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German Town Musters Its Toy Soldiers for Next Battle

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In house after house along the cobblestone lanes, warm lamplight pours from the windows into the frosty night. Inside, the toy makers are busy at work.

There is a timelessness to this tableau, with the men brushing fresh sawdust from an angel’s perfect wing and grandmothers tenderly painting apple cheeks on legions of nutcracker soldiers.

But the 300-year-old tradition in this eastern German hamlet is more magical than that, for the story behind it is not so much about the people of Seiffen giving life to their toys, but about what the toys gave back.

And the question now is whether they can do it again.

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Tucked deep in the Erzgebirge Mountains of eastern Germany, this hamlet has been known for as long as anyone can remember as the Toyland of Germany.

The legend began at the end of the 17th Century, when Erzgebirge tin supplies dwindled and the desperate miners filled their rucksacks with the only other thing they had to sell--the wooden toys they traditionally carved for their own children to pass the long, wintry nights.

Seiffen’s toys quickly found their way to trade fairs and merchant ships, and the village once again thrived.

Through wars, fascism, depression and dictatorship, Seiffen would suffer but, in the end, still make its beloved toys.

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When the Communists came to power 40 years ago, it was the beautiful, bright toys that once again saw Seiffen through adversity. In a Stalinist state that was officially atheist, Seiffen drew its very life from Christmas.

The traditions held fast through half-hearted attempts to force Seiffen into the socialist mold, including suggestions that angels be called “end-of-the-year flying figures” and that Communist Young Pioneers in red neckerchiefs be substituted for Mary and Joseph in the carved creches.

Now, plunged into the world market by German unification, the town of 3,300 is facing different, perhaps more daunting challenges. And as the nutcracker regiments march off into a new era, it is assumed that, as always, Toyland will prevail.

But no one is exactly sure how.

Torn between tourism, technology and tradition, Seiffen is facing an identity crisis that is belied by the toy makers’ windows glowing late into the night in the weeks before Christmas.

The 120 private family businesses are all booming. The men, for the most part, turn the lathes and carve the figures, while the women and sometimes the children glue together the parts--24 in a simple nutcracker soldier--and decorate them, preferably with paintbrushes made from the fine hairs of a badger’s underbelly.

All told, about 80% of the villagers make their living directly or indirectly off the toys, which rang up 7 million marks (about $4.3 million) in sales last year.

Tour buses spew frenzied shoppers into the narrow streets, and the only hotel is booked solid through New Year’s Day.

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But the holiday bustle is deceptive, as Seiffeners were alarmed to learn last year--their first as capitalists--and staking the future on the past is not without its risks.

Soaring prices for raw materials, competition from the Far East, inexperience in marketing and the inevitable post-Christmas slump all make Seiffen less than holly-jolly.

“Tradition is all well and good, but it has to feed you too,” said Mario Merten, one of five instructors at the town’s school for toy makers.

And while the newly formed Tourism Board and the born-again Cultural Assn. (banned by the Communists as nationalistic) have grand plans to make Seiffen a vacation mecca, others are not so certain.

Pollution from a Czechoslovak industrial belt just a few miles away and the blocky, drab Communist-era apartments scattered among the inviting private homes detract from Seiffen’s natural appeal. The region is only half-jokingly referred to as “the Siberia of Saxony.”

“We’re used to it, but really, this place isn’t that cute,” admitted Werner Kaltofen, who runs one of five shops selling the famous toys.

Still, even before Germany was reunified, Seiffen’s lovingly tended Toy Museum, wooded mountains and the nostalgic workshops managed to draw 200,000 visitors a year, and the place was even rumored to be a favorite vacation spot for the secret police elite.

But, by the new Western standards, restaurants are few and usually eager to start putting the chairs up at 8 p.m. Night life is nonexistent, and shopping is pretty much limited to toys. Dresden, the nearest big city, is an hour’s drive away on country roads.

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“We don’t want to Americanize it with a hotel on every hilltop and a four-lane freeway running through town,” said Stefan Kirsche, one of the Tourism Board’s 30 charter members. “I’d rather see a cow grazing in a meadow than a concrete mall with striped awnings.”

An overburdened water and sewer system makes it impossible to consider building even a single new hotel for another three or four years, town officials note. The first supermarket is expected to go up sometime next year.

“We’re basically a poor community,” said City Administrator Heinz Seidler, who recently took out a 120,000-mark ($75,000) loan to print slick tourism booklets and brochures.

