called the shapeshifter by his preferred name, I called him the Lord of the Mountains, but when I told my dad I had encountered the shapeshifting legend that presided over the weathered mountains bordering his mother’s homeland, he told me he knows that shapeshifter by a different name.
To my dad and to my Oma, the Lord of the Mountains is Rübezahl, a name that comes from a German folktale that my Oma would read to my dad when he was a boy. The folktale tells the story of the Lord of the Mountain’s dalliances with a beautiful princess, a woman he scooped up from the Silesian region’s ample farmland, whisking her to the snow-capped summits of the Riesengebirge to make her his bride. Stolen from her home, the princess was lonely atop lofty mountain peaks. She had only her captor to keep her company; meanwhile, everyone she loved—her friends, her family, a man from her village—were far away. Hoping to assuage his soon-to-be-bride, the Lord of the Mountains told the beautiful princess that he would transform turnips from a nearby field into friends for her to wander atop the mountains with. When he did, the princess was surrounded by new friends, but as the turnips began wilting, the personalities of these new friends wilted as well. With her spongy, half-living friends, the princess felt even more isolated, more desperate, and so, she began to craft an escape plan.
Feigning a change of heart, the princess told the Lord of the Mountains that she needed more details to plan her nuptials, and so, she asked him to count all of her turnip friends, making sure he got the number exactly right so she would know how many guests would attend her wedding. While the Lord of the Mountains was out counting the turnips, over and over again to get the precise number, the princess slipped away, back down the mountain into the arms of the man that she was in love with. “Rübe” is the German word for turnips, “zählen” is a German verb meaning “to count.” To call the Lord of the Mountains “Rübezahl” is to mock him by referring to him as a turnip counter, reminding him of the time a princess tricked him. Calling the Lord of the Mountains “Rübezahl” will often bring his wrath down upon you.
In the days I spent in the shadow of the Riesengebirge, I saw Rübezahl everywhere. In the village of Karpacz, a tiny Polish ski town where I began my hike to the top of Sněžka, the tallest peak in the Riesengebirge, I saw Rübezahl’s silhouette lurking, in the form of mosaic wooden tiles on a half-timbered house, I saw him painted on large boulders in the town square, and at the restaurant where I smeared potato pancakes in applesauce, I saw him intricately carved into a deep orange wooden block.
In the 1930s, my Oma, was born in the shadow of the Riesengebirge, in the town of Lomnitz. Home to only a few hundred people, the town looks like a fairytale. Meadows with finely spun blades of grass dance elegantly in a light breeze and gingerbread cottages decorate meandering creeks. When she was just a few years old, she and her family would march away from Lomnitz’s rolling hills, bringing with them only what they could carry on their backs, trying to avoid the Soviet soldiers sweeping behind them, their houses changing from German to Soviet property in their wake. Leaving her idyllic homeland was the first of many journeys Oma would take as her family became German refugees during the pre and postwar years of World War II.
A photo of Oma's snow covered house from the 1930s
After leaving her birth village, Oma lived for a year in a small hamlet of decadent rococo and gothic rowhouses perched above the Neisse River. The city, known as Görlitz, became the new German/Polish border when World War II borders were redrawn and the eastern territories that Oma had first lived in were official transferred to Poland as retribution for Germany’s many, many war crimes. I visited Görlitz, just an hour and a half from Lomnitz (now known by its Polish name, Łomnica) by car, popping into the city’s Silesian Museum.
At the Museum I came across dozens of Rübezahls, these ones collected in large glass display cases. The most interesting Rübezahl was housed further away from this congregation of Rübezahl’s however. Nestled amongst keys and a suitcase and an old, worn-out coat, this Rübezahl was a small, grungy figurine, slightly larger than a shot glass—a handmade paper-mache man wearing a dappled grey suit and matching rounded hat with black boots. He had thick black eyebrows, large brown eyes, and a dense, curved mustache that sat atop his ruby lips. A shaggy brown beard hung from his face. The doll once belonged to a young girl who fled Sagan, a small Silesian town about sixty miles north of the small Silesian town that my grandmother fled from. The girl’s mother only allowed her to take fourteen articles of clothing and one toy from her house with them on her journey; she chose Rübezahl: a memento from her happy childhood.
