Ferdinand Blumentritt: An Austrian Life for the Philippines

Harry Sichrovsky (1983/87)

World History Made in Leitmeritz

As far back as October 1886, Jose Rizal wrote that he might want to stay one more year in Germany and Austria, in order to improve his German, because he has not yet been initiated into the intricacies of the different prefixes, the ver-, er- an- and others, which often seemed very strange to him. It was for this reason that in the next spring he would want to linger a few days in Leitmeritz, also to get to know the Bohemian life. He gave his thanks in advance, and assured that the hospitality offered him would be reciprocated in the Philippines. At this time, Rizal knew little yet about the family of his friend; he did not know that Blumentritt was married and that he sent only belatedly, greetings to the "esteemed wife".

In anxious anticipation of this first meeting, which - as he perceived correctly - would doubtless be decisive for both their paths of life in the future, Rizal defined in his still somewhat awkward German:
"It is sufficient to eat just once, in order to get a proof of the culinary art". In the meantime, his short and niggardly letter could even be likened to the meal of poor people; one began and ended the meal with potatos. Blumentritt offers to exchange pictures in the next letter. Rizal accepts this offer gladly because "up to now we are like two blind and deaf men; we talk to each other without seeing or hearing each other."

Meanwhile, Blumentritt keeps busy helping his friend further. Most of all, he opens to him the door to knowing some of the most illustrious scholars of his time in Europe. The shy Rizal, who, as he writes, did not want to disturb the noble gentlemen, nonetheless enthusiastically established contacts with them. They, of course, provided him access to an illustrious circle, a circle which was of greatest value to the promotion of Philippine interests. One such contact for Rizal perhaps was with ethnologist Fedor jagor, who made journeys lasting for years to Southern Asia and to Southeast Asia for the ethnologic collections of the Berlin Museum. He also wrote basic works about Singapore, present-day Indonesia and the Philippines. Thus, Rizal was eventually taken even into the exclusive Anthropological Society of Berlin. There, he was allowed to make speeches. He was also admitted into the Geographical Society, as he writes, "to take part in the monthly banquets too, where I was able to get acquainted with the famous Virchow. The scholar told me jokingly that he would like to study me ethnographically. I answered yes, out of love for knowledge. During the meal, I sat beside him and he understood my broken German rather well. We still drank beer with Baron von Dankelmann and two others, up to twelve thirty. I spent a beautiful and memorable night among German scholars."

Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902), doubtless the most prominent scientist of the nineteenth century, was working with unequalled versatility on different facets of development. He is considered as the founder of modern pathology as well as of modern anthropology and an authority in early history. He was likewise a historian of medicine, a pioneer of practical hygiene, a supporter of popular education. As an impassioned liberal and co-founder of the progressive party, he ranked among the most embittered enemies of Bismarck, as well as of the church, at least, as far as it stood in the way of his efforts towards the dissemination of knowledge in the country.

At that time, Rizal certainly could not have surmised that ten years later, the members of this reputable society would come together for a commemorative meeting in order to assess his life and works after his execution .

One day before the last day of the year 1886, Rizal informs his friend that he is thinking of leaving Berlin on April 1, in the company of his friend, Maximo Viola, to come to Leitmeritz via Dresden. This friend, a countryman of Rizal, was a physician too and a fellow fighter in the group of Filipinos in exile. And on May 4, 1887, the German Day of Repentance at that time, Rizal is able to notify his friend, that he will have the pleasure of embracing him on the thirteenth of May. At the same time he asks him not to come to the train station, but rather to wait in the house, until they will have looked up their hotel and after half an hour will have been able to pay their respects to the Blumentritt family.

In vain - the whole Blumentritt family, Ferdinand, his wife, Rosa, (nee Müller, the daughter of his former landlord), the children, Fritz, Dolores, and Konrad, gather to receive Rizal and Viola at 1:30 in the afternoon at the platform in the train station. They are triumphantly led to the Hotel Krebs, the most elegant hotel in town. There, they are given just enough time to freshen up a little and then they proceed to the house of Blumentritt, where a banquet is already waiting. And for four days, the guests cannot get over their astonishment over the native specialties served them right in the middle of Bohemian Leitmeritz:

