Antique teddy bears tell stories of the past
Summit County, CO ColoradoAs I sit here writing this, I am looking at a photograph of a little girl. It’s a photo taken in a classroom somewhere in Germany, probably in celebration of the last day of school, because one of the children is holding up a blackboard which reads “Juni, 1930.” All of the children were allowed to bring toys that day; several children are holding dolls or teddy bears. On the right of the photo, your eye is caught by one child in particular because of the broad grin, the happiness she somehow exudes. She is holding in her arms a huge teddy bear, hugging him with his arms around her neck as if he were the most precious thing in the world to her.
I do not know that little girl’s name or anything about her, but over the last week she has suddenly become very important to me; her life now touches mine. This is because, in a few days, her precious teddy bear will be in my keeping.My friend Armin is an antique bear dealer in Germany. When I saw the images of the bear and the photo on the internet, I e-mailed him to tell me everything about it. He e-mailed back that all he could tell me – that he found the bear at an antique toy market in Hannover, that the dealer had purchased the bear from a house sale because the lady who owned it – and the bear – was going to a nursing home and had to sell her things. Next to the bear was a photo album, and that’s where Armin found the photograph of her and the bear together.When the photo was taken, the lady was 7 years old; she had gotten the bear when she was a baby, in 1923. While the bear was obviously loved, it was also taken care of, as prize possessions are; it is in exceptional condition for a bear that age, and stunningly beautiful.
Some of the best teddy bears “speak” to you, as if they had a soul reflected in their eyes. This one not only spoke, he pleaded for companionship, like a dog whose owner has suddenly been forced to leave him. When I won the bear yesterday in Armin’s internet auction – with 16 other bidders fiercely competing against me – I felt as if I had won a lottery, or, better yet, was bringing home a golden retriever.My passion for antique teddy bears only started about 10 years ago, but it is one of the great sustaining joys in my life. I could get all intellectual and metaphysical here and reference writer Muriel Spark’s wonderful phrase “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace,” but instead I’ll just say that, when I look into an antique bear’s eyes, I see the human, emotional side of history unfolding before me. When I look at this bear, I think of how, alongside his owner, he survived the atrocities that happened in Germany during the Nazi regime of Hitler throughout the 1930s, followed by the devastation of World War II. Whatever happened to the little girl as she grew up during that time – whether she was in hiding or imprisonment, or whether she was at home facing deprivation, shortages, raids and bombings – she kept the bear with her as her companion.The emotional connection between children – and sometimes adults – and teddy bears is legendary. The story of my new bear, whatever it may be, reminds me of the true story of a teddy bear named “Alfonzo,” who was brought over with his young owner, Princess Xenia, from Russia when she was visiting with her royal cousins in Buckingham Palace in 1914. While she was there, World War I broke out and she was forced to remain in London, separated from her entire family back home, including her beloved father. In 1917 Princess Xenia got word that her father had been assassinated. The only memento she had left of him was the bear he had given her, and “Alfonzo” remained her closest companion until her death. Today, the lovely red bear is in a museum in England.
When I look at the photograph of those children in that classroom in 1930, it saddens me to reflect how many of those young lives would soon be cut short or ruined by the horrors of dictatorship and war. This photo was taken in a moment of childhood joy, encapsulated forever in an image where time stands still, for a brief instant, before the dark.In just a few days, my beautiful bear will be arriving from Germany, bringing with him his photograph, his only reminder of love – and loss. I only wish I knew the name of the nameless little girl who owned him, now, perhaps, still alive in Hannover. I would like to tell her that her bear will be coming home again, safe and sound, to another lifetime of being loved.
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