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Jose Rizal and his Secret Mission

Jose Rizal was a man with a plan, and that plan would lead him to hop from one European nation to another.  

It is widely known that Jose Rizal is a prolific writer and revolutionary. The same goes for him being a polyglot–able to converse in 22 languages–and of course, being regarded as a Philippine national hero. What isn’t discussed all too often, however, is his trip to Europe, particularly his stay in Germany, through which he had forged bonds with people who would help him produce his iconic novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, and garner achievements that added to his already-glowing legacy.

Curious about that not-too-often-underscored part of the hero’s life, I attended Inspirien: The Life of Rizal in Germany, a forum that documented Rizal’s exploits in Berlin, Wilhelmsfeld, Barcelona, and other parts of Europe, held at the Enderun Amphitheater. Guiding me and a flock of students through Rizal’s tour were Lucien Spittael, the foremost Rizal scholar in Europe, and Dr. Fritz Hack, the great grandson of Pastor Karl Ullmer, whom Rizal considered a dear friend.

Piecing together Rizal’s stay in Europe wasn’t exactly a cakewalk–a fact that the two illustrious speakers can attest to–but the heroic ophthalmologist from Laguna was known to update his travel diary whenever he felt or encountered something he deemed significant, as if travel blogging were already a thing during the late 18th century. Pepe, as he was nicknamed, was also skilled in magnetizing people not only through his writing, but also as a natural charmer. As many accounts have implied, Rizal was an expert in blending in seamlessly with people whom he just met, and was even better with the ladies.

And so his journey began, a chunk of which was presented to us by Lucien Spittael.

Lucien Spittael, Rizal in Europe

An eye for education

Rizal’s primary goal in leaving for Europe in 1882 was to complete his education. He had completed a course in ophthalmology at the University of Santo Tomas so he could perform eye surgery on his cataract-stricken mother. Little did his countrymen know that he had another mission, one that would lead to him to inspire fellow revolutionaries through his writing. But before any secret plan could take place, he had to go to Spain unnoticed–even by his mother. From there, he had to learn the ropes in the countries he intended to visit, as well as expand his knowledge base.

On the way to Madrid, Rizal had to go through several countries by ship, which included Singapore, Sri Lanka, Italy, and France. He was enamored by Barcelona after a not-so-favorable first impression, and took note of the air of liberalism that pervaded the city: a far cry from what the Philippines was experiencing at the hands of its Spanish colonizers. Already a proficient writer at the time, he penned his very first essay in the country, Amor Patria, which was met with raves by Filipino publisher Basilio Teodoro Moran. That would lead to a couple more write-ups that also elicited praises.  

By autumn of 1882, Rizal traveled to Madrid, where he would earn a medical degree in 1884, Licentiate in Medicine, and a diploma in philosophy and letters in 1885. To complete his training in ophthalmology, he had to learn from a renowned professional, Dr. Louis de Wecker, who was well known for using a pair of scissors in performing surgeries. Rizal’s skill in the field vastly improved as a result. He also took the time to meet up with friends: painter Juan Luna and fellow writer and medical student Maximo Viola, who would aid him later in his journey.

Rizal’s next stop was Heidelberg in Germany. He worked at the University Eye Clinic under esteemed ophthalmologist Dr. Otto Becker, and furthered his education by attending forums conducted by other luminaries in the field. Important as his medical profession was, however, it was his summer break during that time that would lead him to meeting a personality who would expand his philosophies and, in part, help him out with his secret mission.

Rizal’s German friend and mentor

I asked Lucien if Rizal’s written works were in any way influenced by his tour of Europe prior to returning to Manila. “I’m sure, and thanks most probably to Pastor [Karl] Ullmer,” he said. “Rizal had been always talking to Ullmer, and Ullmer told him how people were living in Germany. Rizal picked up a lot of things from him.”

As it turned out, Rizal’s secret mission was to observe the lives, cultures, laws, and governments of the countries in Europe, in preparation for liberating the Philippines from Spain’s tyrannical rule. And Karl Ullmer, a Protestant pastor from a small town near Heidelberg called Wilhelmsfeld, made sure that the Filipino revolutionary got his fill of European life and sensibilities to further stoke the fire in his belly.

Rizal met the amiable pastor on his trip to Wilhelmsfeld during his summer break from work, and stayed with the Ullmers for around three months. The forum’s second speaker, Dr. Fritz Hack–Karl’s great-grandson–best explained the Filipino’s initial reaction to the Ullmer household.

Dr. Fritz Hack, great grandson of Pastor Karl Ullmer

“The Ullmer family practiced a way of life that had appealed to Rizal from the very first moment on. [Rizal], a stranger, almost conveniently felt at home in the midst of the family members who appreciated him with no reservations as an equal.”

Having experienced and witnessed racially motivated oppression from the Spaniards in the Philippines, Rizal naturally gravitated towards the kindness of the pastor. He wound up participating in family activities, including daily chores and entertaining guests, and appreciated the fact that Pastor Ullmer and his family had a knack for deep discussions. The pastor had a brilliant mind and was of strong character, which delighted Rizal. Apart from the daily deep dives, there was also a rumor that he found inspiration in one of the pastor’s kids, and their relationship might have gone a tad beyond the bounds of friendship.

“Rizal was very willing to join Etta in watering the garden for over half an hour when the sun was rising,” Fritz mentioned. “I think he had nine girlfriends. Etta might be number 10. She was so close to his heart as he was close to hers.”

