Cover image for In the cellar
In the cellar
Reemtsma, Jan Philipp.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Im Keller. English
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : A.A. Knopf, 1999.
Physical Description:
223 pages ; 21 cm
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HV6604.G42 R4413 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Jan Philipp Reemtsma, now forty-seven years old, inherited one of Germany's largest private fortunes. That wealth has made him a potential target all his life. He is also a brilliant intellectual, the founder and director of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, which has produced much important (sometimes unwelcome) scholarship about Germany's role in the twentieth century. That uncompromising honesty has made both him and the institute the focus of hate groups in recent years. On the evening of March 25, 1996, in front of his house, Reemtsma was attacked, beaten, and abducted. He had no idea where he was going, why he had been taken, who his captors were, or whether he would survive. For the next thirty-three days, he lived chained by the ankle to the wall of a small cellar, the prisoner of kidnappers whose motives, it turned out, were not political but mercenary: they wanted $20 million in exchange for his life. With incredible, unsparing honesty, driven by the will, he says, "to destroy the intimacy that was forced upon me," Reemtsma gives us a completely riveting day-by-day account of his life in the cellar: what it was like--emotionally, psychologically, and physically--and how he managed to survive. He describes the endless days pacing in chains until his ankles bled, the degrading gratitude he felt when given the most basic comforts (food, light, books), the anticipation and utter despair following two failed ransom exchanges, and, most of all, the oddly personal relationship he could not prevent himself from forming with the leader of the kidnappers. He also includes, in all their emotional nakedness, the incredibly moving notes he wrote to his wife and son. Beyond the story itself, Reemtsma makes us understand what it is like to undergo such a trauma; how such an experience, despite a "happy" ending, can nonetheless destroy a person's inner balance; and, ultimately, how the cellar has become a place he now must recognize as part of himself.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In March 1996, German millionaire Reemtsma was kidnapped and chained in a cellar for 33 days before a $20 million ransom was paid. This is the chronicle of his time as a captive, and unlike many true-crime sagas, it's not a sensationalized treatment hastily written to capitalize on publicity. (Reemtsma doesn't need publicity: as the director of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, he's one of the most prominent men in Germany.) Anything but hastily written, the book is, in fact, stylistically daring: Reemtsma writes in the first person, looking back on the thoughts and emotions of his captive self, whom he refers to in the third person. He sometimes switches identities abruptly, changing from "I" to "he" in the middle of a sentence, but thanks at least partially to translator Janeway, readers are not likely to lose their bearings. They will, however, surely be moved; even though we know Reemtsma survives the ordeal, we find ourselves fearing the worst. This is the kind of riveting memoir that, helped by strong word of mouth, just might generate considerable demand. --David Pitt

Publisher's Weekly Review

Amid a rash of politically motivated kidnappings and assassinations, Reemtsma, a German social critic, philologist and multimillionaire, was kidnapped by thugs in 1996 and held captive for 33 days in a dark cellar, chained to a wall. His nightmarish situation led him to reexamine his life, the fear of death, the roots of violence, modern alienation from self, crime and punishment‘all with passing references to Freud, Descartes, Sartre, Augustine and Wittgenstein. Reemtsma feared that his abductors were right-wing terrorists angry at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, which he founded and which had exposed the crimes of the German Wehrmacht in a recent exhibition. But they were simply extortionist hoodlums, who released him after payment of a huge ransom. Writing of his ordeal in the third person to achieve clinical detachment and reproducing the kidnappers' messages and phone calls as well as his letters to his wife and son, Reemtsma painstakingly reconstructs his day-to-day anxieties and hopes, his violent revenge fantasies, the irony, grim humor and other mental strategies that helped him survive. He lambastes the press for the media frenzy surrounding the "deluxe kidnapping," as some stories termed his ordeal (he was given books and newspapers to read). His harrowing tale also has moments of black comedy: the cops bungled several attempts to deliver the ransom, and the thugs, rank amateurs, used voice-distortion equipment on the telephone, which rendered their demands almost incomprehensible. In addition to offering an example of what happens to a sophisticated mind under extreme duress, Reemtsma's chilling account of his terrifying ordeal reads like a philosophical police procedural. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



