Where do postage stamps come from

"There are hunters and there are collectors," says Dirk Schulz. He and his comrades are collectors. "Collectors are idealists." The men with the round bellies and the ironed shirts collect postage stamps - "postage stamps", they say, perhaps because it sounds more official, in a bureaucratic way that is apparently difficult to convey to young people today.

Schulz has only partially gray hair, he is the youngest of them and one of the younger participants in the "Young Stamp Collectors Day", which takes place this weekend in the Katharinenkirche in Salzwedel - at the invitation of the "Deutsche Philatelistenjugend", the youth association of organized stamp collectors .

The tokens in the paddling pool are meant for the kids, but none of them come

A stamp exchange market is set up in the side aisle of the Katharinenkirche. While the pastor is holding the Sunday service, a few men in mole stance dig persistently through the boxes. On the other side of the long table, near the entrance, is a paddling pool full of stamps. The contents of some of the innumerable collections that someone inherited from their grandfather and that, after an unsuccessful attempt to sell them, were given to the local "Young Postage Stamp Friends Pretzier" as a gift ended up in it. The association meets in the Pretzier elementary school, a village near Salzwedel. It is the last of its kind in Saxony-Anhalt. One of the few remaining in Germany.

The thousands upon thousands of postage stamps in the paddling pool are intended for the interested children, who don't come at all. They should fish out the brands they like with a fishing rod. At some point, at least according to the theory, the desire should awaken in them to go on a search - for other brands with a certain motif or from a certain era, if they already have some of them and want to have them all at some point. The desire for completeness in times of want. But the times of lack are over. The paddling pool overflows with a gigantic legacy that nobody wants to inherit. Well, almost none. The Young Stamps Friends Pretzier still have six members.

One of them is Saskia Buczkowski, who is celebrating her 21st birthday this Sunday. She sits at the paddling pool, looks through her round glasses and waits for children. She started with animals, she explains to an older visitor. She loved animals, so she started collecting animal-themed stamps. Today she collects France. Wanderlust. Her club colleague Benjamin, a lively boy, ten years old, collects stamps with chess pieces on them. Because he loves chess. And because his father also collects chess.

In the past, stamp collectors were more often what Dirk Schulz calls "hunters": collectors who care about money. The weekly newspaper time knew how to report in 1965 about a market in which hundreds of millions of euros are being shifted, in Germany alone. The "common man's shares" were called postage stamps back then. Today one of the traders in the Katharinenkirche tells about the dying of traders. He literally means it. There is an incredible amount on the market, including rare pieces. An elderly gentleman asks him about a certain brand, which he also has there, but the customer wants it stamped. Then it's the wrong stamp - no interest. The dealer sighs.

The sausages are on the grill on the grass verge in front of the church. Wasps buzz over cake platters, finding no one to sting. But then there is still a little momentum in the booth. A yellow stagecoach drives up, the coachman hoots into the post horn, a few gentlemen leave their coffee cups on the beer benches, get on and take a tour of the cobblestone streets of Salzwedel, surrounded by cozy half-timbered houses. Only young people are still hanging out at home in front of their smartphones.

Every now and then the GDR customs office painted over stamps when they suspected Western propaganda

It makes him a little sad, says Roland Henschke, who is standing next to the grill in a red polo shirt. Back then, almost everyone in his class collected postage stamps. The neighbor often received mail from Austria. He had her give them to him, removed the tokens and exchanged them with his comrades. He was able to score with his Austrian brands, because those from the west were popular. "That was out of reach for us because of the wall. But a bit closer via the brands."

You hear similar stories from other old collectors. In her childhood and youth, postage stamps heralded distant lands, sometimes very exotic ones, which she only knew by name. The foreign currencies, the sometimes puzzling motifs invited one to dream; the postmarks officially certified that this world really existed outside of one's own cosmos. This is what made this hobby so attractive for many collectors in the West. But one can assume that it was especially true for those in the GDR.

Every now and then, the GDR customs authorities brushed over stamps with paint because, from their point of view, the motifs conveyed Western propaganda. He took over from others. Postage stamps that collectors sent back and forth in envelopes across national borders were viewed by the GDR authorities as foreign currency - you couldn't just bring any number of them into the country, otherwise you would get visitors. And you had to get the "red brands" from the Eastern Bloc first. Certain "blocking values" could only be obtained exactly once upon presentation of ID. The trade in miniature works of art between East and West, the many pen pals that collectors cultivated, all of this was obviously uncomfortable for the regime.