Adobo: pork, chicken or fish, sometimes all three, stewed in vinegar, garlic, and lard
Lechon:roasted suckling filled with tamarind or laurel leaves and served in a sauce made from pig liver
Lumpia:the Malavan variation of the Chinese spring roll filled with minced meat, soybean sprouts and vegetables and sprinkled with soy sauce
Pancit:a noodle dish with meat, eggs and shrimps
Kare-kare:beef in a peanut butter sauce and, in the Spanish tradition, even dishes such as
Pacella:rice with meat, poultry or seafood with tomatoes, peas and olives

The guests were, nevertheless, impressed not only by the hospitality but more so by the friendship and attention shown to them. Every morning after breakfast, Blumentritt punctually appeared at the hotel to discuss the program for the day. He took his friends to the museum, to places of interest in the city and introduced them to the leading citizens. And, in the evening, once again, the highlight of the day - the irresistible banquet in Blumentritt's house, which the guests craved for, followed by conversations lasting for hours, during which one heard the buzz of Spanish and German intermingled together. And it was closer to the hours of day than to those of night when Blumentritt took the friends back to the hotel.

The visit of Rizal becomes a minor state event for Leitmeritz, as can be gleaned in the "Leitmeritzer Zeitung" (Leitmeritz Newspaper) of May 18, 1887: "Today, two gentlemen from the Philippines, Dr. Jose Rizal and Maximo Viola, arrived for a visit to Professor Blumentritt. Both belong to the Tagalog branch of the Malayan race, and might be the first ones among their people to step on Leitmeritz soil. Under the able supervision of Professor Blumentritt and Robert Klutschak, they saw places of interest in our city and signed their names in the memorial book of the city after they had been introduced to Mayor Gebhardt. On Saturday evening, the gentlemen attended a board meeting of the Leitmeritz Mountaineering Club. The chairman welcomed the guests who came from afar. Mr. Rizal, who is not only an excellent poet but also an artist, responded in a speech which was as witty as it was thoughtful. It was received with approval by the audience. The two departed from here for Prague on Tuesday from where they will proceed to Switzerland through Vienna; there the two will go their separate ways: Don Maximo Viola will travel to Spain; Don jose Rizal, who has been staying for 15 months on German soil, Heidelberg, Leipzig and Berlin, the capital city of the German Empire, where he was designated a member of the Anthropological Society there, will return via Naples, Suez and Singapore to his beautiful motherland."

Even the newspapers of Prague reported about the visit to Leitmeritz and called Rizal and Viola "extremely talented and charming gentlemen." The entries in the guest book are preserved: Rizal wrote that he was a native of the city of Calamba; Viola of Bulacan (a province in the north of Manila). Rizal's speech in the Mountaineering Club created a general stir, specially when the members of the audience learned that he had begun his German studies just the year before. Blumentritt embraced his friend and said it was difficult enough to extemporize a speech in one's native language let alone in a foreign language which one has just learned quite recently.

Blumentritt thought of a special surprise for the last but one evening of Rizal and Viola in Leitmeritz. He invited the guests to a tavern in the woods on an Elbe islands this time, to Austrian and Bohemian instead of Filipino delicacies. To bid farewell, Rizal and Viola insisted on inviting friends and the Blumentritt family to the Krebs Hotel on the evening before their departure.

The following morning finds the Blumentritts gathered in full at the train station. It was May 17, 1887. Rizal hands a portrait in sketch to his friend. He has made the sketch of his friend hurriedly during a break for rest after lunch. Everyone has tears in his eyes; they embrace each other silently. And as the train moves out of the station at 9:45 in the morning, it is only the little Dolores, who - like a butterfly, Rizal writes later - runs after the train, until it disappears.

What the friends consulted about, discussed, perhaps even agreed upon, during the three days is not known: What is certain is that this meeting changed the lives of the two decisively. A friendship begun in letters does not always keep what it seems to have promised when the writers are face to face each other. Yet for Blumentritt and Rizal, this problem did not last even for a minute. They fell into each other's arms like long-lost brothers. And for Rizal, Blumentritt indeed remained a brother for life, not less loved and esteemed than his own brother, Paciano.

