Historical documents lost forever - An interview with René Böll, representative of the heirs of Heinrich Böll and his son


April 17, 2009

The interview was first published on boell.de

After the collapse of the Historical Archive of Cologne we spoke with René Böll, son and representative of the heirs of Heinrich Böll about the consequences for the estate.

boell.de: Böll scholars have been able to draw on a rich trove of well-preserved sources – first and foremost of course the typescripts, including the notes Heinrich Böll took while writing his novels. Then there are the letters – collected over decades – as well as children’s drawings, a comprehensive collection of newspaper clippings, photos, documents, etc. This is of course a stroke of luck for anyone working on Böll’s oeuvre. Does this reflect a particular philosophy?

RENÉ BÖLL: There wasn’t really any particular philosophy, it's more a question of diverse motives that came together. First, simply the question after a work was finished: What should I throw away, what should I keep? Naturally artists deal with their work in the most diverse ways: Some destroy all sketches and drafts and other preliminary stages of their work, others keep some or most. And for yet another, it is all so connected to his own biography, also to his family, his circle of friends, that for this reason alone everything that came out of the working process seems like something worth saving, something worth remembering. That's why in our family many things were kept; including small, completely nondescript objects such as for example a rusty nail, specially formed stones, a lifeboat propeller from a German submarine that had rusted on the coast of Ireland, and many other things that we found as children on the beach in Ireland when we first stayed on Achill Island in the 1950s. Each one of these "finds” has a small story. And for my father, these found objects carried, in a sense, traces – when he saw them, these stories were rekindled. This certainly is connected to the fact that in general he very much lived and worked through his eyes, through seeing; he often uses very visual language and also had an incredible visual memory. Naturally there are also more tangible reasons for some of the collections. The news-paper cuttings for example we collected, or rather commissioned a press-clipping service, in order to be able to control where which text, which short story, had been published – often of course without first obtaining printing permission. All things considered, it wasn’t only about being an archivist of his self. Either there were practical reasons, as in the case of the newspaper cuttings, or it was about preserving his life history for us as a family in the traces left by objects. That's why my father also kept, or archived so to speak, numerous drawings that we made as children.

Among the privately owned unpublished works recently bequeathed to the Historical Archive of Cologne to fill in the gaps in their collection were, among others, the "Letters from the war" published only in parts in 2001; as well as all early texts from the 1930s, the so-called early works, some of which were published in the first volume of the Cologne Edition. Was there further material still completely unknown to Böll schol-ars? What else was donated?

RENÉ BÖLL: The war letters and the early works, among them many poems, make up the core of the estate that we recently donated. I still hope that something can be salvaged from the ruins; if not, then all material that was not published in the collections you mentioned is irretrievably lost. Also part of the donation were various documents of all kinds that we had not yet completely finished cataloguing: Publishing house documents for example, all contracts that my father signed with publishers after 1949, mostly with Middelhauve Verlag and Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, including the concomitant correspondence. My mother’s translation contracts were also among these documents as well as individual license agreements granting rights of use. Further documents include his upper secondary school (Abitur) diploma; documents from during the war, for example home leave certificates or his pay book as well as wartime maps. Many other things are among the documents: Office calendars that my father started using in the 1970s to take notes of incoming phone calls; travel documents from trips to Israel, the USA, and other places; also business records – all kinds of written documents that create in their way the traces of a life, as we were just talking about. Altogether there were 22 cartons, filled to the brim. Among them was also a voluminous collection of around 2,000 photographs – a collection that reached back to the 19th century and also contained family photos from before the birth of my father. My mother had written the names on many of these photos, as I was unable to identify some of the people in them. And of course also photographs from our time in Ireland in 1955 and 1956. What is more, the collection was not made up solely of family photos, but also black-and-white prints that famous photographers such as Josef Darchinger had printed themselves. Not only that, the bequeathal also included the majority of the original diagrams my father made for his novels – colored tables that he used while he was writing a novel to keep track of the narrative structure.

What was the decisive reason for bequeathing this portion of the estate to the city of Cologne – private and family material which the heirs had held on to in some cases for decades?

RENÉ BÖLL: One critical aspect was that the Historical Archive seemed to us to be the most secure storage site, if only in terms of conservation. The paper used for example for the early works was of course not very good. In the long term, conservation measures would be necessary to preserve the texts; thousands of pages needed to be deacidified in order to conserve them long-term – a treatment that far exceeded the abilities of the heirs. A further reason was keeping the estate together in one place. This required merging the material with that already donated in 1984 in order to provide the basis for an evaluation of life and work that was as complete and as well-rounded as possible.

