Olivia von Westernhagen, who works as a journalist for the German computer magazine c’t, has provided me an article she wrote, which is based on material she found on my blog. It’s a great read, but it’s available in German only.

If you happen to read the German computer magazine c’t (I know that many do, as the c’t is very popular in the German-speaking region of Europe), you might have heard of Olivia von Westernhagen. Olivia is a member of the c’t editorial staff. Before working as a full-time journalist, she graduated in computer science and worked in the IT industry, specializing in IT security.

During her editorial traineeship at the c’t, Olivia wrote an article, which was never published. This article is about encrypted postcards. The material Olivia used stems from my blog and an interview I gave her. Olivia has given me permission to publish this article as a guest contribution on my blog. To my regret, it is only available in German. Here it is, have fun reading!

 

Amörle im Notenland – die verschlüsselten Postkarten des Josef Fröwis

Um 1900 turtelten Paare gern diskret per Postkarte: Geheimschriften machten es möglich. Ein österreichischer Musiker verschlüsselte Nachrichten an seine Verlobte so gekonnt, dass sie über 100 Jahre ungelesen blieben. Heute sind sie unterhaltsames Zeugnis einer Liebesgeschichte mit Höhen und Tiefen.

Alois Mayer, Postbote im Bezirk Bregenz in Österreich, studiert kopfschüttelnd die Korrespondenzkarte in seinen Händen. Auf ihrer Rückseite steht lediglich die Anschrift der Empfängerin: Fräulein Theresia Metzler. Die Vorderseite hingegen ist übersäht mit Noten, Violin- und Bassschlüsseln, die sich zu mehrfarbigen geometrischen Mustern aneinanderreihen. Sie tanzen vor den Augen des Postboten, der blinzelnd nach lesbarem Text sucht. Nach einer Weile zuckt er resigniert mit den Schultern, wirft die Karte in den Metzlerschen Briefschlitz und geht seiner Wege.

Auf der anderen Seite der Haustür wartet Theresia mit heißen Wangen auf Nachricht von ihrem Verlobten. Wie schon so oft in den vergangenen Monaten greift sie hastig nach dem bunt bemalten Papier und geht schnellen Schrittes auf ihr Zimmer. „Warum schreibt der Josef unserer Resi nie was G’scheites?“, brummt Vater Metzler seiner Frau zu. Die lächelt nur, denkt an ihre eigene Verlobungszeit, an die Ungeduld junger Verliebter – und an die kleinen Geheimnisse, die die Wartezeit überbrücken halfen.

Unterhosen für Vater Metzler

Auch die Nachkommen des verliebten Postkartenschreibers Josef Fröwis rätselten mehr als 100 Jahre lang über die Bedeutung der insgesamt 44 Nachrichten an Theresia Metzler. In der Annahme, der begeisterte Organist habe seine Kompositionen zu Papier gebracht, gaben sie einen Teil der Korrespondenz an einen Musikwissenschaftler weiter. Für diesen ergaben die Noten Sinn – wenn auch anders als gedacht: Er ersetzte jedes der Symbole durch einen Buchstaben und knackte auf diese Weise Fröwis‘ Geheimcode.

Das Bregenzerwald Archiv in Egg, das die Karten als Leihgabe erhielt, übernahm 2016 die akribische Entschlüsselung sämtlicher Nachrichten, die Fröwis seiner Verlobten zwischen 1898 und 1900 schickte. Sie erzählen von großen Gefühlen, aber auch von ganz banalen Alltagsdingen. „ICH MUSS DEM VATER UNTERHOSEN MITNEHMEN UND DAS HALSTUCH; WENN DIE MUTTER ZU HAUSE IST SO GEHE ICH! KOMME HEUTE BIS ½ 8 UHR.“, schreibt Josef aus Reuthe in die Nachbargemeinde Bizau. Da die Post damals bis zu dreimal täglich ausgefahren wurde, konnte er sicher sein, dass seine Verlobte rechtzeitig Bescheid wusste.

