TThe day after the Brexit referendum, playwright Pamela Carter wrote to her German publishers, Suerkamp, to apologize. “I felt the need to say sorry to a European for the terrible mistake,” she said.
After two weeks in a Dundee hotel, still in bewilderment, I came across it Guardian reading long ago I had written, recalling the events of April 1936, when a group of London schoolchildren set out from a youth hostel in Freiburg, southern Germany, for a walk in the Black Forest. They were led by their charismatic teacher, who ignored many warnings and made a series of fatal decisions that resulted in five of them losing their lives.
“It was just a great story and it just felt so appropriate at the time,” she recalls. Surprised by the parallels between the events of 1936 and the present — “where a populist idiot also led us down different slopes,” she says with a forced smile — she began channeling her thoughts and frustrations about Brexit to write a play about the “Black Forest tragedy.”
The resulting work has now culminated in Schauinsland: The Misfortune of the English, which premiered at the Freiburg Theater this year. Carter’s text, a polyphony of boys’ voices, is combined with instrumental and vocal parts – Elgar Meets Talking Heads – by Kommando Himmelfahrt collective theater. The curvy boys, “skinny chests stretching out with a good figure, snot pecking in their noses,” hopefully meander through the woods like cardboard cutouts in dreamlike dioramas resembling the Brothers Grimm pop-up book. They sing songs of that period, such as Isn’t it a Lovely Day, and their school hymn, as well as eulogy for their young mentor, Kenneth Kist.
“Keattie,” as local historian Bernd Henmüller discovered during 20 years of exhaustive research into the Black Forest tragedy, ignored repeated warnings from locals in the foothills of Schwensland that the group should cancel its hike due to bad winter weather. The locals were shocked by the inadequacy of their fittings, wearing shorts and boots, each carrying a few rolls of butter; Keast had a 1:100,000 scale map, not detailed enough to show the dynamic terrain, and scant knowledge of how to use a compass.
About 12 hours after setting off, four of the boys – Frances Bordelon, Peter Elrkamp, Stanley Lyons and Jack Eaton, all between the ages of 11 and 15 – fell and died of exhaustion and heart failure. A fifth, Roy Withham, 14, died in hospital the next morning.
In his review of the play, the theater critic of the local Freiburg newspaper gave a blunt assessment that the “authoritarian nationalist thinking of the British teacher” – who refused to allow his pupils to return or seek help out of a sense of national pride and male chauvinism – “was not far from National Socialism”.
Henmüller had first contacted me in 2015, asking for help to fill in some gaps in the story. Months of archival research and correspondence yielded the article, which launched a new wave of correspondence between Heinmueller and families of victims and survivors, excited to share their story and eager to learn more, from as far away as Australia. It even inspired a graphic novel.
After enjoying a drink after the premiere of Shawensland, Hainmüller referred to the disaster in no uncertain terms:[It was] It is nothing less than a hideous mixture of reckless recklessness, inadequate equipment, lack of local knowledge, misguided educational methods and ambition.” His investigative book, death in shawensland (Death on Schauinsland), it also appeared this year and formed the basis for the production.
Henmüller’s painstaking reconstruction of the story, which reads like a thriller and screams for an English translation, includes everything from diary accounts, postcards, newspaper coverage of the time, and correspondence between the Foreign Office and the local British Consulate, Robert Smallbones. Recently, Heinmueller revealed the tacit agreement reached between the British and German governments to ban Keast, the teacher, from making any further trips abroad, even after his local education authority had more or less cleared him.
Carter drew on sources after contacting Heinmüller as he traveled to Freiburg in the summer of 2017, retrace the footsteps of schoolchildren and met locals who risked their lives to save survivors and rescue bodies, without whom there are undoubtedly many dead bodies. 27 strong people would have died.
The theatrical production punctuates the chimes of bells, echoing those that rang out from the church in the village of Hofsgrund and directed the surviving boys toward safety.
But it was Hitler’s youth, not the villagers, who got credit for the rescue attempt, after the Nazis – who had been in power at the time for three years – realized the propaganda potential of the disaster at a time when the German Empire was trying to present itself to it. The world as a country is good. It was an occasion for Britain at the time – with its conciliatory policy towards the Nazis in the hope of avoiding war – to go along with the propaganda. And that was the version that stuck around for decades.
Among those in attendance on Saturday were a handful of villagers, including Hanspeter Reis and Fridolin Guttmann, whose grandparents and great-grandfathers were involved in the rescue. They participate in the annual clean spring of the flowery monument, the so-called English monument The Monument to the Englishmen was erected by the Nazis shortly after the tragedy.
“We are proud to see this on stage, especially after decades in which the role of Hofgrandders was effectively eliminated from history,” says Reese. But we still say on behalf of our relatives [that] They were only doing what they felt necessary to do.” In Hofsgrund, events continue to stand up to the folly of not paying attention to weather warnings from locals who know best.
Henmüller was influenced by the portrayal of the tragedy, and says it may be time to let the story go. But he admits he would never do that. There are still documents relating to the case in the archives of the British Foreign Office that have not yet been seen. And he remains intrigued by some questions, such as why so few survivors have spoken out about their ordeal. Were they silenced or torn apart by guilt?
The play is told from the point of view of London schoolchildren, their minds, Carter says, “immersed in the ideology of empire and World War I, and infused with a strong and unquestioned sense of national identity and loyalty.” There is respectable poetic sentiment in their voices, not least because three years after the tragedy, most of them will be old enough to be called up to fight against the Germans.
While I was talking to Hainmüller, he looked out from the theater courtyard at a fountain indicating where Freiburg’s main synagogue had stood before it was destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938. “You can’t undo what happened,” he said. But a careful re-evaluation of the past makes a lot of sense. It can also help set the tone for the future.”