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Archive collapse

November 17, 2009

The damage done in the archive collapse wasn't all done to public property. Hundreds of locals had entrusted their own archives to the city. Some have now filed suit, accusing Cologne of neglecting its duty.

Cologne city archive collapse scene
Authorities have reckoned with huge lossesImage: AP

German theater director Franz-Josef Heumannskaemper and the US-born baritone William Pearson shared much: a passion for the stage, an avant-garde artistic bent, and for nearly two decades, a life together in Cologne.

Pearson, a singer internationally known for bringing lyricism and emotion to even the most difficult modern scores, died 14 years ago. But as his health declined, he sorted through his possessions - sheet music, letters, photos and rehearsal recordings. He catalogued them and left them with Heumannskaemper, whom he hoped would one day help put them to good use.

In 1998, the Cologne city archive took in Heumannskaemper's collection of Pearson's memorabilia, giving it what Heumannskaemper figured was a good home.

Exhibit in the works

Then, a breakthrough occurred.

archivist dusts off destroyed book
Restoring all of the damaged archives is expected to take yearsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"In January 2008, the University of Louisville called," said Heumannskaemper.

Pearson had studied at Louisville. Only months before he died, he had traveled to Kentucky to receive an award there. Now, they were asking if Heumannskaemper would be interested in putting together a retrospective on Pearson's life and work for 2010. There was talk, too, of compiling a documentary film.

Heumannskaemper said he was elated. Pearson had a barrier-breaking history, and he was proud that it was finally being recognized.

An African American raised in segregation-era Tennessee, Pearson came to Cologne on a Fulbright scholarship in 1957 following his studies in Louisville. He found success and felt at home in the progressive artistic mix in Cologne, and made the city his home for the next 38 years.

Huge losses

With this spring's collapse of the Cologne city archive, all that personal history was lost. Now, there will be no retrospective, no documentary.

It's this story, and those of two other plaintiffs, that led to a case before a court in Cologne on Tuesday. Elisabeth Dorothea von Wittgenstein lost five centuries worth of family artifacts, including documents linking her ancestors to the birth of Cologne's all-important carnival traditions.

Oliver and Mario Koenig, meanwhile, had donated the papers of their father Rene Koenig, who was among the leading sociologists of the second half of the 20th century.

Legal action

Heumannskämper approached the attorney Louis Peters about compensation from the city of Cologne when he learned that archive staff had known about the building's structural weaknesses for a long time - and had done little about it. His suit was made public, and Wittgenstein and the Koenigs joined the complaint.

rene koenig
Koenig held the chair of sociology at the University of Cologne for 25 yearsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The city of Cologne contends that it could not have prevented the building's collapse from happening.

But Peters said even if the collapse wasn't foreseen or preventable, the city's handling of the aftermath had been in clear breach of the agreements they made with donors of private archives.

"In the donor's contracts, they did not sign away their right to the materials," said Peters.

They were in fact guaranteed access to them at any time, Peters said. They were simply asking for their things to be collected and given back.

"The real catastrophe for my clients is that the city of Cologne, up to now, does not know if their materials still exist, what condition they might be in, or where they are, be it Bielefeld, Duisburg, Duesseldorf or Frankfurt," said Peters.

Rushed evacuation

Peters' allegations are justified. In Cologne's hurry to rescue the contents of the archives after the collapse, it sent unsorted large batches of materials to more than 20 other historical archives across Germany. Experts said it may take decades of sifting and restoring before volumes that can be saved can be identified and put in order.

destroyed book
Workers sifted through tons of rubble looking to salvage materialImage: AP

The suit that has been brought is essentially asking for that process to be put into high gear.

It asks, firstly, for the materials to be returned. If they are in poor condition, it asks for them to be restored by the end of 2010, and if they have been lost or destroyed, the plaintiffs wish to be compensated.

Heumannskaemper said he is not interested in money: He would just like to know if all those memories of Pearson still exist.

That hope is slim, though, he said.

"It is a thing with hope," Heumannskaemper said. "Until I see these things and can work with them, I will believe nothing. This is really what I found out in my life - don't hope too much."

Author: Matt Hermann
Editor: Sabina Casagrande