Capitalism puts heart and soul of Germany's 'Toytown' at risk

November 25, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

SEIFFEN, Germany -- As another Christmas season creeps onto the cobblestoned streets of this hamlet known as Toytown, the winter sun sets early and holiday lights burn late. In the warmth of workshops, whole families gather for a few more hours of hammering, sawing, sanding and painting.

It has been this way for more than 300 years in this mountain town near the Czech Republic border, and in window after window you can see the locals at work. They stand before lathes and benches, turning blocks of wood into toy nutcrackers, animals, trains, whimsical "smoking men" and whirling Christmas pyramids.

Seiffen's elfin ways have survived war, depression, Nazis and four numbing decades of East German communism. But the worrisome question now -- if it can be heard above the whine of power tools -- is whether the town can maintain the hurly-burly pace of capitalism without losing its heart and soul.

Four years after the return of free-market economics, older residents worry that local traditions are losing their grip on the young, letting them slip away to the brighter lights and bigger paychecks of Dresden and Berlin. And if that continues, who will build the next generation of Seiffen toys?

Young people who might be inclined to stay, meanwhile, worry that the competitive pressures of cheap Asian woodworking will never ease enough to let local wages rise.

"This is a big problem, because elsewhere there is more money," said Wolfram Wiedemann, assistant director of Seiffen's showpiece Toy Museum. "The goal now is to interest the kids in working at home, to tell them how much freedom there is in work like this. . . . But the young people's attitudes have changed in the last few years. Now they want big money fast."

There is no doubting the importance of toymaking to Seiffen. In a population of 3,200, about 100 families run their own workshops, employing sons, daughters and grandparents -- about 700 jobs in all. Then there are a handful of larger factories, such as the Erzgebirgische Volkskunst with its 150 employees. Throw in the numerous toy stores, Christmas shops, cafes and inns catering to Toytown tourists, and about 80 percent of the local population makes a living off the toy trade.

The tradition began in the late 17th century, when Seiffeners did their hammering in mountain tunnels, prying tin ore from rocky mines. When the tin was gone they climbed out of the shafts, sat down at their workbenches and began to build toys. Then, like homespun Santas, they began lugging sacks full of the toys to nearby towns for selling and bartering. A new way of life was born.

The Fuechtner family, now in its sixth generation of toymaking, got into the business around 1800, when Gotthelf Friedrich Fuechtner hauled his wares 40 miles through the hills to the holiday markets of Dresden. But the family made its biggest mark in the 1870s, when Gotthelf's grandson, Wilhelm Friedrich, built Seiffen's first nutcracker soldiers. He made them in the same style that two decades later inspired Russian composer Tchaikovsky in his "Nutcracker" ballet. Before long the toys of Seiffen were gaining a worldwide reputation for the craftsmen of the surrounding Erzgebirge Mountains, and now there are buyers all over the world.

The Fuechtner workshop today is run by 43-year-old Volker Fuechtner, who recently talked of his family's history while standing amid noise and paint fumes, with sawdust in his curly brown hair.

Three generations of the family live upstairs from the workshop, and from every window of the house there is a pastoral view of farm fields and rolling wooded hills.

Volker Fuechtner came of age during the days of communism, and he easily recalls the clumsiness of party oversight, although the party at least had enough sense not to nationalize the Seiffen workshops.

But the state did handle the selling and pricing, often "dumping" the toys at prices well below cost in its zeal to attract Western currency.

In those days, Seiffeners suffered through a lean spell after Christmas and had to hoard enough toys to barter for car repairs and other services during the rest of the year.

'Year-end flying figures'

In the 1970s, the government mildly pressed them to build items more politically correct for communism. Angels should be called "year-end flying figures," the state said, and wouldn't it be nicer if those hand-carved figures in holiday scenes were youthful Communists in red scarves instead of Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus?

"It was suggested, but nobody did it," Mr. Fuechtner said. "Christmas was our whole reason for existence, so they finally just dropped the idea."

Then in November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and almost overnight Seiffen toymakers had to learn to set prices, balance books and cut deals for wood and paint. They realized they'd soon go broke charging the same prices as the government, and that made Asia's cheap competition a new worry.

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