Missing Links

24 Dec


As promised in my last blog about the publication of my book, Three German Women: Personal Histories of the Twentieth Century, I want to include here an addendum of all those materials I received after the manuscript had been sent to the publishers. It always happens: no matter how long you wait, no matter how many pleas you send out to archivists and individuals, you will never get all your eggs in one literary basket before the publication deadline.

In this case, I finally received some photographs relating to Irmgard Rexroth-Kern’s life from her son Vincent Rexroth, literally the day after I had sent off the manuscript after the final proof reading. I was able to get one of the best images into the book, a shot of Irmgard in 1975–as she looked when I knew her–-by flipping two photos so it did not affect the formatting.

The other photos Herr Rexroth sent were not able to enter the manuscript, so I highlight them here. The first one is that lovely one at the beginning of this text, showing Irmgard’s mother Elisabeth Kleine as she appeared in the year she married Irmgard’s father, Guido Joseph Kern. Elisabeth died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, so this photo is particularly poignant. Irmgard was only 11 when she died, and her loss affected the little girl that she was for the rest of her life.

Guido Joseph Kern, 1947

As so often happens when writing biographical studies, these late arrivals can add to, or–as happened with the last photo Herr Rexroth sent–revise the story presented in the book’s text. As details about the Kerns’ life in Berlin made clear, Irmgard and her father had a serious rift at the time she married H.G. Rexroth, in 1936. Given her father’s activities in the 1930s involving Nazi collaboration and finding no evidence that she and he had any contact after that time, I assumed their break was permanent. Herr Rexroth found this photo sent to Irmgard and her son in 1947, at which time, according to Herr Rexroth, he apparently visited them in Frankfurt. That he was still in touch with his daughter after the war (he died in 1953) means that her many years of financial struggle and estrangement from her family, even after her husband was killed on the front in 1944, could have been caused by her own stubbornness and determination to be independent of unpleasant ties to the past.

Other latecoming documents related to Anna Spitzmüller’s work with the so-called “Monuments Men” at the end of World War II. Having limited luck digging deeply into the records at the National Archives for information about Spitzi’s work at the Central Collecting Point in Munich (where all the artworks, both plundered by the Nazis and stored by German museums, were brought by the Allies), I wrote to the Monuments Men Foundation’s archivist. While I had been able to find the dates of her stay in Munich, I wanted to know if there were any specific references to Spitzi’s time there. I had written initially in early 2019; I finally received a response, with relevant letters, in July 2020–too late to revise substantially that chapter.

If nothing else, these genial letters substantiate that Fr. Dr. Spitzmüller was a vital presence at this time, when she went to Munich to sort the objects, the national treasures of Austria, that belonged to the Albertina. If I had received them earlier, I could have presented in the book a more detailed picture of Spitzi’s activities at the Collecting Point.

Since I had access via many family members to many details of Maria Steinberg’s life story, that chapter of the book seems to be fairly complete. If I wanted to dig deeper, I would love to see a transcript of her father’s memoirs, which the family does have, but they are still in handwritten Alte Schrift, waiting to be deciphered by better German scholars than I–and, in the end, more appropriate to be presented by other members of Maria’s family.

Finally, one more image that I wanted to include in the book: a newspaper clipping saved by Fr. Kern, showing her beloved Airedale meeting a rabbit at an Easter show in the Odenwald. I remember her dog Terry very well, when I knew her in Darmstadt. Somehow the image seemed a little too frivolous for an academic book, but it pleases me to remember her walking Terry, as she was when I first met her in 1974.

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