Skip to main content

Finding Reiner #3: Inside Old Shadows

My “Finding Reiner” blog continues to be a challenge in crossing historical time zones. Reiner’s old letters describe his school and neighborhood, and I search 1940s maps and the Internet to find my route to his past. If I had architectural training, as Reiner did, I might comprehend just how much of ancient Cologne——founded in the 1st century AD——was lost to WWII bombings. From what I can tell through old photos (see link below), Reiner might not have recognized his city had he come back to it after the war in 1945.


Cologne is barely an hour on the ICE train from the Frankfurt airport station’s track 6. I booked all our train travel in advance through (link below), so my husband, Hans, and I hop on board, relax in our reserved seats, and jump off at Cologne’s busy Hauptbahnhof (HBF) station. The hour is enough time to orient myself and draw the walking route from our hotel to Reiner’s apartment.


The walk takes us thirty minutes on foot through Cologne’s industrial Neustadt-Sud section, along Luxemburgerstrasse into the Stadteil SÜlz. Reiner’s Klettenberg district is now a pretty, residential area with handsome apartment buildings and sculpted parks. We stop at the corner "Eckstein" bar on Siebengebirgsallee for a quick coffee before walking the last stretch to Reiner’s wartime home. I take comfort in this neighborhood "kneipe" where we collect our thoughts and rest our feet.


Eckstein Bar



Eckstein bar interior

Then, without much conversation, we pay the barman and leave. Three minutes later, we round the bend in the street and see the apartment, now painted green, from a distance. Seventy years have passed since someone took the photo of the family apartment, but I recognize the building immediately. So much and so little has changed.


Hans at Klettenberggürtel

 Klettenberg15 copy

Standing outside Reiner's old home, I'm overwhelmed with hazy images from family photograph albums: Reiner with his artist father, Alfons, in their library; the family sitting along the Rhine riverbank; Reiner's parents alone during the war; Reiner’s mother, Lotte, at the piano; and the family’s last meal all together in November 1942.


Reiner&Alfons copy


Reiner's family Rhine riverbank

Lotte & Alfons AloneLotte at Piano

 Reiner's Family 1942

Before I go inside, I notice the stolperstein at the next entryway. And, I wonder if Alfons and Lotte looked out their top-floor window and witnessed Nazi officers tearing the Lazarus family from their home in 1941 before sending them to certain death in German-occupied Riga, Latvia. Cologne has many such stolperstein, or “stumbling blocks,” to memorialize victims of Nazi insanity. The artist, Gunter Denmig, has dedicated himself to this project, which was detailed in a 2007 Smithsonian article that you can read here:


Reiner's top floor apartmentLazarus Stolperstein

Inside Reiner’s apartment building, I rub my hands on the banister and imagine Reiner doing the same on his many trips up and down the stairs in the ten years (1934 – 1944) that he called KlettenberggÜrtel home. I look out the staircase window and wonder too if Reiner's family ever sat in the pretty courtyard below. In 1944, the building was bombed and left uninhabitable, but now I hear voices of mothers and babies from the hallway. I wish my mother-in-law, LÜtte, could be with me on this trip. She’d gather up those babies in her lap and smile at the continuation of life.


 Reiner's staircaseView from Klettenberg window


During the decade that Reiner’s family of six lived here, they struggled to survive on Alfons’s teacher salary. Alfons had previously taught at a prestigious art institute in Kassel, but after the Nazi government closed the school, he was forced to take a job teaching basic drawing to high school students. In his free time, he illustrated architectural guides to Germany’s regions, and this work somewhat satisfied his intellectual and artistic passions that he restrained during the Nazi regime.


At least Alfons had a job during the war, though, and wasn’t put into a Gestapo prison for his anti-Nazi sentiments. City officials did show up at his doorstep once and demanded that he go with them for a “discussion” with the local Gauleiter, Nazi Party leader. Somehow Alfons talked his way out of leaving with the men, and perhaps out of grim internment. He also managed to keep hidden his outlawed, shortwave radio that he and LÜtte used to listen to BBC news. From that day forward, Lotte was a nervous wreck, constantly fearing that the Gestapo would return for her husband. One trip to Cologne’s El-De Haus, the former Gestapo headquarters, shows me how lucky Alfons was to have escaped detention there. This museum is a must-see for Cologne visitors.