I had actually wanted to come home. Midnight; first the wood where they turned me loose, then the village and the first house where lights were still burning, and the man who lived there let me in without any ifs and buts, though I must have seemed like some weird tramp to him. I called my wife, said, "It's me. I'm free." And I wanted to call for a taxi, go home, just like that, only three quarters of an hour, you can manage that. And then the moment, thirty-three days of longing, although for these thirty-three days I had forbidden myself to imagine it: I'm standing at the front door, I ring, my wife opens the door, and now, now I could--what? Weep, probably, perhaps just fall over, no, not quite, but suddenly become a great weight in my wife's arms, unable to bear the tension by myself for another second, and then (or have I done that already?) hold her tight, absorb her stress . . . no, we would go up to our son (or has he heard me and is he on his way downstairs?), and all three of us are by his bed (or sitting on the carpet) holding each other close.         "I--I'll call a taxi and I'll be there in three quarters of an hour." I said something along those lines, thereby demonstrating that my four and a half weeks in the cellar had cost me all sense of reality. She said she wanted to come and get me and "We're flying to New York." But I wanted to go home. A moment's confusion. Then my mind starts working again: I have no idea what's going on out there, I've lost touch, it's her decision.         For the next half hour I tell my host a scrambled version of what has happened to me. Then the police are there, and my wife is with them. No--no hugging. First all my clothes into these plastic bags to preserve any traces of evidence. We go into an adjoining room. I undress, notice once again how unsteady I am on my feet. Then we embrace. My host for the evening said later during a TV interview that the feeling we transmitted to him was "relief"--and instead of the German word, he used the English relief, with its echo of a breath released at last--and he was right.         Next, the trip to the hospital. A fairly thorough examination by a woman doctor on night call who has been wakened, but not told anything about the circumstances, who learned from me that I had been held captive for weeks in a cellar, and who took it as a sign of my disorientation that I couldn't immediately come up with the exact date of my abduction (was it the twenty-fifth or the twenty-seventh?). The fact that she wrote in her case notes that she didn't know whether a special psychological examination was indicated or not was a sign of her uncertainty and doubtless the right thing to do. I seemed to be in better shape than I actually felt, and in much worse shape than I believed.         My balance wasn't very good, I was talking quickly, my words tumbling over each other at manic speed, I wanted to give my account, be free of it, able to do something at long last, say something, be able to contribute something so that we could find the people who had done this to me.         In the meantime, a police car had brought my son to the hospital. They told me he'd arrived; he came hesitantly into the room where I'd been giving my statement to the police. As I only discovered later, he'd given up believing he would ever see me alive again. A hug, as tender as could be, as matter-of-factly father-son as necessary. A glance at my beard, since there had been no razor in the cellar. My son was truly getting an unknown father back.         Shower. Wash hair. Look in the mirror, the first time for four and a half weeks. We all shared a room in the hospital. No one could sleep. "When did you notice that I was gone?" "What went wrong at the handover?" A chaos of fragments of information, in which my own memory of thirty-three days chained in a cellar threatens to drown. Names I don't recognize. Police who have spent almost all this time living in our house, sharing its routine, sleeping camped out under the table, taking my son on excursions, helping my wife. Bottomless gratitude. In the cellar I had never been able to picture how it was at home, never wanted to, either. Now I know that there were people to help. Police. Relatives. Friends. They weren't on their own.         I don't have much to tell. This, that. This is how it looked. That's how long the chain was. Food? Mostly bread and cold cuts. Yes, I'm having trouble walking, because of inflamed tendons in both feet as a result of pacing to and fro with chains on. Yes, and my right thumb is completely numb, as a result of the badly fastened handcuffs from four and a half weeks ago. No, I didn't tell the doctor, what's the point, that's the least of my problems.         