Before the revolution, the Seiffeners quietly thrived through a black market that saw nutcrackers and other Christmas decorations traded for otherwise hard-to-get goods and services, such as bathtubs, auto repairs and tools.

Now, with streets being fixed and many homes sporting new roofs and fresh paint, Seiffen has an aura of determination and prosperity rare in the dilapidated east.

“Seiffen is an exception,” said Seidler. “It got to its feet pretty quickly and, no matter what, we are genuine optimists.”

Hope is what drew Christian Ulbricht to Seiffen. Ulbricht moved west as a child in 1945; six years later, the Communists confiscated the nutcracker factory his father had left behind.

Ulbricht grew up to open his own successful toy factory in West Germany and bought back the Seiffen plant last year. He plans to modernize it and replace some of the handwork with machinery.

“If you don’t introduce more technology, toy making will die out there,” Ulbricht said. “They want to earn more, but that means they need to produce more. Some of the copies from Taiwan are pretty good. They’re not as bad as they used to be.”

Actually, a similar need to produce more toys quickly and cheaply is what brought the Seiffen miners-turned-toy makers fame in the first place.

The miners invented a method of carving rings of wood on a wheel in such a fashion that tiny animals could be cut from it like pieces from a cake--60 to 100 animals per ring.

“That’s really what our tradition is--innovative technology,” said Tino Guenther, whose family has made toy acrobats and miniature rocking horses since 1914. The national airline Lufthansa has ordered 15,000 of the latter to give to first-class customers over Christmas, Guenther proudly reported.

At 29, Guenther represents a new breed of toy maker in Seiffen, more intent on survival than on sentimentality.

Unlike the traditionalists, Guenther does not resent the small commercial intrusions of nutcracker baseball players or Disneyesque characters.

“We need to orient ourselves to the market,” he said.

One of Seiffen’s old clients, the Christmas store Kaethe Wohlfahrt in the medieval western tourist town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, bused in 700 Seiffeners just after the Berlin Wall fell for a crash course in capitalism.

“They need to focus on the customer now,” said Wilhelm Wohlfahrt, owner of the hugely successful store and himself an emigre from a village near Seiffen.

“About 30% of them are still thinking in the old way,” he said. “Some people say they have no time to focus, and that’s the beginning of the end. You must invest the time.

“Some just say, ‘Well, my father made this, and my grandfather made it, and now I must make it too.’ That’s fine, as long as there’s a demand for it. Otherwise, make something else!”

Unable to afford their own advertising, shipping and marketing, the toy makers still rely on a revamped collective to sell their wares.

The collective’s director, Wolfgang Lorenz, is worried that creative freedom has now run somewhat amok. The range of Seiffen wares has quadrupled in a year, and “quantity doesn’t always mean quality,” Lorenz lamented.

“We have 2,000 different items in our catalogue,” he said. “That’s way too much. We have to thin it down to the best ones.”

“We have a whole bunch of problems,” sighed Werner Glaesser, 54, who, like his father and grandfather before him, makes miniature toys and Christmas pyramids, which resemble wooden wedding cakes with propellers on top. Tiny angels, shepherds and other Nativity figures twirl on each tier of the pyramid.

“So much has changed,” continued Glaesser, “that sometimes I think only my name and birthday are the same.”

Rising prices are his biggest concern. “Wood costs us five times as much, and it’s the same with paint. Indirect costs, like electricity, have tripled,” he said.

Despite the push to modernize, many Seiffeners are using their newfound freedom to recapture lost tradition.

“A lot of old, original Seiffen toys are being made again, as if people want a piece of their own past back,” said Konrad Auerbach, director of the Toy Museum.

Klaus Merten, Mario’s father, counts himself among the traditionalists.

Merten specializes in the elfin “smoking men,” carved figures that hide a piece of incense in their bellies, allowing real smoke to curl from their pipes.

Originally, the friendly pipe smokers were counterpoints to the nutcrackers, which, according to tradition, characterized authority figures such as kings, gendarmes and soldiers.

When they were first crafted in 1850, the smokers had faces, arms and hands molded from bread dough. By 1920, they were all wood, Merten said, because it was quicker and more profitable that way.

Merten began secretly selling bread-dough originals to collectors in the waning days of the Communist regime.

Now, despite the extra two or three hours it takes to mold the dough features, Merten still makes a small number for collectors. And each one bears something else forbidden before: the artist’s signature.

Even in these uncertain times, Merten has unflinching faith in his town and its tradition. And, most of all, in its toys.

“I always say that if Seiffen doesn’t make it, no one will,” he said.


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