They seemed to be each other's ideal complement. Here the quickreacting, nervous and extremely intelligent Blumentritt, who jumps into the fight with just as much feeling as certainty of knowledge. Because it was henceforth to be a fight. The purely academic Philippinist who has made his name famous through the description of peoples, languages, marriage customs and burial rites would soon become a rebel, a revolutionary, a politician, who, sooner or later, would have to come into conflict with the religious authorities - the establishment, one would say today - and yet remain a loyal civil servant of the royal imperial monarchy, devoted to the state and to the emperor. And he remained thus. Blumentritt was the older, better-placed and more established one, very knowledgeable in the ways of officials, authorities, the constant factor; Rizal, on the other hand, was the homeless vagabond, pursued, restless and lonely, who, all of a sudden, found strong support, a fortress for his ideas in the middle of Europe. Blumentritt did not have any difficulty in understanding the sentiments, the mentality, and the problems of his friend, Rizal, and of the latter's homeland - thanks to his long years of study. He saw Rizal as a living object and proof of this.

Blumentritt could not have an inkling that one day his name would have as much meaning in the Philippines as that of his friend's; that one would not be able to study, analyze and publish the one without the other. It would be superfluous to reflect now upon the course Rizal would have taken without Blumentritt; how the development of the Philippine revolution would have proceeded. The fact remains - the beginning of the friendship between Blumentritt and Rizal was like the conclusion of an unwritten covenant, whose consequences were to be felt in the subsequent decades. However absurd and grotesque this may sound: History was made in those days of May in the year 1887, a piece of world history.

Just two days after his departure from Leitmeritz, Rizal writes from Brünn, stirred by the experience, confused, disturbed, filled with joy and discouragement, and at the same time with a sudden loneliness:
"My eyes must be dry already; I can no longer produce tears ... I will try not to disappoint the good hearts of the noble people of Leitmeritz ... will tell myself, but you are not alone; here in a corner of Bohemia, you have noble, modest, good souls. Act and think as if you were with them ... Indeed, I am at heart a Leitmeritzer too, as you are a Filipino.

On May 20,1887, Rizal arrives in Vienna with Viola and stays in the Hotel Metropol on Morzin Square. This later on became the accursed and wretchedly infamous headquarters of the Gestapo, (the Nazi Secret Police). (The building was destroyed in the second World War, a memorial tablet in the park at Franz-josef's Quay below the Ruprecht Church calls to mind the victims of the Hitler regime.) Later, Rizal visited Linz and Salzburg too.

Rizal could not forego expressing publicly his enthusiasm about, and his gratitude and devotion to his friend. He writes in "España en Filipinas", the Madrid periodical of the Philippine emigrants, an ovation which later was placed as introduction of the collected correspondence between the two friends. Today, it is still regarded as a basic evaluation of Blumentritt by the national hero of the Filipinos. Rizal calls Blumentritt a rare example of unselfishness and self-denial, a historian, who writes history, neither to enhance the glory of his country nor to put down the enemies, neither to falsify nor to confuse political, religious or speculative views through a selection of facts. "Our historian is a foreigner. He is writing in a country which has never aspired to add the shabby pearl of the Orient to its crown. Ever since his youth, he has devoted his time to these studies with the perseverance of the Austrian, fired solely by his love for and devotion to this country, perhaps with the singular hope of winning the feeble thanks of this blind and mute nation."

The Philippines, which Blumentritt calls his golden dream, demanded, so Rizal says, from his friend, all his energy, his admirable determination, his brilliant mind. Rizal calls Blumentritt the first historian of the Philippines who is not content with being a mere copyist, a transcriber. Through his extensive studies and analysis, he succeeds in giving a thorough and objective picture of a country, which he has never visited.

Rizal mentions here the private library in Leitmeritz, the writing tables strewn with letters, newspaper clippings, periodicals and maps. Rizal writes that Blumentritt is working for the Philippines without any thought of distinctions, titles and offices. The only thing that one could reproach him with is his treatment of the inhabitants of the country: he treats them with immense kindness and consideration instead of treating them like underdogs and semi-savages.

Finally, Rizal goes into the religious views of Blumentritt: "Although the author is a good Catholic, devoted to the Roman Church, he never confuses dogma with fanaticism, nor man with God, neither does he accept everything propagated under this trademark as the authentic, divine truth. Neither optimism nor pessimism moves him, nor does he uphold one in order to bring down the others."

For a long time, this very problem would become an arena of an impassioned argument; an arena in which both friends would cross their intellectual swords in an embittered battle, that is, until they found themselves on the same side of the fence.

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created: January 20, 1997
updated: March 28, 1998
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger