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Rizal in Wilhelmsfeld

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Looking Back

Rizal in Wilhelmsfeld

/ 12:28 AM February 15, 2017

In the spring of 1886 Jose Rizal was in the ancient university town of Heidelberg (the oldest university in Germany, having been founded in 1386) to update himself with ophthalmology as practiced in the Augenklinik (eye clinic) under Dr. Otto Becker. As a graduate in medicine from Spain with a license to practice (also from Spain), he was allowed to attend lectures and observe medical procedures even though he was not officially enrolled in Heidelberg University.

Then as now, rental in hotel rooms and even student boarding houses in Heidelberg were expensive compared to lodging outside the university town. So Rizal began a correspondence with Karl Ullmer, a Protestant pastor in the small town of Wilhelmsfeld, who found a boarding house for him. Rizal thanked the pastor for his referral, but asked if there was an extra room in the latter’s house because he was serious about learning “correct” German rather than the dialect spoken in Wilhelmsfeld. Ullmer invited Rizal into his home and he became part of the pastor’s family, loved by everyone, including the pet dog Barle who followed him around town. In Germany, Rizal was often mistaken for a Chinese and could not but be thankful for Ullmer’s hospitality inspite of his “brown skin.”

Often overlooked in Luneta or Rizal Park is a small stone fountain from which Rizal supposedly took sips of fresh spring water. This was sent to Manila as a gift from the town of Wilhelmsfeld in 1961, the centenary of Rizal’s birth. A statue of Rizal now stands close to the pastor’s house where Rizal stayed, and one of the Wilhelmsfeld streets is called “Rizalstrasse.” The town even sells a special edition of their local white wine with Rizal’s face on the label. In this obscure German town, Rizal planted a seed of friendship that remains to this day.

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Historical documentation for Rizal’s stay in Wilhelmsfeld consists of a rare autographed first edition of the “Noli me tangere,” some original letters of Rizal to Pastor Ullmer, some press clippings from German newspapers that carried a notice of Rizal’s execution in Bagumbayan on Dec. 30, 1896, and a handful of delightful drawings that reveal a human side of the hero we often fail to see because he has been fossilized in bronze and marble monuments.

One drawing depicts a farting man, obviously drawn to amuse the Ullmer family, another is in komiks form that led to Rizal being acknowledged as the “Father of Philippine Komiks.” This charming watercolor shows two naughty boys who had stolen apples from an orchard and, as they make their merry escape, have to jump across a stream. One boy made it to the opposite bank, while the unlucky one fell head-first into the cold water. Rizal was inspired by the German children’s book characters Max and Moritz, and what appears to us a funny drawing was Rizal practicing the German language he was learning under the instruction of Pastor Ullmer. To exhibit his proficiency, Rizal translated, from original German, Schiller’s play Wilhelm Tell into Tagalog, “Guillermo Tell”—and five other tales by Hans Christian Andersen.

Hans and Fritz Hack, Ullmer’s grandsons, visited Manila in 1961 and, on that trip, donated to the government and people of the Philippines, through the Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission, the so-called Ullmer collection that is now kept in the vault of the National Library.

One would presume that we had seen the last word on the Ullmers in 1961, but a few years ago when the Hack brothers—one a retired lawyer, the other a retired medical doctor—were arranging the affairs of a deceased uncle, they found in his papers a small notebook or sketchbook filled with drawings by Pastor Karl Ullmer. These depict many of the scenes and landscapes of Wilhelmsfeld and environs that Rizal himself saw. In this notebook are two original drawings by Rizal—portraits of Pastor Ullmer and his wife.

Hans Hack has brought the notebook to Manila where it will be put on the auction block at Leon Gallery this coming Saturday. It is a piece of our shared history that has made its way back to the Philippines, and it is hoped it will be acquired by someone who will share this find with the public. One can only wonder what other rare Rizaliana will come to light in the near future.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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TAGS: Commentary, Jose Rizal, news, opinion, Wilhelmsfeld
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