Dank geringer Portokosten im Vergleich zum Brief kam Postkarten damals die Bedeutung zu, die Instant Messaging heute hat. Emoji inklusive: Reisende verschickten statt umständlicher Landschaftsbeschreibungen Motivkarten, und Liebende griffen auf Blumenmotive und vorgedruckte Gedichte zurück. Ihre Kreativität investierten sie in Verschlüsselungstechniken, um intime Nachrichten auch ohne Briefumschlag vor neugierigen Postboten wie Alois Mayer zu verbergen.

Maria und ihr Herzensaugust

Die Chiffren mussten ausreichend sicher sein, ohne dass der Verfasser Gefahr lief, seine Angebetete durch stundenlange Entschlüsselungsprozeduren zu vergraulen. Zahlreiche Postkarten, die Klaus Schmeh, Experte für historische Verschlüsselungstechniken, in seinem Blog veröffentlicht hat, dokumentieren diese  Gratwanderung: Triviale Buchstabenersetzungen herrschen vor, während Techniken wie Morsecode oder komplexe Zahlenverschlüsselungen die Ausnahme bilden.

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Kommentare (8)

  1. #1 Thomas
    10. Januar 2019

    Ein informativer und amüsanter Artikel! Die umfangreiche Postkartensammlung bietet Klaus hier: http://scienceblogs.de/klausis-krypto-kolumne/encrypted-postcards-written-by-josef-froewis-1866-1934/

  2. #2 Phil
    10. Januar 2019

    Endlich wieder ein deutschsprachiger Text in der Kryptokolumne, da lässt sich’s wieder flüssig lesen. Gerne mehr davon!

  3. #3 Colin Bierton
    Neuenkirchen
    10. Januar 2019

    This may help…

    In the 1900s couples flirted discreetly via Postcards: their secret writing making it possible. A musician in Austria encoded a message so well that, over 100 years later, it remains unreadable. Today the coded messages are an entertaining witness to the highs and lows of the relationships.
    Alois Mayer, a postman in the Bergenz region of Austria, shakes his head as he studies the postcards in his hands. Quite readable on one side is the address of the recipient, one Mrs Theresia Metzer. The other side of the postcard, on the other hand, is full of Musical Notes, Violin and Base keys, all in a multi coloured, intermixed, geometric pattern. The markings dance before the eyes of the post official, who looks quickly for any readable text. After a while he shrugs his shoulders, posts the letter into the Metzler’s post box and goes on his way.
    On the other side of the house door awaits Theresia with great anticipation for the news from her fiancée. As so often in the last couple of months, she grabs the colourful coloured postcard and hurries to her room. “Why does Josef never write anything legible to our Resi?” brawls father Metzer to his wife. Mrs Metzer just laughs, thinks about her own engagement time, about the inpatient young lover then and their small secrets that bridged the waiting time.

    Underwear for father Metzer

    Also the descendants of Josef Fröwis’ postcards have puzzled, for over 100 years, about the meaning of the 44 pieces of correspondence to Theresia Metzer. With the presumption, that the enthusiastic musician has committed his composition to paper, give a section of the correspondence to a music scientist. For they will make sense of the notes and symbols differently than anyone would have thought of. They would exchange the characters with letters, thus breaking the secret code of the wise Mr Fröwis.

    The Bregenzerwald archive in Egg, to where the postcards have been loaned, undertook in 2006, the meticulous decoding of some of the postcards, sent by Fröwes to his fiancée between 1892 and 1900. They tell of great feelings, but also of totally mundane day-to-day things. “I have to take father underwear and a scarf when mother returns home. I’ll come today until a half eight (19:30h)” writes Josef from Reuthe, a place in a neighbouring area called Bizau. As the post at that time was delivered three times a day, he could be sure, that his fiancée would get enough warning of his visit.
    Thanks, at that time, to the relative low cost of sending a postcard compared to a letter, they were the equal of someone sending an Instant Message today. They also included the ‘Emojis’ of their day; travellers sent motive pictured postcards instead of drearily written longhand letters and lovers sought out postcards with flower motives or pre-printed poems to send back. They invested their creativity in the encoding methods they used to shield their intimate messages from the inquisitive eyes of post men like Alois Mayer.

    Maria and her great love

    The encoding had to be extremely foolproof, without leaving the writer in any danger of their loved one being scared off, by having to spend hours decoding the message. Many of the postcards, posted by Klaus Schmeh (an expert for historical encoding techniques) in his Blog, document this balancing act; trivial exchanges of the letters of the alphabet for other characters come to the fore, leaving techniques like Morse Code or complex number encoding, far behind.
    Schmel’s examples show also that the composers of encrypted postcodes mostly were men. The reason for that, the crypto expert puts forward, is that single young women, like Theresa Metzler, typically lived with their parents, who watched over their correspondences as much as their good name. Josef Fröwis meanwhile travelled around Austria sending motive postcards with, for example, “Greetings from Arlbergbahn” printed on them, decorated with his secret ‘Note’ characters.

    Source: Bergenzerwald Archive

    “HOW I LOVE YOU, AS HEARTFELT, AS HOT, AS LOYAL AND TRUE AS MY LIFE TO THE WHOLE WORLD!! AS MUCH!! AS MUCH!!” he raves. And pleads “O SWEET RESI, MY NEVER-ENDING LOVING BRIDE!!!! HEAR ME BUT!!!!! PLEASE!!!! PLEASE!!!!! PLEASE!!!!!!! The answers from Resi have not survived. Clearly chaste silence was the cleverest strategy to hide Josef’s hidden messages as harmless scribbles. Maybe the young lady exchanged, in the slightest moments of being alone together, such sentiments in return as “COME TONIGHT AGAIN, MAYBE AT NINE O’CLOCK OUTSIDE THE KITCHEN WINDOW”?

    One of Schmeh’s lesser known coded postcards lets us guess how Resi’s replies may have looked. They come from 1904 and are comprised of two postcards. The first is composed of numbers and strokes and is the coded message of one August Dedering from Neuenkirchen, written to his loving Maria Scheck in Mönchengladback. Maria, not, at all shyly, answers with the tender, but encoded, words “You are the trusted sweet winner of my heart, my complete and only luck in this world.”

    Kisses without any Limits

    Not all of the 44 postcards show luck and harmony. Here and there the ‘Notes and Symbols’ show examples of disharmony. “AHH MY HEARTFELT LOVE, OH SUFFER YE NOT, TO BE MISLED BY UNKNOWN PEOPLE THAT CONSUME THE DESIRES OF THE HEARTS OF GIRLS IN THE NIGHT HELPING TO BRING THEM PEACE, THINGS THAT PULL AT THEM AGAIN AND AGAIN!” writes Fröwis, jealous of possible rivals. Erotic thoughts subtly pressured the organist, sometimes more, sometimes less. So, for example, he sent Resi a picture of two lovers in a clearing in a forest with the words “THINK ABOUT US BEING SO TOGETHER AND I LOVEING AND KISSING YOU WITHOUT ANY LIMITS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! SEE HOW CUPID FIRES HIS ARROWS!”
    We don’t know if Theresia Metzer received every single postcard so feverously or if she found Josef’s ‘Notes and Characters’ and his inflated use of apostrophes partly a sufferance. It remains unexplained also if our fictional postman guessed the secrets of the young pair. It is safe to say that Josef Fröwis took his Resi in the end to the altar and that his encoded postcard collection remains today, one of the most comprehensive of its kind.

  4. #4 werner
    10. Januar 2019

    An easy way to translate from German to English and vice versa are the various Online-Translators. For the actual combination I would prefer DeepL. But anyway, I agree it’s nice to see a German article in a German Blog from time to time. 😉

  5. #5 Alex
    10. Januar 2019

    Danke. Endlich wieder ein deutschsprachiger Text in der Kryptokolumne.
    Sehr schön.

  6. #6 Klaus Schmeh
    10. Januar 2019

    @Colin: Thank you very much for the translation!!!

  7. #7 Olivia von Westernhagen
    10. Januar 2019

    @Colin: nice work – thank you! 🙂

  8. #8 tomtoo
    11. Januar 2019

    Ja die Liebe. Sehr romantisch.