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New Yorkers love to jaywalk. What the green traffic light is to
an out-of-towner, what a matador's red cape is to a bull, the
yellow light is to a New Yorker. That yellow light is a challenge,
a dare—and what dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker would ever turn down a
dare? So when the traffic light turns yellow, off goes your New
Yorker, sprinting to beat the cars and dodge the herd running from
the opposite side.
This might have something to do with the edgy nature of city
life, or maybe with the competitive American ethic, or maybe even a
simple geologic fact: Manhattan is built on magnetic rock, and all
its citizens are electrified. I had this insight when New York
experienced its first blackout in the early 1960s. That night I
fell into the deepest sleep I could recall. (For several nights
afterwards I turned off all the lights a few hours before retiring,
but the day's charge of electricity had done its work. I had to
wait for the next blackout to experience that profound
To this New Yorker (well, ex-New Yorker... I moved from
the city seven years ago, but you know the old saw, "Once a New
Yorker…"), a recent visit to Germany came as a shock. Germans obey
their traffic lights. Order, it seems, is as ingrained to the
German psyche as disorder is to a New Yorker. And if you doubt this
last statement, just visit Times Square. A visual babble, a place
of neon anarchy.
Recently I came across a chilling instance of the German love
affair with order. I saw a photograph taken in the closing days of
World War II. The Russians had just broken through the defenses
around Berlin and were entering the city, district by district. A
Russian photographer had come across a family of Berliners
and—click!—captured them, dressed in their Sunday best,
neatly slumped across park benches. Father, mother, daughter and
son, each had a thin red line trailing from a tidy hole in their
foreheads. According to a German passerby who had witnessed the
shootings, the father had first killed his wife, then his son, then
his fleeing daughter, then himself. Better the order of death than
the presumed disorder to come. Better dead (neat) than red
I admit, this may be a far-fetched instance of the German
obsession with order (and I must confess that a visit to a
well-ordered city like Munich is balm to this Manhattanite's
jangled nerves). But one can cite the Holocaust where internal
combustion engines, jerry-rigged to sheds, were replaced by more
efficient killing procedures. Compare that to Abu Ghraib, very much
an American ad hoc, sometime-thing affair.
Coming across the photograph of that Berlin family in the final
days of their Gotterdemerung put me in mind of an earlier
period in German life where things had collapsed into anarchy. In
the early 1920s, armed citizens took to the streets, marching and
counter-marching to install a new order or restore the old one.
Spartacists, Nationalists, Communists, Freikorps volunteers…
banners rippled, rifles crackled, regimes rose and fell. The
anarchy of the street found its counterpart in the marketplace. An
American dollar—worth 330 marks in 1921—skyrocketed in 1923 to
4,200,000,000,000 marks (in writing this, I almost left off a trio
of zeros). At its zenith, an American dollar was worth
"Rice yesterday," a German observer wrote, "cost 80,000 marks a
pound, now it costs 160,000 marks; tomorrow it will perhaps double
again, the day after tomorrow the man behind the counter is likely
to shrug his shoulders. 'We're out.' And noodles? "Out of them,
too.' …Hate, despair, need, grow with the value of the dollar." The
German middle class—those with fixed incomes, the moral and social
backbone of the nation—were annihilated. "In front of every café,
hotel, bar," George Grosz reminisced, "dozens of people were
standing as before the castle gates in medieval days… hands
extended." Inside the gates, dancers Charlestoned and champagne
flowed. "Raus," shooed the gatekeeper, his gloved hand
raised to strike the outstretched hands of the new beggar class.
My father visited Germany in the early 1920s. In Mainz, he
stayed in the same hotel that I was later to visit as a G.I. in the
early 1950s (I stayed on one half of the hotel, the other half was
rubble). Every morning my father would hear a polite rapping on the
door. It was the hotel manager's daily visit. "Herr Blechman," he
would ask, "I trust that you are enjoying your stay at our hotel?