So why are we flying to New York? Do I have any idea how it looks "at home"? As if Greta Garbo had come for a visit. The first time it becomes really clear to me is when we're back again after eight days away and I cautiously view the videotapes of the TV coverage. The very idea that I could have just come home by taxi was absurd, to say the least. Assault waves of flashing cameras, outstretched microphones, the usual barrage of questions along the standard lines of "How do you feel, Herr Reemtsma?" "Do you have any idea who is behind this?" and so on. You don't go home, you go on television. I had the means, the good luck, and the money to get away from them (a clever camera team, following up on a tip from God knows where, filmed us by telephoto lens as we were getting into the plane). For anyone without such resources, it can be pretty bad.         I'm in no way talking just about myself. Newspapers worldwide print the photo of the little Belgian girl Sabine Dardenne, freed after months of being held hostage, during which time she was tortured and filmed in the process. She was released, and her face shows no sign of relief, only horror and despair. Behind her is an embarrassed policeman who, as luck would have it, is holding the girl as if he were trying to restrain her so that she can be caught by the photographer. The photographer is no accident. Now she's going to be captured on film all over again.         The press loves to talk about the right to freedom of information. What kind of information is the face of a weeping, desperate, raped girl? And even if it were "information," how does that right compare with Sabine Dardenne's right not to be put on film? This is an extreme case, admittedly, but newspapers are in the business of extreme cases, that's what makes up their editions.         I cannot complain. In my case, the media kept silent for four weeks. Some weeks later there was another such case, one which ran its course differently and came to a different end. A man was enticed into a cinema, murdered, the family was blackmailed by his killers for a week before the police were able to arrest them. This time the silence of the press--unbeknownst to anyone--could achieve nothing to preserve the life of the supposed hostage, but perhaps it was of some help to the police in their work.         After four and a half weeks of silence, there was an immense need on the part of the media not just to take the information which they had freely been given--albeit with urgent pleas to publish it only after my release or my death, and in any case only with the consent of the police--and turn it into articles, priority broadcasts, specials, and who knows what else, but also to enter the usual race and come up with something that the competition didn't have. I read in the paper that I play golf with a well-known lady from Hamburg, even though I have never laid hands on a golf club. Helicopters took aerial photographs of our property, and later a photographer wrote to me asking me to let him get on with his job, because it was already the weekend and he wanted to get to his girlfriend in Itzehoe.         These are the attendant comedies. The feeling they evoke is one of an unending attempted assault. This can't be blamed on the behavior of the individual members of the press--they are often perfectly nice, and somehow you have the sense that certain aspects of their profession cause them some embarrassment--but simply on their incessant presence. For hour upon hour you lead a life in which these people whom you don't know, with whom you have nothing to do, and who are merely being paid to have something to do with you, have a role to play which cannot be ignored, and have to be included in all your plans. If you don't want someone taking photographs in through your windows (and you don't), you have to close the curtains. If you want to go to the mailbox without giving an interview (and you have nothing to say, and all you want to do is go to the mailbox), you have to send someone ahead of you to check if the street is empty, and if it isn't, you stay inside your home--which of course is no longer your home but a hiding place that you have to seal tight against trespassing eyes.         At some point I gave up. I was given the news that they would withdraw if I agreed to show myself. I went outside the door, let the ones who were there take their photographs, and okay. Word got around. A few hours later the next team of photographers and cameramen arrived, wearing expressions that said, "Why not us?" And in the mail the next day a threat from a laggard newspaper, to the effect that if they were not given the same treatment, they would have to try other measures. The best thing to do was to wait it out; the public was soon so saturated with items about Reemtsma that everyone lost interest. Other headlines soon came to dominate public attention, and all cameras were turned on Lower Saxony.         It was all a burden, sometimes worse than a burden, but it could have been still worse. A staffer on a news magazine who caught me (the street had seemed so empty of observers) even apologized for disturbing me, and then again even more wholeheartedly when I called his attention to the reporting in his paper--"About one sentence in two was accurate"--"Please forgive us, I'm really sorry, but our editorial offices are not in Hamburg!" Good advice came from our lawyer to give a major interview to one newspaper--and not one of the Hamburg ones but one that had space for a long conversation (we chose the Süddeutsche Zeitung, in Munich, which was also a way of saying a private thank-you)--and then refer everyone else to this. The Süddeutsche sold reprint rights all over the place, so everyone got something out of it.         