I have walked the Kaiserallee (The Imperial Alley) many thousands of times, the hedgerow-lined path that has run along the border between Germany and Belgium since 1919 – with a four-year interruption. A narrow, bumpy path whose ground keeps the invisible footprints of my grandparents, parents, and neighboring relatives buried beneath it.
On the west side, bushes of hawthorn, hazelnut and crooked bushes and deciduous trees separated the path from the meadows of our dairy farmer, while to the east the meadows of the German farmer were fenced in mainly with rusty barbed wire and a few shrubs. At that time, when little grass had grown over the attestation of the recent past, the view over the meadows to Germany fell on the humps of the West wall, which appeared like pointed shark teeth, which had been erected by the Reich Labor Service at the end of the 1930s to secure Germany to the West. In May 1940, the German Wehrmacht itself crossed this wall, and Nazi Germany annexed areas of Belgium so that the securing of the external borders suddenly lay several kilometers away into the Rhineland.
When I was born in the early 1950s, the border to Germany was still closed. The remnants of the useless tank barriers soon gave way to a new, passable border, so that wherein 1944 the Allies successfully made their way overland into the German Reich and liberated the world from Nazi terror, the infrastructure for the legal border passage slowly developed.
The Kaiserallee! The interface between two worlds, which ended at the upper end in the no man’s land between the two countries. This way gradually opened up the surroundings for the little girl and finally – felt – the full world. Below the path turned off directly at the end of our road – a long dead-end road from the village center to our house. A few meters further up, in 1920, a weathered boundary stone had been erected which marked the border between the two countries laid down in the Treaty of Versailles.
When I was about three years old, I was given the task of collecting milk every day – for us, for my aunt in the next house and later also for other neighbors. The farmer, a friendly old bachelor from the 19th century, proudly told of Emperor Wilhelm II. To see him – even if only from afar – he had traveled to Aachen in 1911. Wilhelm II still enjoyed a high level of acceptance among the ordinary people in the countryside, although he had abandoned his country during the Great War and fled cowardly to Holland. The name of the alley – Kaiserallee – bears witness to this.
When life in Germany began to normalize in the mid-fifties, and the economic upswing became noticeable, the Aacheners resumed their pre-war habits. Their Sunday excursions led them to Belgium, to Butter land.
On Sunday afternoons, the tram spat out finely dressed walkers every hour at the German terminus. The Kaiserallee was filled with a flood of idlers, who just across the border in Belgium enjoyed genuine and, above all, affordable coffee beans and delicious, fresh rice cakes. The Kaiserallee paved the way for the village to achieve its own small economic miracle.
The excursionists were a source of information and inspiration for me, the little girl from the village wasteland. The German children drove scooters, a vehicle that I admired with longing. However, my mother lacked understanding of such useless things. If I was lucky, one of the excursionist kids let me ride her scooter for a while. My grandmother watched my activities with suspicion and concern: polio had broken out in Germany near the border, and no one knew the exact path of the infection.
The bus stop was located at the top of the main street, west of the Belgian customs house. From Monday to Saturday I drove from there to the school and Sunday morning to the early mass. So also, my footsteps burned into the meanwhile partly paved path, which we still call Kaiserallee today, for all time.