Yes? Sehr gut." And, he would continue, "for how long do you
plan to stay? Oh? Another few days, you think? Very
well—sigh—please enjoy our beautiful city, yes?"
I only wish—now that my father is long dead—that I had asked him
why he visited Germany—and on a motorcycle. But maybe his answer
would have been evasive. Germany's night life might have been the
attraction, offering "the best comics, naked girls, imaginative
costumes, naked girls, naked girls, naked girls…" My father had
visited Cuba in the wide-open 1940s, having taken along my
adolescent brother who, in a letter to my mother, had snitched on
him: "I saw Daddy with a woman, Mom." Nice son. So maybe my father
was a sex tourist in Germany, but maybe he was just a voyeur… and
maybe he merely wanted to perfect his high-school German,
In an attempt to replace or supplement the increasingly
valueless currency, municipalities took to printing their own
money—notgeld, or emergency money (literally "necessity
money"). Usable only in the municipality where it was issued,
notgeld was printed as paper banknotes, although
occasionally they were printed on such exotic surfaces as leather
(by towns manufacturing leather goods), silk (by towns engaged in
the silk trade), linen and, in some cases, even coal and porcelain
(whatever, I assume, would increase its value, and advertise the
area's wares). Notgeld soon attracted a wide coterie of
collectors, and no wonder! They are invariably items of exceptional
beauty, not to mention documents of great social and historical
value—peeks into the mind and soul of a nation in collapse.
Notgeld rarely dealt with the trauma of the recent war.
It was too painful to relive, and Germans preferred to either
recall a golden past or anticipate a better future (hope, Leonard
Bernstein once proclaimed, was nothing less than an instinct).
Here are some samples from my small notgeld
The City of Leipzig celebrated its zoo. "Look here," a zoo in
Halle proclaimed, which also pictured an elephant. "I'm an
expensive animal, so help us out with this note."
Leipzig Zoo notgeld currency featuring an elephant. (all images
courtesy R. O. Blechman)
The town of Braunschweig honored its favorite son, the composer
German composer Louis Spohr featured on notgeld.
Bentheim advertised its baked goods (and what a stunning graphic
this is!). In case anybody questioned what the illustration
pictured, the reverse of the notgeld spelled things
There are three things Bentheim is known for
Bernheim is a thousand years old.
Bentheim has a forest of beautiful trees.
Bentheim's cookies are special and sought after.
And that is that.
(From left) Notgeld from Bentheim promotes the local baked
goods, while a merchant issued its own notes promoting the finest
Otto Seidel, a wine merchant, issued his own notgeld.
"For a hundred of these notes—you can get the finest wine." The
banknote was for 50 marks, so the real value of this note was
50,000 marks (50 times 100). But that's no guarantee that the price
would not have gone up a thousand times in a day—or that, by the
time a customer arrived at Otto Seidel's with his valise full of
notes, the wine would still be in stock.
The town of Itzehoe in Holstein made a veiled political
statement with this elegant, if scatological, graphic. The tiny
bird, perched on the numeral one, is suitably shocked. "Need knows
no limits," the text reads.
A scatalogical illustration on notgeld.
Itzohoe also issued this remarkable design. "What has to be, has
to be. This isn't gold, but it's still money." Have you ever seen
such a splendid looking chicken?
Chickens adorn notgeld.
"Keep Kahla's fragments," the porcelain manufacturing town of
Kahla proclaims. "Good luck is hidden in shards."A reference
perhaps to a broken Germany, bereft of all its colonies, its
resource-rich industrial Saar region (occupied by the French in
1923 for Germany's "failure" to repay its crippling war debt) and
much of East Prussia.
Kahla, known for its porcelain, promotes it on notgeld, stating
"Good luck is hidden in shards."
Dancing around a bag of gold, one of the frolickers (lower
right) is stereotypically "semitic." He is joined, in the upper
left, by a black. Issued by the region of Saxony, the inscription
reads: "Nothing is holy anymore. Anything goes."
