Sorting out Cologne’s past

There’s only thin air where the memories of an entire city once dwelt.

The diaries of a 16th century burgher who duly recorded the medications he was on as well as the state of his marriage.

The monastic charters from 1,000 years ago, priceless illustrated manuscripts from the Middle Ages and old report cards from the last century.

The minutes of city council meetings that, with German meticulousness, officials had collected every year since 1396.


It was as if Cologne, a city planted on the banks of the Rhine since the days of ancient Rome, had suddenly had its hard drive erased. Or so it felt when the municipal archive building collapsed with almost no warning March 3, burying in an instant thousands of irreplaceable documents -- a treasure-trove of history accumulated over centuries -- under heaps of rubble.

Miraculously, no one who worked in the six-story building was hurt, although two young men in an adjacent structure were killed when it too came crashing down. The cause of the cave-ins has not been determined; authorities suspect subway tunneling may have been a major factor.

Two months later, Bettina Schmidt-Czaia’s voice still catches when she recounts how, after scrambling to get out in time, she watched the archive’s upper floors lurch and give way with a deafening roar, tumbling to the ground in a cloud of dust and smoke.

“You couldn’t see anything anymore. It was very loud,” recalled Schmidt-Czaia, the archive’s director. “I cried. I understood at that moment what happened.”


Some of her traumatized colleagues have found themselves unable to return to work, and not only because their former offices no longer exist. But for the rest, the focus now is on rescuing as much of the archive as possible, to piece together once again the collective memory of Cologne and much of the Rhineland region.

Since the disaster, firefighters, archivists and hundreds of volunteers have been working almost nonstop on what has become, in effect, a massive archaeological dig. Every fragment unearthed, every page recovered, every book scooped from the debris is a victory against the enemies of time, mold and historical oblivion.

The archive’s cultural value is incalculable. The building housed 65,000 original documents, more than 100,000 maps and half a million photographs, stored on nearly 20 miles of shelf space.

“It’s a very dense collection of papers and documents from the Middle Ages to the present,” said Andreas Freitaeger, an archivist at the University of Cologne. “That was the special worth of the Cologne archives.”


In particular, the collection was a medievalist’s dream, with records dating to AD 922. Together, they paint a fascinating portrait of Cologne in the Middle Ages, when it was the biggest, most sophisticated German city north of the Alps, whose influence in matters of administration, culture and trade extended far beyond its borders.

In the files was the 1180 edict, signed by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and with his personal seal still dangling from it, granting Cologne’s citizens the right to build a city wall. (That document has been recovered.) There were business contracts from the 15th century, drawn up on parchment in elegant calligraphy.

For those with more modern interests, the archive held the papers of West Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, a native of Cologne; writings by the composer Jacques Offenbach; and residents’ assessments of damage from World War II.

Only a few weeks before the building collapsed, the archive proudly took possession of hundreds of boxes of papers belonging to Nobel Prize-winning German author Heinrich Boell, another Cologne native, who wrote “Group Portrait With Lady,” “The Clown” and other works. No one knows how many of those items have survived.


For Schmidt-Czaia, picking which of the archives was most valuable is impossible, “like a mother with her children.” And, she added, who is she to decide what posterity will deem important?

She has been buoyed by the outpouring of support from the nearly 1,000 volunteers who have pitched in on the search-and-rescue effort. The local fire chief has also given the operation high priority, if only because he used to like combing through the archives for information on Cologne’s 19th century firefighting history, Schmidt-Czaia said.

About 15 miles of shelving have been pulled from the rubble. But the condition of the excavated material has varied from unscathed to torn to bits. Each item must be trucked to a recovery center a few miles away and, if necessary, freeze-dried to prevent mold, the biggest threat to preservation.

The records that managed to remain intact have been dispersed to other facilities for safekeeping. In the bowels of the archive building of the archdiocese of Cologne, thousands of recovered documents lie unceremoniously stacked in recycling dumpsters.


“For us, it’s horrible to see such records in rubbish bins,” said Joachim Oepen, an official at the archdiocese’s collection, as he fingered a piece of parchment from 1448.

With everything mixed up and fragments scattered about, sorting through and recataloging everything will be a herculean task that will take years.

In the meantime, doctoral theses will have to be postponed and books left unwritten, further subtracting from the world’s store of knowledge.

“I have a colleague who thought about writing a dissertation. Well, he isn’t sure what to do now,” archivist Freitaeger said. “The files he intended to use, if they are rescued, they’ll be stored [away], and if they’re destroyed, they can’t be used.”


Ironically, when it opened in 1971, the archive was hailed as a model of its kind, boasting defenses against fire and even nuclear attack, with a small bunker in the basement. No one foresaw the ground being pulled out from under it.

Four weeks after the collapse, police raided and seized documents from offices across Germany belonging to companies involved in the construction of the subway beneath Cologne. But no one has been formally blamed for the disaster.

“I’m not the police. I’m not the judge,” Schmidt-Czaia said. “But I want to know who is responsible -- for us all, for the city.”