It feels a bit like spotting an old friend in a crowd: a beer from Austria at the grocery store, a poster of Innsbruck in a shop, the sound of my mother tongue as a stranger passes me by–assuming that I’m American–and exclaims: “Ohne Strümpfe, aber mit Schal,” commenting on the absurdity that I chose to wear a scarf but no tights.
This time, it’s 34 postcards, wrapped in a thin plastic sleeve, at an antique store in Palm Springs.
The row of houses on the top card looks like home. I turn the stack around and notice the language, my language: German. Then I catch the handwriting. It looks old and it’s hard to read, but it still feels more familiar to me than English ever will. I scan the card for a date: April 12th, 1917. It was written during the First World War, more than 105 years ago. I don’t know what is hidden between the top and the bottom card, but I just ran into an old friend, and he is coming home with me.
Back home, I unwrap the cards and order them by date. They were written over a period of 50 years between 1917 and 1967. Most of them were sent to the same address in Berlin. Some are easy to read, others are quite unreadable, but as the names on the cards repeat, I get curious about the people and stories behind them.
The oldest card, dated April 12th, 1917, was written by a man named Richard to a woman he calls Gretel. The most recent postcard, dated October 31st, 1967, was sent to Richard and signed by B. + F.
The 32 postcards in between are tiny glimpses into 50 years of Richard’s and Gretel’s life. They explain who they were to each other, who B. and F. were to them, and they introduce me to their family members and friends. Each postcard shares just enough to keep me hooked, but too little to help me understand who Richard and Gretel were and what life they were living.
What fits on the blank half of the back of a 4x6 postcard other than cliches and pleasantries? “The weather is great…everyone is well…can’t wait to see you…Love, yours truly.” Who were Richard and Gretel? What was their life like? What happened in the 50 years during which Richard, the young soldier turned into Richard, the elderly man? And how did 34 German postcards end up at an antique store in Palm Springs, almost 6000 miles away from the address they were once sent to?
I don’t have all the answers yet, but I have enough to get us started, and I hope you will join me as we look together for what remains Unanswered.
Okay, let me catch you up, 'cause I’ve already done some work. I started by transcribing the postcards, so I could learn more about Richard and Gretel, gather and organize information, and plan out my research. Unfortunately, about a third of the postcards were somewhat unreadable to me, because they were written in Kurrentschrift. Kurrent is a historical form of German handwriting, widely used between the 16th and 20th century. However, it hasn't been taught in German schools since the 1970s, and I doubt that anyone who hasn’t studied it can easily read it. I went to school in the 80s and 90s and never learned Kurrent. I’m able to decipher some words with low to medium confidence, but I can’t read a sentence, never mind a whole postcard. But just because I can’t, doesn’t mean no one else can. So I took some pictures of the first postcard and reached out to family and friends, who reached out to family and friends, who found family and friends, who had still learned Kurrent in school, and they were able to decipher the first card.
Frau Marg. Kuhnt Berlin SO 16 Schäferstraße 8 II Den 12.4.1917 Liebes Gretel! Soeben Deinen lieben Brief vom 9. erhalten, leider schon ziemlich spät, werde Dir morgen denselben beantworten. Herzlichen Gruß Dein Richard Gefreiter Kuhnt, I.R. 11/24 On April 12, 1917 Dear Gretel, Just received your sweet letter from the ninth, unfortunately already rather late, will answer it tomorrow. Kind regards, your Richard Private Kuhnt, I.R. 11/24
The first postcard is written and signed by a German private named Richard Kuhnt. The card is addressed to Mrs. Marg. Kuhnt, who Richard refers to as Gretel–which is probably short for Margarete or Margareta–and conveys a sense of intimacy or endearment between them. Richard's signature at the bottom of the card
shows Gretel’s same last name, Kuhnt, a strong indicator that they may have been related.
According to one of the postmarks on the card,
Richard is part of the 11.Kompanie des Infanterie-Regiments “Grossherzog Friedrich Franz II. von Mecklenburg-Schwerin” Nr. 24, an infantry unit of the Royal Prussian Army. The second postmark, and the handwritten “Feldpost” in the upper left corner, show that the card wasn’t sent via regular mail but through the German military mail service.
Research into the battle calendar of Richard's unit, which during the first world war fought along the 6th division, reveals that Richard and his fellow soldiers have been stationed in Oberelsass–today Haut-Rhin, France–since early February 1917. A look at the front of the postcard, a black and white image of houses and a tower in the distance, titled Rufach i. Els., short for Rufach im Elsass, confirms that approximate location.
The tower on the postcard, known as Tour des Sorcières or witch tower, was built in the 13th century and used as a prison for most of its existence. It is the last surviving tower of the city’s fortifications and still stands strong today.
Richard’s unit will soon be ordered to move to Champagne to join several other German divisions for the battle of the hills, a French offensive to break through the German defenses. They will arrive at the battle on April 19th, 1917 for a counterattack, and return–after significant losses–to Oberelsass on May 4th, 1917.
While Richard is fighting on the Western Front Gretel is in Berlin. The postcard is sent to her at Schäferstrasse 8 II, Berlin SO 16. At the time, Schäferstrasse is a small side street with only 16 apartment buildings.
Addressbook records from 1917 show 12 households at Schäferstrasse 8.
Back in 1917, only one person in each household was mentioned in the address book. If a man was living at the address, it was usually his name. Only if the household didn’t include a man would the address book mention a woman’s name. Neither Richard, nor Marg., nor any other Kuhnts are noted to live at Schäferstrasse 8 in 1917, so Gretel may have been living with family or friends at the time.
The “II” that follows the “8” in the address on the postcard, indicates that Gretel was staying in apartment number 2, but unfortunately, the address book orders names alphabetically and not by apartment number, so this information doesn’t help here. I haven’t been able to confidently determine Marg’s full legal or potential maiden name, so I don’t know if, or who she was living with at Schäferstrasse 8, apartment II in 1917.
The chronologically next postcard is written sometime in the 1920s. There’s no legible date on the postmark or the postcard, and the stamp seems to be missing, but I know that it was sent in the 20s. I’ll tell you more about that next time when we take a closer look at postcard number 2.
For now, let’s dig a bit deeper into the few more details that I was able to find about Richard's and Gretel’s whereabouts between the first and the second postcard.
The first world war ended in 1918, and the infantry unit Richard was part of was demobilized in December of that year, so Richard probably returned to Berlin no later than at the end of 1918 or the beginning of 1919. However, the first time I can confidently place him in Berlin is in 1925, 8 years after the first postcard, when according to address book records, he lives at Allerstrasse 47, in Neukölln, Berlin, and works as a plumber.
How can we be sure it’s him and not another Richard Kuhnt? Luckily, we have a postcard that places him at that address and confirms that it’s him.
Richard stays at Allerstrasse until 1932, at which point his entry in the address book disappears. 5 years later, in 1937, he resurfaces at Dresdenerstrasse 11 in Berlin SO 36. Richard will be staying at this address for the next 30 years before moving to his final home, a retirement facility, just 1.6 miles away.
Who was Marg. living with, in apartment 2 at Schäferstrasse 8? How are she and Richard related? Where was Richard before the war, between 1918 and 1925, and between 1932 and 1937?
If you haven’t already, subscribe to Unanswered and join us next time when we take a closer look at postcard number 2 in our search for answers.
If you have any information, insight, or questions that can help us learn more about the Kuhnts, point my research in a specific direction, or answer any unanswered questions, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can’t wait to hear from you.