The ferry had been sailing for more than an hour before the island came into sight. Ever since we’d left the harbour at Stralsund we’d been looking out for it. We knew it was there, across the straits and between the headlands of Rügen island on one side and the mainland of Germany on the other. It was out there, but we couldn’t see it. So low is the southern end of Hiddensee that it remains out of sight until you are almost upon it.
This visit had been a long time coming. Years before we had stood on Rügen and looked out across the straights towards Hiddensee, up in the north where the land rises up from fields and meadows before dropping back into the Baltic waters at the foot of sandy cliffs. We’d talked about it. Written about it. But it was only now we were here. And we were not the only ones.
For centuries a place out on the edge, one of the last bastions of pre-Christian religion in this part of the world and populated by subsistence farmers and fishermen, Hiddensee began to rise in popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as an alternative tourist destination, attracting artists, writers and other intellectuals to take their holidays far from the madding crowds. It was a place where the isolation was part of the attraction, even if, with every ferry arriving in the harbour with a new cargo of guests, the mainland seemed to get ever closer.
And today, as we discovered both on the ferry and as we arrived at the small harbour, the crowds have come to Hiddensee. But some things don’t change, and there are still no cars on the island, with little buggies lined up on the quay to ferry the belongings of the overnight guests to their guesthouses and hotels.
If the harbour and town were busy with daytrippers and those spending longer on the island, we soon found that, aswith anywhere that draws visitors, you only ever need to start walking to find a place for yourself and your thoughts. Not far out of town and we were alone on a sandy track, fields drained for crops and horses on the one side, and grassy sand dunes on the other, hiding from view a long strip of beach that faced the open waters of the Baltic Sea. It was soon easy to understand why all those travellers had been drawn there over the decades. The sun was shining, the wind blew and the skies seemed endless. A place to stop and rest. A place to think.
From the fields the path began to rise up the hill that makes up the northern end of the island, where the lighthouse shines its warning out to passing boats that while Hiddensee might be out of sight until you get up close, there is still danger in the rocks at the bottom of its cliffs. We passed by the house of the writer Gerhart Hauptmann, a Nobel Prize winner who spent his summers on the island and would eventually be buried there. He died just after the war, sparing him the reckoning that would come around his ambivalent relationship with the Nazi Party during the last decade or so of his life.
For Hauptmann, Hiddensee must have been something of a sanctuary, not only from the reality of life across Germany but from his own questionable decisions, including a loyalty oath signed just after Hitler came to power. Hauptmann’s complicated life and politics would continue to shape reaction to him after his death. Leading communists and socialists attended his funeral on the island, and a Soviet official gave the eulogy.
During GDR times, the island remained something of a meeting point for writers, artists, actors and musicians, many of whom came north to work the summer months in the hotels and restaurants. Here, tucked away on the very edge of the country, there was a freedom that they could not find elsewhere in the tightly controlled society. But perhaps it was the island itself, hidden away like its name, that allowed the powers that be to turn something of a blind eye to what was going on there. On a small island it was possible to escape everyday life for a little while, but ultimately there was nowhere to go. And eventually the hotels would close and the weather would turn, and what had seemed like a paradise was now a place cut adrift. Out of sight, out of mind.
Geologists can explain for us how Hiddensee came to be, hidden like its name against the horizon. But there are better tales than ones of ice flows and drift landscapes. The story goes that Hiddensee was once part of Rügen island, where a monk in the ninth century travelled in an attempt to convert the locals from their worship of pagan gods. After he had been turned away from one house in the fishing village, a neighbour took him in and offered him a place to stay. The next morning he left with the words ‘I have no gold or silver to pay, but the first thing you do shall be blessed.’
After he had gone, the woman began to measure a piece of cloth. But as she tried to measure it, she found it had no end. This continued throughout the day until, as darkness fell, she found herself with a house full of cloth. She told the story to her neighbour who had originally turned the missionary away. The next time he came by, this woman decided to let him stay. He left the following morning with the words he had spoken before. She already had a plan. She would immediately start to count the gold in her jar and the counting would never end until she had a house full of gold. Unfortunately, the woman needed the toilet and stepped out to pee. As she began, the blessing took effect. Instead of a house full of gold, the woman managed only to flood the land, separating Hiddensee from Rügen for all time.
From the slopes of the hill in the north we looked down along the length of the island. To the right, the open waters of the Baltic. To the left, the channel supposedly created by the greedy woman’s overwhelming urge to take a leak. All islands have their stories, especially those that are tucked away and hiding beyond the horizon. After all, it’s usually the quiet ones you have to look out for.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton