Polarfahrer: IM Banne Der Arktis [Polar Traveller: Under the Spell of the Arctic].
Until now, even in Germany, journalist Theodor Lerner has largely been a forgotten figure in Arctic history, although he spent at least six summers and one winter on Svalbard over the period 1896-1914. This situation has now been rectified through the editorial efforts of Dr. Frank Berger, curator of the Historisches Museum in Frankfurt-am-Main. Berger has edited and published Lerner's autobiographical manuscript, originally written in 1930, which is preserved among the holdings in his care, along with some 200 glass negatives from Lerner's Arctic trips.
Lerner first visited Svalbard in 1896, on board the small steamer Expres, which had been chartered by a British hunting party. At Virgohamna on Danskoya, he watched the preparations of Salomon Andree of Sweden and his companions as they built a balloon hangar and made ready to attempt a flight to the North Pole in the hydrogen-filled balloon Ornen. In the event, persistent foul winds and the insurance stipulations on his ship Virgo forced Andree to postpone his flight attempt to the following year.
Lerner managed to persuade his editor at Die Woche that he should return to Svalbard in 1897 to cover Andree's renewed attempt and to give Andree as much support as possible. Reaching Danskoya on board Expres again, Lerner and his companions watched Ornen take off on 11 July (Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography, 1930); thereafter, Lerner cruised around the north coast of Svalbard as far east as Kapp Platen, establishing depots in case Andree had to retreat to this coast. Lerner and his companions caught a brief glimpse of Ornen in the early hours of 14 July, some 35 km northeast of Sjuoyane, just before it disappeared into the fog; this was only hours before Andree and his companions were forced to land on the ice and abandon the balloon.
In 1898 Lerner headed north once again, on board the fishing vessel Helgoland. One objective was to search for traces of Ornen or Andree and his companions. Also on board were scientists F. Romer and F. Schaudinn, who were to pursue zoological and marine biological research (Barr, 1988). Helgoland cruised extensively around the archipelago and charted Kong Karls Land accurately for the first time. No traces of Andree were found, but the scientific outcome was the impressive six-volume Fauna Arctica, edited by Romer and Schaudinn, containing some 92 articles on the Arctic collections and observations from the expedition.
During his voyages to Svalbard in 1897 and 1898, Lerner had become aware of the extensive coal deposits, thus far unexploited, on Bjornoya and Spitsbergen. Hence in 1899 he travelled north in a small sailing vessel, Terschelling (Captain Lindeman), on behalf of a German mining consortium. He staked claims to the coal deposits in an area covering about 40% of Bjornoya, and trial adits were driven into three coal seams. There was considerable excitement when the Russian cruiser Svetlana (Captain A.M. Abaza) appeared off Bjornoya and a landing party raised the Russian flag. When it came to the crunch, neither government decided to press the matter of sovereignty over Bjornoya, so Lerner's attempts to develop the coal resources of the island came to naught.
Seven years later (in 1906) his newspaper sent Lerner north yet again, and again aboard Expres, this time to cover Walter Wellman's attempt at the North Pole in the dirigible America, also from Virgohamna on Danskoya. But construction of the hangar and other preparations took so long that Wellman had to postpone his attempt until 1907 (Capelotti, 1999). Lerner, meanwhile, engaged in hunting; while so doing, he spotted a large cruise ship that had run aground at the east entrance to Raudfjorden; she was the French ship Ile de France, with about 150 tourists on board. Lerner tried unsuccessfully to tow the French ship off the rocks with Expres. He then went in search of the Dutch cruiser Friesland (10 000 hp), which he knew was somewhere close by. He located her in Liefdefjorden and escorted her back to the stranded French vessel. Friesland then succeeded in towing the latter off the rocks. The grateful French tourists later sent Lerner a gold pocket chronometer.
In 1907, Lerner again went north on board Expres, to observe and report on Wellman's next attempt at a flight to the Pole, but also to carry out some topographic surveys with a new Zeiss photo-theodolite, with the aid of two officers from the Army's Topographic Division. America finally took off on 2 September, but Wellman, unable to control the dirigible in strong winds and a snowstorm, was forced to make an emergency landing on a glacier after only three hours in the air. Lerner, in Expres, spotted the stranded dirigible and helped to transport its disassembled components back to Virgohamna.