After visiting KlettenbergÜrtel, I find Reiner’s school, Hansa Gymnasium, on Cologne’s Hansaring. This beautiful building was bombed as well, but it now bounces with life. The administration grants me permission to tour the school, but the students are not in session when I go. An English teacher tells me that some of the kids have made a field trip to Auschwitz and returned to mount an exhibit in the school’s basement. They make good use of the basement shadows to illustrate Nazi cruelty. I am comforted to know that young Germans learn the details of their country’s history and share the depth of their reactions through homework assignments.


köln_neustadt_nord_hansagymnasium_im_ursprungszustand_denkmal_denkmalpflege_konservator_stadt_6750267473_600x450xcrHansa GymnasiumInside Hansa GymnasiumHansa Gymnasium Hallway


After a long day of traipsing through Cologne's sadder history, Hans and I decide we need a break for a glass of German Riesling in Cologne's hip Belgian Quarter, to listen to Sunday choral music at the Dom, and perhaps to buy a bite of Niederegger marzipan at the chocolate museum.


I'll be back to "Finding Reiner" next Sunday, but in the meantime, I'll relish the knowledge that the war is long over and that we can now sit at a German cafe and watch the World Cup game of the USA vs. Germany without losing our heads.





To follow the other parts of this series, click HERE


(Unless otherwise noted, all photos belong to the author)



The North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA)  announced Whitney Stewart won BRONZE place in the 2014 NATJA Awards Competition in the Travel Series - Online category for Finding Reiner.


Images (21)
  • Eckstein Corner Bar: Eckstein Corner Bar
  • Eckstein bar interior: Eckstein bar interior
  • Klettenberggürtel 1940s: Klettenberggürtel apartment before bombings
  • Lotte at Piano: Lotte at Piano 1940s
  • Reiner& Alfons in Library: Reiner& Alfons in Library
  • Klettenberggürtel Apartment 2014: Klettenberggürtel Apartment 2014
  • Hans at Klettengerggürtel Streetsign: Hans at Klettengerggürtel Streetsign
  • Hans at Klettenberggürtel: Hans at Klettenberggürtel
  • Reiner's Klettenberg staircase: Reiner's Klettenberg staircase
  • Reiner's top floor apartment: Reiner's top floor apartment
  • Lotte & Alfons Alone: Lotte & Alfons Alone
  • Lazarus Stolperstein: Lazarus Stolperstein
  • Garden view from Klettenberg window: Garden view from Klettenberg window
  • köln_neustadt_nord_hansagymnasium_im_ursprungszustand_denkmal_denkmalpflege_konservator_stadt_6750267473_600x450xcr: Hansagymnasium before WWII
  • Hansa Gymnasium 2014: Hansa Gymnasium 2014
  • Hansa Gymnasium Hallway: Hansa Gymnasium Hallway
  • Reiner's family Rhine riverbank: Reiner's family Rhine riverbank
  • Inside Hansa Gymnasium: Inside Hansa Gymnasium
  • Reiner's Family 1942: Reiner's Family 1942
  • World Cup on Tv: Watching World Cup in Cologne
  • 2014Seal_Bronze

Add Comment

Comments (6)

Newest · Oldest · Popular

This makes a fascinating read, well done! My father-in-law Hans Esser was from Cologne (had sung as part of the choir in Cologne cathedral) and served on submarines (unwillingly) during the 2nd W.W. war. Their sub was attacked several times and finally they were forced to surrender. He was taken prisoner and interned in England. The prisoners then helped on the local farms which was where he met his future wife Vera.


They married just after the end of the war and had the difficult privilege of being the first English /German couple to marry after the conflict and the marriage continued right until they left us in the 1990's.


I also went to work for a period for a very large factory based in Cologne and greatly enjoyed this beautiful city many times during the 1980's. During this time one could find a range of postcards for sale which depicted the utter devastation of the city following the sustained allied bombing raids. Amongst the ruins in the photos it is quite astonishing to see that the great cathedral remained relatively intact! Echoing, surprisingly, the survival of the magnificent St. Paul's cathedral in London when all the areas around were utterly destroyed.... Makes you think someone up there cares.....


One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things."  Henry Miller

Mac-TG Guru--Fascinating story, yours. Your parents' romance reminds me of such fictional stories in the British series Foyle's War. Have you seen that? The show highlights romance between German POWs and English farm girls. I would love to know more of your father's history. I also wish I could interview your father or find other elderly residents who remember life here during the war. So much better when it comes from a resident than from a historian who was not here then.


How long were you living here? I'd love to find more interesting corners of the city, if we have time. I'm thinking of coming back here for a month to improve my German too.


I bought some of those postcards when I was last here. The devastation in the city center was astounding.


Thank you for the continuing story, and especially to the link for the Stolpersteine. It is so important (I keep saying this!) for us to remember the people more than the "leaders," and not allow them to become mere numbers.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

Whitney  your story about Reiner and retracing his steps gets people thinking about their own life and family too, so beyond being fascinating history, it's very relevant to us all.25 years ago this summer I went through an incredible ordeal in Europe. Your journey  for Reiner has me thinking  back to that time  and has me thinking of retracing some steps too.Keep it up and thank you!

If you want a thing done, ask a busy man.

Link copied to your clipboard.