After the fall of the Wall, you suddenly had access to everything, says Henschke sadly. At flea markets, the previously unreachable brands were just lying in the middle of stuff. Dealers threw a complete collection after you. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the limiting factor disappeared. But collecting lives from the limitation, from limits and the attempt to overcome them. But the world has gotten smaller. Digital mail no longer knows any borders - and it doesn't need any postage either. When the old men sit on their devalued treasures, they take on a new character: As documents of a lost time, of past longings. "The brands also represent a story. An identity," says Henschke.

One can only guess how many Eastern collections are still in storage rooms

Carmen Kauffmann, the leader and soul of the Pretzier Verein, a friendly woman around fifty, used to collect "GDR and BDR stamped". Today she collects "home-related". An elderly man from Magdeburg only collects Magdeburg postmarks. Dirk Schulz collects Soviet occupation zone. A former central director of the GDR Philatelist Association, now an Audi Quattro driver, collects English colonies. A comparatively young man in an old-fashioned sweater says that he has no collecting area at all, that he only helps with the event. But then he says that he is a television technician and that at some point he started collecting old GDR equipment. As proof, he shows scanned newspaper articles. They are illustrated with photos showing walls full of old radios and tube TVs. "He wants his son Sascha to follow in his footsteps at some point," says one of the pictures.

While looking at them, it dawns on you how many Eastern collections are probably still waiting in some cupboards and storage rooms for someone to view them, appreciate their value - and then say: off to the paddling pool with them! And then? Philatelists call it "processing" when they comb through a stock of stamps to see what might be suitable for their exhibits. What is converted into a new order and thereby saved.

The boy with the downy beard collects "German Empire"; he inherited from grandpa

9.5 million

Dollars were paid for a postage in 2014, which is a record. It was the "British Guiana 1c magenta", a unique piece. This shows that there is a market for really valuable brands, despite the diminishing interest. The 1c was supposedly printed in 1856 in what was then the British colony of Guyana. A twelve-year-old Scottish boy is said to have discovered it later on a letter from his uncle. A black ship is shown, surrounded by an inscription: "Damus Petimus Que Vicissim", in German: "We give and take alternately".

"What we did at your age to get hold of the brands," the grill master says indignantly, turning a sausage. "When an old man opened his books back then - wow, you were amazed!" His brother-in-law bought a stamp for 1200 Ostmarks, another interjects: "How crazy you have to be!" One of the young philatelists, a slim sixteen-year-old in a black sweater, shrugs his shoulders and looks around in a rushed manner. You can already spend money on certain brands, he mumbles. Grabs his sausage and disappears.

The boy's name is Mika Hein, he has a fuzzy beard over his upper lip and a pretty face. He speaks very softly, as if addressed to himself - you think you have misheard: "German Reich", he collects. He inherited most of the collection from his grandfather and part of it from his father. Now he is taking them away. He even brought it with him, it fills a whole gym bag. Blue and brown leather-bound albums, some with postage stamps, others with full letters. Beautiful, old-fashioned, curved handwriting, stamped with the swastika. Is this what the auspicious land of which the postage stamps announce looks like today, as it used to be in the West?

No, he is not a fan of the Nazis, says Mika. He deals with the time out of philatelic interest "to find out things how it was back then". He was particularly interested in the letters. Through them he sometimes learns something directly about the people from back then. For example, about the mother who writes on a postcard how she's worried about her husband since he's been at the front, how she brings her children to school in the morning. Has he developed a relationship for himself with the people from whom he has read several mailings? "Just by letter."

Then he is silent, looks sad and restless, like someone who understands the world better when he looks at it under the microscope. In order to then file it somewhere where it has its place. He looks more like a gatherer than a hunter. Like someone rummaging through history when they rummage through boxes full of postage stamps. Like a true philatelist. It would probably need more young people like him to keep things in order - between yesterday and today. So that nothing gets mixed up.

The filling volume of the paddling pool will continue to increase this weekend. A woman has come to St. Catherine's Church with her late husband's stamp collection in her luggage. The result of the estimate: "No commercial value". But that doesn't matter for real collectors.