Along with Hjalmar Johansen, who had been a member of Fridtjof Nansen's expedition on board Fram and had wintered with Nansen under very primitive conditions on Zemlya Frantsa Iosifa in 1895-96, Lerner next wintered in a hut at Bohemanneset, on the north shore of Isfjorden, across from Longyearbyen. They carried out meteorological observations throughout the winter, while obtaining both exercise and fuel by mining coal from a nearby exposed seam. In April 1908, they set off northwards, bound for Virgohamna on Danskoya, with eight dogs hauling a sledge on which they also transported a kayak. Their route took them via Dicksonfjorden, then over the ice cap to Liefdefjorden and Raudfjorden; they reached Virgohamna on 15 May 1908, having completed one of the most impressive and least-known sledge trips in the history of Svalbard. Lerner then spent the summer surveying the Liefdefjorden area before returning to Virgohamna. On 16 August, the Austrian Lloyd steamer Thalia arrived and Lerner boarded her; here he met Lydia Stoltze, and they were married in February 1909.
Lerner's next Arctic expedition occurred in 1913. His aim was to search for the missing members of Lieutenant Herbert Schroder-Stranz's expedition. Having travelled north on board the schooner Herzog Ernst, Schroder-Stranz and three companions had been landed on the sea ice between Nordkapp and Kapp Platen in mid-August 1912, with sledges, dogs, kayaks, and adequate food and equipment (Barr, 1984). They intended sledging across Nordaustlandet and Hinlopenstretet, then round the north coast of Spitsbergen to Krossfjorden. They were never seen again.
Lerner's search expedition, only one of several mounted in the summer of 1913, travelled north aboard the Norwegian sealing vessel Lovenskiold from a base at Beverleysundet. Lerner and his companions searched the shores of Nordaustlandet from Nordkapp east to Rijpfjorden and north to Waldenoya, but found no trace of Schroder-Stranz. But then Lovenskiold was crushed by the ice and had to be abandoned on 27 June at the western entrance to Beverleysundet. Lerner and companions retreated by sledge and boat to Sorgfjorden, where Herzog Ernst was wintering, and returned south to Tromso with her.
In the following year (1914), Lerner had planned yet another trip to Svalbard, on board the schooner Whitrose, this time aimed at zoological and geological research. At Kongsfjorden, on 11 August 1914, he heard of the outbreak of World War I and had to abandon his expedition. Thereafter, he served on the Western Front, was made a Knight of the Iron Cross, and rose to the rank of Leutnant (Second Lieutenant). He died at his home in Frankfurt on 12 May 1931, having just completed the manuscript of his book, which would lie unpublished for 74 years.
Dr. Frank Berger is to be commended for publishing this important manuscript. Lerner's book throws interesting new sidelights on many important events in the history of Svalbard that were already quite well documented, such as Andree's and Wellman's attempts at flying to the North Pole, the Helgoland expedition, and the search for Schroder-Stranz. In other cases, e.g., his attempts at establishing coal-mining on Bjornoya, his wintering with Johansen at Bohemannesset, and their sledge trip across Spitsbergen to Danskoya, his account provides the first details of events. By including footnotes and a biographical sketch of Lerner, as well as a fine selection of over 75 photos and a number of maps, Dr. Berger has greatly enhanced Lerner's original manuscript. In short, this book is a valuable addition to the literature on the history of Svalbard.
BARR, W. 1984. Lieutenant Herbert Schroder-Stranz's expedition to Svalbard, 1912-1913: A study in organizational disintegration. Fram, The Journal of Polar Studies 1(1):1-64.
______. 1988. The Helgoland expedition to Svalbard. Die Deutsche Expedition in das Nordliche Eismeer, 1898. Arctic 41(3):203-214.
CAPELOTTI, P.J. 1999. By airship to the North Pole: An archaeology of human exploration. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
SWEDISH SOCIETY FOR ANTHROPOLOGY AND GEOGRAPHY, ed. 1930. Andree's story: The complete record of his polar flight, 1897. New York: Viking Press.
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