The girl and her family fled Silesia quickly, amidst mayhem. Soviet troops were nearing Sagan and refugees abandoned their homes, congregating at the train station where German officers were waiting to tear young boys from their mothers, handing them helmets and guns before dragging them to the front to fight incoming Soviet troops. When the train finally arrived, the people on the train station could already hear the roar of guns. The train left the station without those who were unable to claw their way into the cars. It was February 11, 1945 and as the train inched along, stopping frequently, sometimes for minutes at a time, the girl with the Rübezahl doll saw a flare on the horizon. Much later, she realized that she had seen one of the most iconic events from World War II—the city of Dresden engulfed in flames from Allied bombing.
I do not know what Oma took with her when she left her house in Silesia. By the time I started asking Oma about her childhood, her mind was already altered by dementia—holes carved in grey matter, neurons helplessly grasping for somewhere to send information. I do know, however, that Oma forced her family to carry one large unpractical item with them on their refugee journey—a large 10’ by 10’ cuckoo clock that Oma had taken from her grandparents’ house. In order to retrieve the clock, Oma had to illegally cross the slow-moving Neisse river, which had become the new Polish/Germany border. The clock now hangs in her brother Uwe’s house in the southern German state of Bavaria.
“It is so odd,” Uwe would tell me a month and a half later when I visited him. “Your Oma was usually so practical. She was always finding food for us, something useful. I don’t know what possessed her to drag this clunky clock all around.”
It would be easy to blame Oma and the girl from Sagan for childish behavior as both were young girls, less than twelve years old, who insisted on carrying useless objects with them as they walked miles towards an unknown destination. I think that explanation is too simple. Amidst a crumbling Germany, Oma grew up quickly, becoming responsible for her family and hardly resembling a child at all. Instead, there is something profoundly human about surrounding yourself with objects that connect you to places that you love—places that gave you something, perhaps a new experience, perhaps the feeling of being at home.
In reality, even though they both wanted to, Oma and the young girl from Sagan could not take Rübezahl with them. They could not take their homes with them either, and in some cases, they lost something much greater.
When I returned home from Europe, I brought a small Rübezahl trinket I bought at a wooden shack at the base of the Riesengebirge with me. Hand-carved from a block of wood, this Rübezahl is thick and stoic, his pants stained red, his boots a deep black, camouflaging into the black rock he stands on. In his hand he wields a large, curvy staff. His eyes are squinting, his beard heavy.
For Christmas, I wrapped Rübezahl in tissue paper and set it beneath my Oma’s tree. As my sisters and I unwrapped the gifts Oma had given us, Oma sat on the black leather couch, perplexed, forgetting that she had gotten us anything at all. When Oma unwrapped presents gifted to her, she was likewise confused as to where they had come from, sometimes what they were. Yet, when she unwrapped Rübezahl, a smile crept across her face.
Do you know what it is? I asked.
Rübezahl, was all Oma said.
I smiled back at her. She did not remember I went to Germany, she did not remember I went to Lomnitz or the Riesengebirge or the little gingerbread cottage she was born into. Yet, when she held that little wooden figure that to most people would look like simply a carving of an old man with a long beard and a staff, Oma saw something else. It was Silesia. It was Rübezahl. It was home.
Carved Rübezahls in the Silesian Museum
Liesel Hamilton is the co-author of Wild South Carolina (Hub City Press, 2016). She has been published in Audubon, Catapult, and The Normal School, among other publications. She has an MFA from George Mason University and is pursuing a PhD at Florida State. Hamilton was an inaugural fellow of the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center, which allowed her to recreate her grandmother’s post-WWII refugee journey through Germany and Poland. She has written a memoir about this experience in memoriam of her grandmother’s disappearing memories.
Liesel Hamilton outside her grandmother's childhood home.