The pictures and film clips of me outside my front door ran daily, whether they fit the latest news or not. "No new developments in Reemtsma case." Photo. "The Hamburg multimillionaire was abducted from in front of his house in Blankenese on March 25 and freed after payment of a $20 million ransom. It is thought that . . ." And then some piece of irrelevance that uses up so much text that the entire filmstrip can be reused. One of many letters of advice ("In future, get a Doberman") reached me, this one focused on the press: "You should not be in the press all the time. It will only make your face well known, and other criminals will come after you!" Thank you very much.         There was yet another photo. My abductors had snapped it in the cellar to which they had taken me. I am sitting in the jogging suit they gave me to wear there, my eyes are closed and I'm on a chair, with a table at an angle behind me on which a few utensils are scattered. I am holding the Bild Zeitung of March 26 up in front of me so that the headline and date are visible, and next to me is the silhouette of a man pointing a Kalashnikov at me. The whole thing is some kind of direct quote from previous abductions, the Kalashnikov in the ensemble lifted straight from the emblem of the Red Army Faction. The face in the photograph is swollen, the nose most of all, and there's a gash on the forehead. My wife had given instructions that the photograph was not to be used. After my release, the police asked permission to release it, retouched, to aid their investigations. It was published accordingly with the face blanked out, because the picture also contained a partial view of the cellar. My wife wanted to ensure a sliver of privacy in the general media frenzy, and to protect me from having my own beaten face be the first thing I saw when I opened the newspaper. These wise precautions were immediately ignored. Both Bild and Stern got hold of illegal copies of the photograph, recolored all the areas they felt were inadequate in the Polaroid, and printed the image in maximum enlargement. Oddly enough, given that I have spent a lifetime avoiding having my picture in the papers, this didn't bother me too much. I was amazed at my own indifference. It was a mixture of "It's completely irrelevant now" and "That's not me anyway"--to me the face in the cellar was a document from somebody else's life. Except that this wasn't true. Just how untrue became clear to me when I was invited by Grüner & Jahr, the publishers of Stern magazine, to give a short address about the press coverage of my "case" at the public awards ceremony for a prize they were giving in journalism. This bizarre request for yet another act of self-exhibition was a sudden and unpleasant revelation to me of how appalling the first had been: to present my face to the public just as the abductors had presented it to my wife.         So why once again? Why show my face in this book yet again, this time in words, this time of my own accord? This time, precisely because of all that, because it's all already in the public domain, because my story is already common currency, because it became public property within hours after my release, so that what I want is not only to reclaim it for myself (which is why I began immediately after my release to write all this down) but also to reclaim it in public. It is an extraordinary experience to see one's own life decompose into "stories" which are retailed to the public in versions cut to fit each medium. There is no copyright on your own life, but it is easier to come to terms with every kind of misappropriation of it if there is a standing text somewhere to which you can point.         Another thought from a completely different quarter is also relevant here. I learned that it was helpful to know the details of other abductions. To know a little bit about what it's like for others in moments of fear, of feeling lost, of worrying about those who are worrying about you. I received letters from people who had either experienced themselves, or had relatives who had experienced, something similar, indeed often much worse, and these letters reach out, full of empathy. There were letters from people I didn't know at all, or only by name, welcoming me back to the world and thus simultaneously communicating a very special sense of solidarity. These letters were enormously helpful to me as I was trying to find my footing again. When I began to write this book, I made a note: There will be another abduction. Now, as these pages are on their way to the publisher, there have been at least four abductions and attempted abductions (involving two murders of hostages) which must be classified as replications of mine. Replications which the criminals who abducted me saw coming as a natural consequence of their own crime, and which they built into their calculations with all the pride of trendsetters. Perhaps reading this book will be of use to someone.         