Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dr. José Rizal's Dueling Cohort in Hirschgasse, Heidleberg,

 Did you know that Dr. José Rizal belonged to a dueling cohort in Hirschgasse, Heidelberg, Germany?

Hirschgasse, (Hirsch means Stag in German)  a place where University students held their dueling matches during Rizal's time (1886).

Well, in 1886, Rizal went to the University of Heidelberg’s Eye Clinic to specialize in Ophthalmology with the renowned German Professor Dr. Otto Becker.  While in Heidelberg, Rizal, the sociable, very friendly and gregarious guy became friends with a group of fraternity members, the Swabians, who sported jazzy bright yellow blazers and jaunty red caps.

José Rizal's dueling Cohorts, the Swabians.

The Swabians, or Red Hats.
The Blue Cap fraternities who duel against the Red Caps.

A young fraternity member with characteristic cap.
Student fraternities, or corporations (Burschenschaften) were of great importance and almost every other student was a member of these organizations. This student life milieu became over blown mainly through the 1956 Hollywood movie The Student Prince, which was a depiction of the carousing, dueling, womanizing, and beer guzzling student-life in Heidelberg.

Rizal joined his friends’ beer drinking sessions, and played chess with them at the corner Biergarten on Ludwigstrasse, a stone’s throw from his apartment.  Rizal’s newfound friends were enrolled in the law school.  Thus, much on campus mistakenly thought Rizal was a law student in Heidelberg.

Dueling within the campus was Verboten.  The administration believed it encouraged boisterousness and inclined to puff-up the wrong bravado that attracts undesirables. Rizal’s dueling student cohort insists it installs integrity and discipline.  Rizal sided with his fraternity friends, so they go regularly to a facility called Hirschgasse.  It was accessed north across the Neckar River over the hills, a half hour 's walk through Philosophen Weg, or else a 10 minute boat rowing expedition on the Neckar river.

In  1878 Mark Twain arrived in Heidelberg planning to stay overnight but ended up staying for two months in Heidelberg, billeted at the Hirschgasse Hof, then a hotel and restaurant.  He described the duel doings in that facility.

Now, one of the requirements for fraternities in Heidelberg was to show courage, skill, honor, bravery and determination.  The way to operationalize this was through dueling. The different fraternity organizations would form teams who would duel each other, their opponents selected at random. The protagonists are swathed in white protective bandages and gauze on shoulders, thighs, chest, and arms.  In addition, they wear a facemask of metal grill that protected the nose, mouth and eyes, but exposed a sheath of facial face especially on the cheekbone.  Rizal, not being a formal fraternity member, could not directly participate in the duels.  However he attended almost every other dueling match.

Dueling Clubhouse

Rizal’s dueling cohorts have the necessary symbol of determination and bravery by showing off scar marks on their cheeks  (the much admired "Schmiss"), and prided themselves in their self-acquired torn tendons, nicked scalps wrapped with bandages, as they limped in crutches, all in the spirit of good sport.

Rizal once noted they looked like “ghosts.”  In today’s lingo, they looked more like zombies.  Rizal would occasionally join the "Volunteer medical attendants".  In fact he allegedly observed great 19th century cosmetic surgery skills of repairing skewed eyebrows, dangling ear lobes, straightening displaced noses, uplifting sagging cheeks, propping up dislocated jaws, and fixing splintered thibia bones.

I was able to visit Hirschgasse in October 2012 in the company of  Rainer J. and Idi Weber of Schönau and Camilo Antonio of Vienna.  The place still stands there.  It's now a starred-hotel with a fancy restaurant, with the original dueling hall dotted with wall photos vintage 1886. Of special interest are the wood tables so characteristic of student life, full of name knife carvings, no space is spared!  What struck me was that the Prince of Germany (and future Chancellor), Otto von  Bismarck himself, craved his name here while enrolled at Heidelberg, and no doubt, participated in the boisterous Heidelberg student antics and bloody duels. 

The young Otto von Bismarck,  carved his name on  a Hirschgasse table top.
Heidelberg students save no space on restaurant wooden tables.

Unfortunately, Rizal never carried his pocketknife to Hirschgasse.  What a great missed opportunity!  We could have venerated his carved name there had he been more forward looking, and had he gained the perspicacity in leaving behind a future legacy regarding this event in the national home consciousness.


Rainer J. Weber,  upon reading this blog, emailed to add,  "We had a great and hilarious time that evening in Hirschgasse where we felt Rizal´s spirit hovering in the restaurant."