Thursday, November 24, 2011

Did Dr. José Rizal Ever Enjoy Visiting a Jailhouse?

Question:  Did Dr. José Rizal  ever enjoy a visit to a jailhouse?
Answer:  Yes, he did!

We're not talking about Fort Santiago, his own jail cell. And he surely did not enjoy it there. He visited the jailhouse of Santa Cruz,  Laguna, where he was full of anguish. His mother. Teodora Mercado Alonzo was accused of poisoning a person. It appears Doña Teodora tried to save her cousin's marriage by intervening in their domestic quarrel.The authorities jailed her based on the accusation of the estranged wife of an attempt on her life. After a slow and costly legal appeal, she was exonerated, but then she had suffered two and a half years in jail. He visited his mother in jail during school breaks.

Rizal also learned of several jail houses. In 1890 Paciano and his brothers-in-law were deported to Calapan, Mindoro as Filibusteros. His sisters, Saturnina, Narcisa, and Olympia described in their letters to him the dismal and very isolated jail conditions. With some exceptions, jails are always miserable, dismal, and isolated anywhere. However, in one instance, Dr José Rizal actually loved visiting this jailhouse.  Where was this jailhouse?

It was in Heidelberg, Germany!

In 1886, Rizal arrived in Heidelberg, Germany. He had just finished  ophthalmic surgery internship training with the professor Dr. L. de Wecker of Paris.  He then went to Germany to do more specialized work with the University of Heidelberg professor, Dr. Otto Becker, whose Augenklinik is where ocular fundus research was being conducted. Here Rizal learned the principles of the concave interior of the eye consisting of the retina, the choroid, the sclera, the optic disk, and blood vessels, as seen by means of the ophthalmoscope, a new medical instrument, developed and first introduced in Heidelberg.

Heidelberg, an old world Renaissance town, is known for its religious tolerance, old fantastic ruined castle,  and the oldest university in Germany, famous as a distinguished center of  learning and scientific research. Rizal also advanced his German language skills here.

Rizal's apartment, white building
Rizal’s apartment was on 12 Ludwigsplatz, now Grabengasse. Among other attractions, he found the students' colorful prison house or the Studentenkarzer  only a block awayTotally intrigued and immersed by this institution, he visited it and even wrote about it to his parents.

Photo credit: Rainer J. Weber in dark jacket
Why is there a student jailhouse within the university? Because the university enjoyed its autonomy vis-a-vis the town council. Since the council had no legal jurisdiction over rowdy and noisy university students, the need for self-policing and governance was needed. In a house adjacent to the old university site in Augustinergasse, the University created its own administration for dealing with out-of-control student behavior.

Jail terms were normally meted out for drunkenness, brawls, (sounds familiar?) and dueling among rival members of fraternities. In Rizal's letter dated 26 February 1886, he wrote, "They fight only among themselves, corporation against corporation...many times without any motive...just to test bravery..." [Note: "fraternity" is a modern word.]

Sir Rainer J Weber, the Knight Commander of the Knights of Rizal Chapter in Heidelberg-Wilhelmsfeld, gave me a tour of this prison house. Below are the pictures he took.
At entrance door sign says: "Abandon hope, all who enters." Dante. 
One of the more artistic images.

No space is wasted.

The students' names, days in jail, and corps initials are recorded.

Soot was used for silhouettes.

A photo of a Heidelberg young student. 

One wall inscription said: "One for all, all for one! Because like honest people, we delivered five cobblestones found on the street to the cops by marking them 'found' and throwing them into the guardroom, we are confined here as martyrs to our own honesty."

The walls are packed with proud profiles.
Six days in the Villa Trall room, Karzer

Self-portraits in yellow jackets and red caps.
Regarding the throwing of the cobblestones, the text goes on, "Beware Officer! The hedgehog stings. 2-7 July 1901. Not guilty of course!

Most students have encounters with local policemen.

One poet wrote: "If instead of just 5 lanterns,
I'd snuffed full 25 dead,
I wouldn't have served just 2 days,
But rather a full 10 instead."  

Most misdeeds were for vandalism, drinking, and fencing.  The jailbirds used very concise and ironic phrases--perhaps another venue for Rizal's language studies.
 This door was plastered with photos of inmates. Note the sparse furniture.
The average days spent in jail was from 3 to 5 days. Even Mark Twain was fascinated by this prison.  He wrote: "I do not think I ever was in a more elaborately frescoed apartment." The jail house finally closed in 1914, but it continues to be a popular tour sight. In 1886, during Rizal's time, it was enlarged and renovated.

The Stairwell 
In a letter home Rizal described the students thus: "There are five Corp students here and they are Vandalia, Guestfalia, Saxoborussia, Rhenania and Swabia and their respective caps are red, green, white, blue and yellow."

Gray silhouettes bottom right, were from earlier times. 
Rizal's friends were the Swabians (the yellow caps). He played chess with them and twice a week joined them at a beer hall. He was invited to join their frat. Rizal wrote he observed their fencing practice. But Rizal had no time and declined the invitation.

Those incarcerated covered every inch of wall space with their colorful graffiti, making this jailhouse a contemporary tourist attraction. I tried to look for an 1886 graffiti, but there were layers upon layers of painting, obliterating earlier and older ones. In fact, if Rizal could have dared, he would have liked to be jailed in these premises too, so that he could have written his name on the wall. He could have drawn some neat profile of Crisostomo Ibarra of Noli me Tangere on the prison walls.

Sigmund Romberg popularized and romanticized the students of Heidelberg's carousing, fencing and beer-drinking spiels in the screen movie The Student Prince, a 1954 MGM production featuring Mario Lanza singing in the soundtrack. Current university students nowadays are still having fun, still drinking too much beer, still romancing the ladies, but dueling had gone out of style. 

So, when you take a tour of Heidelberg, one of your destinations must be to go to jail! and heed Dante's invocation: "Abandon hope all who enter!" Like Rizal, you will be astounded, impressed, and be captivated by the creative free-spirit of the university students of Heidelberg.