A Mysterious Box, Part II

Today I have returned to the box of photograph albums (see my previous post).  The first album I open is another snapshot of the family at Davos: photos of snow, laughing young people, and warm hostels.

There is a wonderful candour and freedom about the photographs here and elsewhere in this collection.  When one thinks of the photographic practice of earlier generations, one thinks of stiffness, order, and decorum, but these could not be further from such a stuffy ideal.  One series is of a group of young people – amongst them at least one of the daughters – flung down in poses of happy exhaustion midway through an alpine trek.  There is something tremendously vibrant and happy about the half-turn of a shoulder and the hobnailed boots dug into the grassy sward.

But I am also attracted to another image, one of the few which depicts neither landscape nor people.  It must, I suppose, be of the breakfast room in someone’s hostel.  Flowers (and ashtrays) are neatly set out, the chairs are drawn up, the newspapers folded in their rack, and there is a mid-afternoon hush, a still pause as the room awaits its next use.  It is, in its own way, an exquisite photograph.

Nor can we forget the doctor, who reappears in walking gear amongst the mountainous landscape: happy, crook-necked, and oddly fragile alone in the snow.

 The next album is different in shape from those I’ve looked at so far.  It is smaller, bound in sturdy buckram, and as soon as I open it I see it dates from decades earlier.  The clothing suggests about 1910, give or take a few years, and though I can’t be sure, I think this might be the doctor and his wife’s honeymoon. 

They are much younger, smiling broadly, and seem to be somewhere in the country, by a lake or maybe the sea.

Most striking of all is the final photograph in the album, followed only by blank pages.  The doctor’s wife lies on a bed, or perhaps a chaise longue, staring back at the camera.  Returning her gaze feels almost too much, the emotions contained within it were surely meant for the photographer alone, and to peer into the depths of her eyes is a strange and uncomfortable act of transgression.

I shut the book, a little hurriedly, and turn to another, this one bound with once-green, now brown, silk tassels and with a postcard of the Koblenz Schloß pasted onto its front cover.  Below the postcard is an inscription: Unserer lieben Omi zu ihrem 70. Geburtstage | als Erinnerung an am Besuch in Koblenz | Inge und Heidi.  1928 (“for our dear Grandma on her 70th birthday as a reminder of visiting Koblenz”).  Could Inge and Heidi be the daughters, I wonder?

The first few pages contain pasted-in picture postcards of Koblenz, but soon we move on to photographs of the family.  Yes, Inge and Heidi must be the daughters for they appear again and again in these pages.  There are also pictures of the interior of their house – Rizzastraße 7, I learn – replete with the bourgeois comforts of the early century.  I am captivated by a distant prospect of book-lined shelves which can just be seen over the shoulder of one of the girls, posing soberly in front of a grand piano.  Is it the doctor’s study, I wonder?

The little book for their grandmother gives me an idea and a few Google searches later I see that Rizzastraße 7 still survives, albeit now with far more plate glass than in 1928, and houses lawyer’s offices, a used bookstore, and other businesses.  It also shows up on a list of historic buildings in southern Koblenz, which notes its construction in 1911 by the architect Fritz Thalwitzer.

At this point I think: surely I can find out who they are from this?  Surely there is an address book of 1920s or 1930s Koblenz which will tell me the residents of Rizzastraße 7?  And so I find myself on the website of the Rheinland-Pfalz digital library.  There are fifty-odd address books for Koblenz, as early as 1794, as late as 1940.  I know with certainty that my mysterious family were living at Rizzastrasse 7 in 1928 so with a faint catch in my breath – for I love this sort of detective work with all my heart – I turn to the 1927-28 edition of the Einwohnerbuch der Stadt Koblenz des Landkreises Koblenz und Umgebung (Directory of Inhabitants of the City and District of Koblenz and Environs). 

But all is not so straightforward.  I should have realised that the imposing building would be divided into multiple flats.  The lawyer Dr. Hubert Scherer is in flat 3, the engineer Heinrich Hambach is in flat 1, the school inspector Dr. Wilhelm Göcking is in flat 2, and the building officer Waldemar Hinsmann is also present (in the basement, I think).  Have I missed something?  Is the doctor no doctor after all?

© 2019 Kelsey Jackson Williams.

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