'Auf der Walz'

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“Auf der Walz” is a German expression that means traveling on the job. It is a centuries-old custom that was started by the Craftsmen Guilds of Europe, around the Middle Ages, and is still practiced there. A young man could enter the apprenticeship of a stonemason, carpenter, roofer or furniture-maker under the supervision of a master of his chosen craft, performing at first menial work for very little money.

Each year his responsibilities increase and if he proves himself trustworthy his wages are increased. When his three-year apprenticeship is up, he is considered a fellow (Geselle) after he’s taken a final exam. Then these young men and women are encouraged to go “Auf der Walz” if they want to take their learned craft and become a master.

In the past it was required to travel before becoming a master. Now it is voluntary and a matter of honor. The fellow, however, still has to be under the age of thirty and single and have accumulated no debt.

The decision to undertake this journey requires the fellow to remain outside a 50 km radius of his home. Once he acquired his craft after three years of apprenticeship, he will journey for two years and one day (in the past it was three to six years and one day), and can travel wherever he wants to including other European countries. Sometimes they will travel as far as Russia or Malaysia.

He will leave with only the bare necessities, literally packing only a bundle. He cannot return home until his journey is complete (with the exception of illness or death). His entire possessions consist of his craftsman’s clothes (Zunft Kluft) and tools.

Most outfits for guilds are in black and white and adhere to strict dress codes. A proper outfit will be his black long pants, black shoes or boots, a white collarless shirt, and a velvet or corduroy vest with eight buttons (symbolizing an eight-hour work day). There’s a colored scarf or tie that is pinned to the collar identifying his craft, sometimes necklaces that show the emblems of cities in which he worked, and a spiral walking-stick called Stenz that the fellow himself made. Last but not least his black wide-brimmed hat.

The hat is very important as it identifies him as a ‘free’ man, sent out into the world to learn his craft. His jacket will also be of black velvet or corduroy (depending on guild) with six buttons on the front (symbolizing a six-day work week). While “Auf der Walz” a stonemason will also wear a gold earring with the six-pointed star, which is a reminder of Solomon’s temple built by the stonemasons.

He, of course, must bring his tools, which he carries in satchels and pockets. It is his property and it is thought that a craftsman can work best with his own tools. A master mason of his craft is required to take in any fellow who knocks at his door and provide room and board for him. Sometimes farmers, taverns or local families will take in a fellow, for their tradition is still widely respected and supported. It is therefore important that each fellow taken in keeps the reputation of the guild in good standings through his behavior, so the next fellow journeyman is received well by the community. For the next three months, he will work under the supervision of his host-master learning new techniques and acquiring skills at his set wage. He cannot stay longer than three months, since he must remain a stranger, and move on to the next town. In the past he could only walk, and if in groups in duck walk. I am sure public transportation is allowed these days for further distances. But Europeans still see craftsmen journeying the countryside according to Middle Ages customs.

Tradition is followed by all guilds in existence — especially for masons and carpenters or roofers. The way houses are built in Germany, all of these crafts are in high demand. What I thought was fascinating about the process of long ago was the qualifications in which an apprentice was first chosen. One in particular that stuck out as I read the list of qualifying factors was that he had to be under rigid rules to test his character and prove himself trustworthy and competent, since he was to learn the secret of the craft. In addition he had to confess his faith in God, vowing to honor the Church and the Master he served.

An apprentice was also expected to remain chaste and not marry, avoid uncivil speech and be respectful to his fellow workers. I wonder who would pass that test these days? Yes, these are strict codes of ethics, given to a young man. Most kids entering an apprenticeship in Germany in these trades are on average 16 or 17 years old. Some of these rules would most likely be taught by parents anyway (I’d think).

A wise Master nowadays will still evaluate his candidate during an interview and look for signs that can mold his character and develop his talent.

Knowing about the Zunft traditions again has made me wonder if any of this would work in our modern world. The tradition has found revival again in Europe and there are enough young people wanting to learn these old crafts. My youngest brother learned to be a mason and always had the desire to go “Auf der Walz” but due to his health had to give up on that dream. But, he is still the “Master-builder” in our family and is called for many jobs.

There are quite a few young men and women going "Auf der Walz," traveling all over Europe and Asia Minor wearing their traditional Zunft Kluft. It is still seen as an honor representing their guild and learning about other customs, techniques and skills from other countries’ craftsmen. The wealth they return with is knowledge, and an experience that is undeniably unique and individual.

People have created and engineered incredible churches, starting in the 12th century. Notre-Dame, along with many other cathedrals and castles all over Europe are the works of the stonemasons. Carpenters created splendid pieces of furniture and roofers still erect strong beams on every housetop that can withstand most European strong winds.

Leading a humble existence, a young man learns how to develop trust and finds his courage. Learning to work together with different masters and other fellows, and accepting each other’s differences is not an easy task to accomplish. Lots of character building is going on when one cannot come home for over two years and is at the mercy of strangers. And yet, he may discover more and learn more than if he stayed home.

The knowledge and wisdom gained can be priceless. Men seem to be creators and builders. There seems to be some kind of natural urge to do these things. He starts by thinking over an idea, coming up with a plan, and then creating something from his thoughts.

There is a definite purpose in his desire to build. It brings him a freedom to be creative and contentment in his accomplishment. Along the way his life flourishes with success.

Jesus, a carpenter himself, did warn though not to build a house on sand, but on a rock. Foundations are important if the place is not to collapse, and a good craftsman with good work ethics will make a difference in keeping the place for a long time.

Founders of the American Constitution were craftsmen and chiseled away on an idea that turned into a nation where the pursuit of one’s happiness was protected through liberty and justice. People in America were to be ‘free men’ (they may not have all worn hats, though), and have traveled from many foreign places to follow their dream to a new land.

For a new nation to be born, a good amount of cooperation, respect, and exchange of skills and knowledge had to have taken place. Expertise and competence was required on all levels to make this happen. People were allowed to practice their religions without persecution. And people were not asked to change into some alien shape of a new person.

A person’s reputation was still built on his integrity — his word — and his trustworthiness. There was still the handshake to honor a deal, and it meant something to everyone.

It wouldn’t be such a bad idea if leaders of every nation underwent a journey and be sent “Auf der Walz” to learn about a craft in a foreign country. They could discover something of value that’s indestructible and priceless and won’t require the brutality of conquering a nation.

They could actually learn that other countries have valuable knowledge, great customs, and can be very hospitable if treated with the Golden Rule.

They might gain a new perspective about themselves and hopefully a new appreciation for their own land and people. They might even wear a hat, to identify themselves as free man — graciously given — so they would remember what it feels like to be free.

For two years and one day they would work for a different Master for three months and learn their trade through a humble existence with the finest in every country. They might even come back a changed man, with new insights and discover that it was already written all along in ancient writings. They might very well notice that power is in liberty and freedom, and to apply it properly he has to recognize his craft as a gift, know his tools, develop his skill and journey as a stranger in foreign lands until he matured to be worthy of the title of Master.

A good craftsman would never tear down his creation, because he was hired to build it for somebody else. He may come back to repair the wears of time, but never tear it apart by force and ignorance. He meant for it to last.

Sabine Barnhart [send her mail] moved to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, TX with her three children. For the past 15 years she has been working for an international service company.

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