A Mysterious Box, Part III

Last week I was reading Jo Catling’s translation of the late W. G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country.  In it Sebald writes that:

I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time . . . the echo of a pistol shot across the Wannsee with the view from a window of the Herisau asylum . . . dates of birth with dates of death, happiness with misfortune, natural history and the history of our industries, that of Heimat with that of exile.

I am a Humean in my approach to coincidence, naturally inclined to shy away from webs like those which Sebald so seamlessly weaves across borders and centuries.  Yet there are moments in which seemingly fragmented parts of experience can align and slide together with startling precision. 

My search for the inhabitants of Rizzastraße 7 had led me to other years of the Koblenz city directories, in none of which did I meet with the Arzt (medical doctor) I had expected.  Dr. Scherer the lawyer and Dr. Göcking the school inspector were joined by an ever-increasing cast of the Koblenz bourgeoisie: Philipp Hambach, the owner of a wood-working factory, Herr Witte the governmental buildings officer, Dr. Riffart, the district court judge, and more.  If my doctor – as I was beginning to think of him – had ever lived at Rizzastraße 7, he was either absent from these directories or had pursued a different profession than I had first supposed.

The doctor enjoying a beach holiday in 1930.

It was, I thought, more likely to be the latter and so I prepared to work my way through a list of the building’s inhabitants, seeing if I could find any who had links to Davos, daughters named Heidi or Inge, or any other points of similarity to the mysterious family into whose life I had had such a strange and tantalising glimpse.  The first name on my list was the resident, in 1930, of flat 3: Dr. Alfred Huhnhäuser, a school inspector.  I was, at first, surprised to find a small Wikipedia entry then transfixed as I read that he “hatte die Tochter Heidi (* 1914) und Inge (* 1917)”.  This was surely my man!

Inge and Heidi looking very prim and proper on a visit to their grandmother’s house.

Moments later I discovered that in 2000 a thesis had been written on Dr. Huhnhäuser: Memoir and Memory: The Papers of a Pre-War German – Alfred Huhnhäuser, 1885-1950 by Caroline Martin.  It made extensive use of the doctor’s papers which I realised were now in the archives of . . . my own institution, the University of Stirling!  Heidi, it proved, had married a Scot and her husband’s nephew – who, in a further freak of coincidence, I had met socially some years before – had lectured at Stirling, donating the papers of his aunt’s family to the university in the 1990s.  The photographs, it would seem, had become separated, detached from their context, and anonymous, until – by chance – they came to me.  A phone call later and their future is, I hope, now secured as a new accession to Stirling’s existing Huhnhäuser archive.

Dr. Huhnhäuser, nattily dressed in frock coat and Stresemann.

And so, over the course of a morning I had gone from the mysterious world of the doctor, his wife, and his daughters, to a richly populated family saga in which Dr. Huhnhäuser, his wife Melms, Heidi, and Inge, picked their way through the dangerous shoals of the twentieth century.  The doctor emerged as a complex figure, a highly literate and literary man, a scholar, an opera critic and amateur musician, and a Nazi administrator who played a key role in occupied Norway.  But reading his autobiography, as edited and discussed in Martin’s 2000 thesis, it was impossible to cast him in the role of Nazi comic-book villain.  Instead, his repeated claim to be apolitical and out of step with his time, balanced against his cautious but determined attempts to improve the plight of Norwegians under German rule, and his altogether ambivalent attitude towards 1930s Germany’s Aryan dream make him one of those grey and difficult figures who populate the annals of that generation: neither wholly good nor wholly bad, caught up in a tide of events, and somewhat bemusedly participating in a greater horror.

Photograph of a portrait of Dr. Huhnhäuser. The whereabouts of the original are unknown.

I also learned that I had not been entirely wrong in seeing some prolonged connection with a sanatorium on the family’s part.  It was not, however, through the doctor’s work – which lay solidly in the realms of literature and education – but in the melancholy fate of Inge, who died just short of her nineteenth birthday in 1936, having suffered from tuberculosis for some years.  The family’s time in Davos was because of her and, as Heidi’s husband recalled in an interview towards the end of his life, her sister had even gone to a school in Davos for several years so that she might be near Inge. 

After the war, Dr. Huhnhäuser was washed to and fro, from Norway, to England, and back to Germany, where he died in 1950.  “Melms”, Else (Schulze) Huhnhäuser, lived into the sixties, and Heidi died as recently as 1992, a resident of her adopted Scotland for over fifty years.  There is something poignant and sad about so suddenly learning the fates of all four, as if one had skipped to the end of the novel and learned, too soon, the conclusion to a story long in the telling. Soon, I’ll pass the Huhnhäusers’ photos on to the archive here at Stirling, where they can rejoin the doctor’s papers, but for a moment – and now with my eyes open – I’ll continue to record what I see.  I’ve only just scratched the surface of the no-longer-so-mysterious box and, I confess, I find myself wanting to learn still more of the details of these lives, rescued so fortuitously and so serendipitously linked to my own.

© 2019 Kelsey Jackson Williams.

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