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Posted by satyrikon στο 18 Ιουλίου, 2012

Germans Hang On to Old Currency; Admiring Brothers Grimm, Clara Schumann

Germans have yet to give up on the euro. But as Europe’s debt crisis rages on, many are indulging their nostalgia for the abandoned mark by shopping with it again-and retailers are happily going along. WSJ’s Vanessa Fuhrmans reports.


GAIBERG, Germany—Shopping for pain reliever here on a recent sunny morning, Ulrike Berger giddily counted her coins and approached the pharmacy counter. She had just enough to make the purchase: 31.09 deutsche marks.

«They just feel nice to hold again,» the 55-year-old preschool teacher marveled, cupping the grubby coins fished from the crevices of her castaway living room sofa. «And they’re still worth something.»

Vanessa Fuhrmans/The Wall Street Journal

Customers can use marks at Christina Stadler’s family bakery in Gaiberg.

Behind the counter of Rolf-Dieter Schaetzle’s pharmacy in this southern German village lay a tray full of deutsche mark notes and coins—a month’s worth of sales.

Germans have yet to give up on the euro. But as Europe’s debt crisis rages on, many are indulging their nostalgia for the abandoned mark by shopping with it again—and retailers are happily going along.

As defunct currencies go, «die gute alte D-mark,» or «the good old D-mark,» as it is still affectionately called, is far from dead. Germans officially traded in the currency for euro bills and coins on Jan. 1, 2002, and the mark immediately ceased to be legal tender. But 13.2 billion marks—worth €6.75 billion ($8.3 billion)—remain tucked in mattresses, old prayer books, coat pockets or otherwise in circulation, according to the Bundesbank, more lucre than the euro bloc’s 16 other ex-currencies combined.

Unlike neighbors such as Italy and France, which let their liras and francs officially expire over the past year, Germany never set a deadline for exchanging its old money for euros. So, if they decide to accept marks, retailers and other businesses can still exchange them at German central bank branches.

The deutsche mark, introduced in the occupied western zones of Germany in 1948, before there was a West German flag, national anthem or even constitution, was never just a currency. It became a symbol of the country’s postwar economic miracle amid the ashes of World War II and one of the few in which Germans could comfortably express national pride.

«Flags weren’t acceptable—Hitler had flags,» said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German deputy foreign minister who is now chairman of the Munich Security Conference. But «the D-mark was a clean German success story. Giving that up was hard to do.»

With so much left of the currency—which is exchanged at about 1.96 marks per euro—some retailers have made a mint from taking it in.

«Leave your last pfennig in Gaiberg!» read the slogan of this hilltop village’s annual May campaign to lure the former German pennies, coins and notes to its handful of restaurants and shops.

«We’re not doing this just to do people a favor,» said Mr. Schaetzle of Gaiberg, where shoppers from as far as Frankfurt spent 15,000 marks this May. «Probably 90% of it is money we’d otherwise never see.»

C&A, an international clothing store chain whose biggest market is Germany, began accepting marks again in 2003 and still reaps up to 150,000 marks in monthly sales at its nearly 500 German outlets. Some 90% of Deutsche Telekom’s coin-operated telephone booths take the former German coins.


The old currency is breathing life into more unusual pockets of the German economy, too. Martin Butzbach, owner of Vitatherm, which sells home-installed infrared cabins that tout improved health benefits, says he never thought there could be a deutsche mark market for his €2,500-plus products. «I thought all that’s left is a bunch of coins,» he said.

Then a customer approached him last fall with a stack of bills he discovered stashed away in his recently deceased grandmother’s home. «He said, ‘Do you take D-marks? I’ve got 5,000 of them.’ » Inspired to launch a mark campaign afterward, Mr. Butzbach says 20 customers have since used the old currency to snap up infrared cabins.

For some, the mark revival has been a chance to collect even more of them. Dorothee Reess, a retired secretary in the southern German village of Belsen, already had a small sack of her favorite mark pieces. But upon discovering neighbor Inge Trautmann was accepting marks at her mom-and-pop store last winter, she rushed over to buy more.

Part of her bounty: A special edition 5 mark piece from 1975 commemorating the 10th anniversary of Albert Schweitzer’s death and another embossed with the image of Weimar Republic President Friedrich Ebert.

«Everything about the D-mark is nicer—the look, the feel,» she said.

Indeed, compared with the euro—which deliberately avoids images deemed too national—the mark bears elaborate portraits of German writers, artists and scientists, from the composer Clara Schumann (on the 100 mark note) to the Brothers Grimm (on the 1,000 mark bill).

The euro, on the other hand, «is more like a big stew with every vegetable,» Ms. Reess said. «Some of them aren’t so tasty.»

Others cite a more mundane reason for so many lingering marks: Many Germans, renowned as savers, squirreled away so much cash that they simply forgot where they put it. In Gaiberg, customers arrived with marks found under washing machines, in dusty record album covers and old purses, even in a couple of shoe boxes unearthed in a church rectory closet.

«I couldn’t fathom how people could just leave money lying around,» said Gaiberg native Helga Weis. That was before she prodded her husband, as their 50th anniversary approached last year, to finally get rid of his wedding suit. A last check of the pockets uncovered an envelope with nearly 300 marks, a long forgotten gift Mr. Weis had tucked away at the reception that day in 1961.

Five decades later, the rediscovered cash was enough to buy the cakes for their anniversary celebration from Gaiberg’s mark-accepting bakery.

Reviving the retired currency, as Gaiberg’s retailers have learned, comes with its share of hassles. D-mark customers often arrive with a sackful of coins, many of them 1-, 2- and 5 pfennig pieces, which have to be quickly sorted and calculated against the officially fixed €1 to 1.95583 mark exchange rate.

Two years ago, the village bank’s only automated mark counter broke. Now, the bank staff has to painstakingly recount all of the bills and notes by hand before carting them off to the nearby central bank branch in Karlsruhe for exchange.

And while Gaiberg baker Gitta Stadler said she admires the intricate designs and sturdy feel of the old marks, handling the long lost and often filthy money has another downside:

«Frankly,» she said, sifting through a large pile of tarnished mark coins, «it kind of smells.»

Write to Vanessa Fuhrmans at vanessa.fuhrmans@wsj.com



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