Artist M. Eschele signed this example of "anything goes"
Most notgeld celebrated a happier past, promised a
happier future, or promoted a community's resources—a spa, a
business or a cultural event. Not the city of Hamburg. Below the
corpse of a soldier, the scarlet band is inscribed: "They rest as
seeds in the womb of the earth. They shall ripen as sheaves of
wheat." The wheat bends as if to embrace the soldier. Red poppies
dot the outcropping.
"They rest as seeds in the womb of the earth," says one
From the same Hamburg series, a crucified soldier hangs on a
sword of iron. His bowed head is surrounded by a halo of
dagger-like points. "He gave his life," the text reads, "so that we
A more generic—if beautifully stylized—crucifix adorns this
notgeld from Bentheim. A more secular note is struck on
the reverse side. It boasts of the town's commercial renown—its
spa, its fashion industry, its baked goods.
Two variations on crucifixion adorn these examples of
The inscription has faded from this Leipzig notgeld,
but there is nothing faded about this young man. He is out to
conquer the world, and with that seven-league stride he just might
do it. The super "M" probably stands for messe (fair), for
which Leipzig is still celebrated.
Leipzig notgeld features a successful figure out to conquer the
The artist for this notgeld, M. Eschle, has deservedly
signed the banknote. What a powerful graphic—a poster in miniature!
"Nothing good comes from bloody hatred," the text reads.
Another note illustrated and signed by M. Eschle. "Nothing good
comes from bloody hatred," it reads.
The town of Kahlo pictures money falling to the ground like
leaves in autumn. And what comes next but winter!
Obverse side of notgeld signifies autumn, with money falling
like leaves to the ground.
The reverse side features a sweeper brushing away the past.
And here winter has arrived. The reverse of this
notgeld pictures a sweeper brushing aside the illusions of
the past: Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Love your
neighbor as yourself. Do right and fear no man.
Notgeld lifts the curtain on an historical past and on
a craftsmanship that to a great extent has disappeared. The care
and love that went into these little masterworks should be a salve
to our sensitivities bruised by the visual chaos and disorder of
present day America—increasingly a third-world culture,
Why do our postage stamps no longer honor George Washington and
Benjamin Franklin, but Donald Duck and Batman, Bob Hope and Howdy
Doody? And why are they no longer engraved, which formerly
signified and honored their status as official government
documents, no less official than our paper currency? (Well, in 2005
there was an engraved stamp honoring Greta Garbo. But that was
engraved in Sweden, reissued by us.)
Whatever happened to the classic bottle of Bayer aspirin? It was
once a model of sobriety and simplicity. Now it's a grab bag of
jarring colors, intended to jump right off the Duane Reade shelf
into your shopping cart. Happily, they left the pills alone. But
why not? The stuff has already been bought.
Why are most electrical outlets installed crooked?
Why are hand-lettered signs rendered as if it was enough to
merely convey a message with no regard for it appearance? The other
day I saw a sign announcing a "Moveing [sic] Sale," its
verbal illiteracy matched only by the visual illiteracy of letter
forms indifferently sized and spaced. Regarding verbal illiteracy,
what can one expect when only one out of six Americans even reads
books, and most Americans don't even pick one up (telephone
directories and Maltin's guide to video movies excepted). If the
sign "Open for Business" is crudely lettered, what does that
say about the business? Or us? The poet Antonio Machado
pleaded, "Slowly now, nice neat letters / the point is to do things
well / not just to do them."
For those of us who mourn the loss of craftsmanship—or for those
of us who simply admire beautiful graphics—notgeld is a
wonderful and surprisingly inexpensive source of pleasure and
instruction. Most notgeld sells for less than a few
dollars, rarely more. And their condition is remarkable considering
their age and what must have been a shortage of acid-proof paper
during those war-ravaged years. Google "notgeld" and contact one of
the several suppliers of this generally neglected area of ephemera.
A supplier I use is located in Las Vegas—of all places—Hans and
Beata Rauch. Their selection is large, their quality good, and
their prices reasonable. Happy hunting!
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illustration, education, criticism
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