The collapse of the Cologne city archive three weeks ago (see http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2009/03/colognes-archives-building-collapses-3-missing-many-escape.html and http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2009/03/cologne-archive-collapse-disaster-for-historians.html) wasn't just a personal tragedy for the historians and contributors involved, it was a disaster for Germany's cultural history, says Bettina Schmidt-Czaia, director of the municipal depository. Evacuated from the building mere seconds before it caved in, she describes watching northern Europe's largest collection of documents and artefacts, many of which date back to Roman times, disappear into rubble.
To understand the immense loss, one has to imagine the Cologne archive as it was before. More than 800 collections and remains of famous and important personalities were stored there. Books, photographs and letters of authors like Heinrich Böll, for example. Or works by musicians and composers like Ferdinand Hiller. The archive stored several of the city's important architectural plans and art pieces from the Fluxus movement, which we had been given by the Kölnischer Kunstverein. Not to forget the historical documents and files from the city council and clerical charters, some of which date back to the 12th century. The archive was the collective memory of the city. Set out in a row the documents would have stretched farther than 30km.
Crews have recovered 6km of that row so far. It's very complicated. The building didn't collapse, as happens in a planned blasting, when everything falls down straight; it turned on its own axis. All that is left is chaos. To reach the remains on the south side of the building, for example, firefighters had to saw through several huge concrete ceilings. They had to use robots to carefully remove the mud and concrete, so they could crawl into the area and search for documents.
You can read more in the Guardian Weekly web site at http://www.guardianweekly.co.uk/?page=editorial&id=1004&catID=9.