What personal memorabilia does the family still possess that was not part of the col-lection bequeathed to the Historical Archive? And which personal experiences do you associate with the material?

RENÉ BÖLL: We kept very little: a few texts from his early works, some war letters as well as some of the novel diagrams – altogether no more than fits in one binder. What led us to keep these pieces was the need to keep something within the family, things that we are of course very personally connected to in places. Much of the work that exists as text was lived history to us. As an example I'd like to mention Prague 1968; the suppression of the Prague Spring, which I lived through personally. My father reported on it and this report was published in Spiegel under the headline “The tanks were aimed at Kafka,” illustrated by photos I had taken during the events. Well hidden in the text are hints at how we experienced these events together as a family, at the worries my parents had when I went to Prague alone - I was 20 years old at the time. You see there are many personal things that make these texts so important and led us to keep a very small portion of them within the family. We wanted to preserve the estate for our descendents, our children and our children's children and their families and it was to be kept in one place. Now they will no longer have a tangible sign of a very large part of their predecessors’ history. This makes us very sad.

After the Cologne Edition is finished in 2010, there is still an important question: What prospects remain for Böll researchers? In face of the dreadful loss of material caused by the collapse of the Historical Archive do you still see still see possibilities for the advancement of research on Heinrich Böll’s oeuvre – for example a way of continuing the newly begun discourse on aesthetic questions?

RENÉ BÖLL: As I already mentioned, we were not able to include all the early works in the Cologne Edition, partly because of the size of the volume, but also because the texts were in part too fragmentary. Most certainly these still unedited works are among those materials that would have been of the greatest interest for whoever undertakes the biography that has yet to be written – one based on a true interpretation of the sources – to be able to see these works in the original. This is a great loss and we lament it. But I do see possibilities. Many documents were included in the annexes of the Cologne Edition; early versions of novels for example. The edition of Gruppenbild mit Dame (Group Portrait with Lady) for example also includes the novel’s diagram. Furthermore, the Heinrich Böll Foundation is planning a volume on the novel diagrams, thus presenting further material and at least saving reproductions of perhaps irretrievably lost originals.

What can you say about how the city of Cologne is dealing with the incident? Have city representatives contacted you?

RENÉ BÖLL: No. In my opinion – and in the opinion of all those who have donated estates with whom I was able to speak, we are in the process of organizing ourselves – not only must it be clarified completely exactly who is responsible, but someone must also shoulder accountability and there must be consequences. The city of Cologne, by accepting the material, also accepted the contractual obligation to store the material carefully, restore it if necessary, and to make it available to us for evaluation at all times. The city of Cologne must accept responsibility! We and many other contemporary estate donors have suffered a loss that cannot be quantified in monetary terms. This material was supposed to be available to our descendants. To date, no one is in sight who feels they are accountable, responsibility is shunted from one person to the other. It is becoming clearer and cleared that deliberate sloppiness, igno-rance and of course also financial reasons lay behind the decision for a subway tunnel "solution" that was not the safest. The catastrophe was preceded by multiple warning signs; first a church belfry that almost collapsed only a few hundred meters from the building the Historical Archive was housed in, then repeated cracks in the walls and a noticeable sinking of the building. Abiding by that idiotic Cologne idiom »Et is noch immer jot jejange« (everything went well so far), these precursors were simply ignored. For this as well, someone must assume political responsibility!
Historic documents from earlier centuries are invaluable. It is impossible to make an item for item list that reflects the richness of these records: Documents on Cologne's history as the most important hanseatic city are in danger of being lost; as well as for example many estates that have not yet been preserved on film or another medium, such as those of Hans Bender, Hans Mayer, or also Dieter Wellershoff; or the photography collection and documents belonging to L. Fritz Gruber, founder of the Cologne Photokina, to name only a very few.

To preserve the cultural memory of the city of Cologne for posterity, scholars have founded a "Digital History Archive." What do you think of this initiative?

RENÉ BÖLL: The “aura” of an original document can not be replaced by even the best reproduction. But it goes without saying that everything that can be saved, must be saved. I, however, would allow the Historical Archive to decide how it wants to deal with the reproductions and not immediately place them on the internet. The internet is not a copyright-free zone – this is also currently being debated. I for my part would not publish reproductions on the internet.

The Cologne city library plans to exhibit Heinrich Böll’s office in their space. Would this make the city library the only place you could see objects belonging to Böll?

RENÉ BÖLL: Yes, I assume so, but we still have to wait whether perhaps some things still can be salvaged from the ruins of the Historical Archives and thus be saved.

This interview was conducted by Jochen Schubert and Markus Schäfer, Heinrich Böll Archive, Cologne. Translation: Laura Radosh.