When I solicited for advice for things to do in Germany while I’m there over the next couple of weeks, Steve asked me what I had done and seen while I was there previously. Honestly, I had a hard time remembering. It was a long time ago (1987), and my girlfriend and I (who I went with) didn’t stay in Germany that long (a couple of days).
But one memory came through as I thought about it: Leberkäse mit Semmel at the Munich train station.
When I was in college at the University of Delaware, I was able to land an internship with the DuPont Company, learning mass spectrometry, running samples and making a ton of dough ($12/hour in 1986-7 – wow!) compared to schlepping trays in the cafeteria.
The scientist that hired me was a garrulous mid-50s Hungarian named Josef Lazar. Joe had fled Hungary right before the Soviet invasion in 1956. He went to MIT, got his PhD in chemistry, and had been working for DuPont for some time.
Some people didn’t like Joe. He was loud, a little crass (definitely NOT PC by any standard), and a bit contemptuous of authority (he kept a picture of Stalin in his bathroom he said so that he would “think of the Soviet dictator every time he took a s#$%!” – invasions will do that to you, I guess).
I was a wide-eyed junior, and hadn’t met many non-native Americans at that time. We got on very well. I would come in and start working. Joe would come and check my work and tell stories. After a while, when he had confidence in my work, he would just come and tell stories. When he finished telling a favorite tale, he would smile and his whole face would crunch up and his eyes would disappear.
When I told him I was going to Europe, Joe was very excited, giving lots of suggestions and when discussing Munich, he said I had to get “Leberkäse mit Semmel” at the Munich Bahnhof — that it was the best he'd ever had. Leberkäse is a liverwurst-consistency mash-up of corned beef, liver, and onions formed into a loaf. One popular way to have it is fried with what I would call a Kaiser roll (Semmel) and good, sharp mustard. That’s the way I had it, and it was really good.
Joe went from being my boss, to a mentor and finally a friend. He was probably the first adult that treated ME like an adult. We kept in contact through my grad school years, and I rented his house in Wilmington (he and his family had moved to a house in the countryside) when I returned to work for DuPont after getting my PhD. One thing I can say is that Joe embraced life, which for him included a lot of smoking and drinking. Perhaps some of that caught up with him. He died in the late 1990s when he was in his late 60s. I miss the way the enthusiastic way he would always greet me, as if I were a son returning home from the war.
So when I return to Munich next week, you will definitely find me in the Munich Bahnhof with a Leberkäse sandwich and a half-liter of beer.
Egészségedre, my friend. You are missed.