My most important reason remained hidden from me for a long time. When I had to allow people to ask why I wanted to publish this book so soon, and I asked myself why the act of writing and passing what I'd written around among a few friends and close acquaintances would not be in and of itself sufficient, it finally became clear to me. The answer leads straight to the place that gives the book its title: into the cellar. An abduction, a time beyond all social contact save the antisocial contact with the abductors, is a time of enforced intimacy. A whole code of manners develops, however it comes about. Everybody gets to know one another, not much, but a little. Empathies are present (what can I read in his voice, how serious is it, what can I say to lighten the atmosphere?). All this contained within it an extreme imbalance of power: absolute power over there, absolute helplessness here. That doesn't get left behind in the cellar. For the cellar doesn't get left behind. The cellar will be a permanent part of my life, but as little as possible of the forced intimacy that took place in this cellar should become part of my life. The only weapon against unchosen intimacy is going public.         I know from experience how seductive it can be to be drawn into published accounts written by other people, to read an orderly version of what is still no more than disorder and terror in your own head, for example, in Spiegel: "The decisive turn of events is triggered by someone else: Jan Philipp Reemtsma himself, the victim of the abduction. From captivity he sends a letter that brings two new mediators into the game." This, however, as I knew, was purest editorial fantasy. As time went by, I realized how important it is not to integrate such stories into your own story: the truth was something I shared with no one but those who had done this to me and my family. I could be described, in a perverse way, as their accomplice in matters to do with the truth. Along with every trace of intimacy, this special collective complicity is what I must destroy, and the only way to do that is publicly. An inner distance, as I learned, is not sufficient.         My wife and I had wanted to write a book together--but not this one. It was to contain her memories and mine of the thirty-three days; our son would have borne witness to this period in a retrospective conversation, and others who had been involved would have had a hand in it, too. That book, although its main sections did get written, will remain unpublished for the moment.         The conversations about it made clear to me why the question of making things public is different for me from the way it is for my wife or son. For me, it's a matter of destroying an enforced privacy as the prerequisite for being able to view a terrifying episode as a part--however small--of my life and not just as a random self-contained event; for my family, it's a matter of reclaiming the privacy that was destroyed in that period. In a certain sense, during the days of my abduction their entire life was conducted in public. Not for the press--although it too was involved, since it promptly put the house under constant surveillance--but because the house itself was transformed into the center of operations and a permanent conference room. What helped my family to stand fast during this time (whatever that means: when can one be said to have stood fast, when not?) also had this reverse side to it. Friends, relatives, my lawyer, the police--they were always there, without a word of complaint they rearranged their lives in those weeks with the goal of saving my life, supporting my wife with advice and help, and trying through distractions to make what was a time of agonizing uncertainty more bearable for my son. Making a written record of this time was for my wife a step toward reclaiming her privacy, and an attempt to fill out her account with those thoughts and feelings that remain unuttered in the thick of events.         So the two stories, the one about the cellar and the one about what happened outside the cellar, which were supposed to have been combined in the same book, fell away from each other. No final decision has yet been made about publishing the other side of the thirty-three days of my captivity. If the "case" ever gets to court and thus the third side takes visible shape, the perspective may change yet again. The amount of time that will by then have gone by will also make it easier to deal with the problem that while my text is concerned only with things private to me, my wife's text, because of the situation it describes, also touches the private lives of other people.         Nonetheless, I must give what follows some outer structure, which I will limit to a brief chronological presentation in order not to impair the deliberately chosen one-sidedness of my point of view. This text of mine cannot accommodate other perspectives and still present itself as an objective account of what occurred. That would be another book, and one that failed to achieve its own, already stated goal. Excerpted from In the Cellar by Jan P. Reemtsma All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.