The GPS has us driving in circles, so we park and approach the first person we see. Yes, she speaks English. Yes, she knows where we are trying to go. Yes, it is within a walk but, no, she won’t simply provide directions.
This friendly stranger insists on accompanying us on a brisk, 10-minute trek that is out of her way, and she is delighted to learn that we live in Wisconsin. Why? We are in Wolfenbuttel, population 54,000 and a Kenosha sister-city since 1970.
The planned city that was built on a swamp for dukes during medieval times is 50 miles southeast of Hanover and 40 miles north of the Harz Mountains, home to silver, copper, lead and other mining long ago. Today the mountains are a major recreational area, and there are other good reasons to visit that have nothing to do with skiing or hiking.
Inside Herzog August Library are hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts, posters and other forms of the written word, from Middle Ages to contemporary times. A collection of globes shows evolving views of the world and its countries.
Under glass are replica pages from Henry the Lion’s Bible, commissioned by him in 1188 and described as the world’s most expensive book when sold to Germans at a 1983 Sotheby’s auction. Rarely does the original come out of storage for public display.
Wolfenbuttel’s many half-timbered buildings, including the 1602 Rathaus (City Hall), were relatively unscathed by war, but on walkways are brass “stumbling stones,” memorials at Jewish households affected by the Third Reich.
A few ornate rooms in Schloss Wolfenbuttel, the city’s castle, are open to the public. So are the city’s gorgeous old churches, which include Trinity and Marienkirche. From the Oker River sprout a charming patch of canals, like a little Venice. On the city’s downtown pedestrian mall, Lange Herzogstrasse, a musician plays a xylophone on an ordinary weekday.
“We get a pretty good caliber of street musician.” says local historian Michael Bilkar. Centuries ago, the librarian and playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing found inspiration here, too, writing some of his greatest works in Wolfenbuttel. That includes the 1779 drama “Nathan the Wise,” which carried a plea for religious tolerance.
Like Kenosha, this city contains a significant Italian population, thanks to a 1960s labor shortage at Volkswagen, headquartered in Wolfsburg, about 25 miles northeast. So we lunch at Da Giovanni’s, whose buffet includes a parting shot of icy-cold Jagermeister, the licorice-scented liquor.
Jagermeister is the city’s biggest taxpayer and fills up to 660,000 hunter-green bottles of the herbal blend per day. A cluster of golden grapes, hanging above a downtown door, shows where the family-owned business began in 1878 as a shop selling wine and vinegar.
Factory tours happen by reservation and are popular; guides advise using email to lock in a date before leaving home. In Jagermeister are 56 ingredients that include lemon balm, cardamom, ginger, lavendar, turmeric, chiretta and zitwer. From start to finish, it’s 15 months of grinding, mixing, soaking, filtering and 383 quality control checks for each bottle filled.
The 1934 recipe has not changed, and no employee knows all of it.
Kenoshans likely know much of this, since high schoolers to politicians have participated in cultural exchanges during the past five decades. That means the two cities have witnessed each other’s challenges and triumphs.
Wolfenbuttel Mayor Thomas Pink is impressed with Kenosha’s lakeshore transformation from abandoned industrial acreage to a sleek mix of museums, a marina and new housing. Rudolf Ordon, a city councilman and high school principal, has visited Kenosha 11 times and laments the loss of student exchanges because of school budget cuts in Wisconsin.
Student exchanges continue, but more informally, in smaller numbers and from as far away as Texas. Wolfenbuttel enthusiasm remains high: Rudolf says a Green Bay senior, who will visit for one semester, was matched with a host family in only two days.
The mayor notes that “ a change in political leadership can change these partnerships,” but he values such exchanges because “sometimes there are prejudices against cultures, but when you meet face-to-face, it is easier” to understand and appreciate differences.
If you want Wolfenbuttel to consider an exchange with your high school son or daughter, send me an email, and I’ll forward it. The student must want to visit, be willing to socialize and have basic German language skills.
One dozen Wisconsin cities are members of Sister Cities International, which means they have a formal relationship with at least one foreign city. Wolfenbuttel is one of Kenosha’s five sister cities. For more: sistercities.org.
Wisconsin and Hessen, Germany, began a sister-state relationship 40 years ago. The largest city in Hessen is Frankfurt, and the capital is Wiesbaden, known for its mineral springs and public spas.
The state’s other sister-state relationships are with Chiba, Japan; Jalisco, Mexico; Heilongjiang, China; and Nicaragua.