Thursday, March 29, 2007


My thanks are due, posthumously, to my long-dead grandmother, Sophie Goldschmidt. When I was a teenager she told me a story that seemed to me highly improbable. Her uncle Ludwig - she said - had been assassinated in far-away Japan by a warrior who had dreamt that this uncle would murder his emperor.

Many years later, after the death of my own mother, I found a lacquered box full of family papers which proved that although grandmother’s tale had indeed been garbled, there were real events at the base of it. There was a yellowing cutting, undated and unsourced, from a German-language newspaper with a moving obituary for Ludwig Haber, acting German consul, murdered at Hakodate in Japan in 1874. But what made me sit up was that this obit referred to a series of articles Haber had contributed to the Oderblatt about his travels. It was this that started me off.

I knew the Haber family came from Silesia. Silesia had been part of Germany but in 1945 it became part of Poland and the German population and their language were driven out. I appealed to a Polish friend – Dr. Rafal Witkowski of Poznan University: had the archives of a journal, apparently published somewhere on the banks of the river Oder, survived?

The devastation of Silesia as the Nazis continued their resistance against the Soviet advance made this unlikely. But within a few days Dr. Witkowski had established that some of the archives of an Oderblatt published in the provincial town of Brieg had indeed survived and were stored in the old University Library at Wroclaw. In my youth Wroclaw had been Breslau. I was born there myself and lived there until the age of twelve. The survival of these archives is indeed remarkable: The fine classical library building on an island in the Oder river had been commandeered by Wehrmacht generals for their headquarters in the hopeless defence of Breslau. They fought on even several days after the death of Hitler. Influential citizens who pleaded for an end to this pointless battle were shot for defeatism. A large part of the library building was destroyed by shellfire.

I travelled to Wroclaw/Breslau. Mr W. Sobocinski, in charge of the Zbiory Specjalne of the library consulted his card index and said they did indeed have archives of a Brieg paper but it was called Brieger Nachrichten. A young assistant was sent to the cellars. She came back with several bound volumes of the Oderblatt! This did have a regular feature headed Brieger Nachrichten. Whoever had compiled the index must have mistaken this for the name of the paper. To my delight I found dozens of travel articles which Ludwig had contributed between 1871 and 1872.

But Dr. Witkowski did far more for this project: he said he was friendly with a Polish-speaking Japanese academic who had worked on 19th century industrialisation at Poznan university. He would consult him: had he ever heard of Ludwig Haber? Within a few days I had an e-mail from Professor Jin Matsuka of Otaru University of Commerce. The story of the murder of Ludwig Haber – he reported - was far from forgotten in Japan. Before long photocopies and e-mails poured in: one or two in English, a few in German but the great bulk of them in Japanese. Finding a translator took time. Ms. Maya Nakamura of SOAS translated several items but did not have time to tackle the rest. It was time-consuming work since many of the documents were in archaic script and archaic language. Nor was I happy to pay at commercial rates. Eventually a friend of friends, Mrs. Christine Roe, introduced me (by e-mail) to Prof. Takao Saijo of Konan University at Kyoto who volunteered to undertake the task… as a labour of love.
This study is thus a collaborative effort. Without these helpers – Rafal Witkowski, Takao Saijo and Jin Matsuka – it would not have been possible to rescue Ludwig Haber from oblivion, 130 years after his death.

In addition I owe a debt of gratitude to a number of archivists and librarians: Dr. Maria Keipert of the German Foreign Office archives, the Central Archives of the History of the Jewish People, Jerusalem, the Frankfurt Jewish Community archives, the archives of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg; and Mr. T. Fukuda of the Japanese-German Association of Hakodate. Finally there was my friend Victor Price. When the style of 19th century German official documents defeated me, he undertook the task of translating von Brandt’s recommendation for Haber’s consulship. Price said he found it difficult to reproduce the degree of obsequiousness without actually becoming ridiculous!

To understand this assassination it had to be seen in the context of 19th century Japanese history. Japanese culture and history were matters of which I knew very little when I started on this project. A few months of reading are not enough to make up for a lifetime of ignorance. I apologise for any errors.

Prof. Saijo's translations are available on:

1 comment:

murat said...

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