Given that loving household, Rizal had to learn the language to know more about the country, and the good pastor had no qualms helping him in that regard. But instead of easing him into the German vernacular, Pastor Ullmer–perhaps out of respect for Rizal’s intellect–opted to lodge him in a bind in the way calculus jars the minds of students. He taught the Filipino German by using William Tell, a book that was anything but basic.

Rizal eventually learned German, and that opened him up to other spheres of knowledge that the pastor was willing to impart. Recognizing the lad’s skill as an artist, Ullmer taught Rizal how to draw cartoons, making the latter one of the first Filipino cartoonists. And through comic strips, young Pepe was able to express his humor and veiled commentaries in a medium outside of writing. It also helped that the two frequently talked politics and European culture, with Ullmer bringing Rizal to his parsonage: a nearby establishment where he would regularly chat with a friend–who happened to be a Catholic priest–over wine. Rizal found the relationship peculiar, given the fundamental differences in faith and practices between Catholics and Protestants.

Rizal’s cartoon creation

According to a manuscript written by Rizal, as read to us by Fritz: “There were two servants of God. There were brothers and good brothers from the conversations which went almost every day for the space of more than three months I was in Wilhelmsfeld. I think I have learned only one lesson if I’m not mistaken. I found respect for every idea sincerely conceived and put to practice with conviction.”

We can assume that that line of thought stuck with Rizal as he recognized that he had a mission to fulfill, aside from operating on his mother’s cataract. He wrote a letter to Czech professor Ferdinand Blumentritt–the start of a correspondence that would last until the time before Pepe’s death–and, with a heavy heart, had to leave and continue on with his journey.

Finishing Noli Me Tangere

While in Madrid in 1884, prior to arriving in Germany, Rizal had intended to co-write a novel with friends Pedro Paterno, Maximo Viola, and other Filipinos who were present. But plans fell through, so he had no recourse but to write the book himself. He had already finished half of Noli Me Tangere in Madrid, so, upon leaving Heidelberg, he planned to finish his novel and have it published. He also had to continue with his mission to get to know more about Germany and other European nations.

Rizal arrived in Leipzig on August 14, 1886, and attended lectures conducted by a German historian and a well-respected anthropologist. Remembering his days with Pastor Ullmer, he translated William Tell into Filipino so that his countrymen would know of, and perhaps draw inspiration from, the tale of independence. Not satisfied, he went on to translate several fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, including The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, The Fir Tree, The Angel, and The Little Match Girl.

“I am amazed that Rizal was able to quickly translate. German is not an easy language to translate,” Lucien remarked, noting Pepe’s high intellect. And with that intellect, he was able to discover three new species of animals after arriving in Dresden. He was also able to quickly connect with scientists and scholars in Berlin thanks to his association with Blumentritt.

Knowledge and skill were two things that Rizal had an abundance of, but there was a looming problem: money. The funds coming from Calamba were slow to arrive, and he was running out of cash to proceed with his tour of Europe. Fortunately, he was a personable fellow. Personality came with a cult of influence, and eventually the funding that he needed.

“Rizal didn’t have money. He always needed money, but got funded thanks to Maximo Viola. He toured Europe with Maximo Viola,” Lucien said.

With the financial constraints temporarily behind him, Rizal was able to finish Noli Me Tangere on February 21, 1887, and had it printed on March 21 of the same year. Copies of the novel–which portrayed the Philippines as a land stricken with a cancer of the Spanish kind–were sent to Blumentritt, Viola, and his Filipino friends and peers. He was petrified at the thought that the novel would not gain traction.

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Little did he know how many generations of Filipino students would know his novel by heart.

The Road to El Filibusterismo

After Noli had been published, he proceeded with his European tour with Viola, which brought him back to Dresden and Bohemia, where he finally met his European pen pal Ferdinand Blumentritt. The two hit it off instantly, with Rizal giving Blumentritt a painted portrait, and Blumentritt introducing Rizal to his contemporaries in the scientific field. After that, Rizal proceeded with his tour.

He traveled to Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Italy, and settled for a bit in London, where he started annotating and copying by hand Antonio de Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, a documentary account of the Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines. It was at this time when the La Solidaridad, a revolutionary organization of which Rizal was a part, and to which he contributed essays and editorials, offered Pepe editorship, but plans fell through due to disagreements and him being occupied with Sucesos.

Upon arriving in Ghent, Belgium, Rizal elected to work on a sequel to Noli Me Tangere, replacing the hopeful undertones with something darker and more cynical. He stayed at the place of Philippine general Jose Alejandrino, ruminating on the plight of the Filipinos at the hands of the Spaniards, the outrage he felt over it, and perhaps the afforded ideals of the European nations he had visited. Those ruminations eventually became the novel that would be known as El Filibusterismo.

He finished El Fili in 1890, and dedicated it to three martyr priests who were executed by the Spanish: Marcelino Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora. The book was first published in Ghent in 1891, and would soon reach his friends and peers, including Blumentritt.

Mission complete

With his European tour completed, Rizal made his way to Hong Kong to practice ophthalmology. There, he fulfilled his primary mission to operate on his mother’s eyes.  

He returned to the Philippines in 1892 and established a civic revolutionary group in La Liga Filipina, his thoughts perhaps still on the European societies that he had idealized. In the years prior to his return, word got around about his novels, making him a target of the Spaniards in the Philippines, and so he was implicated in a rebellion. As a result, he was exiled to Dapitan, where he would complete both his original mission as well as his secret one.      

While in exile, he successfully extracted the cataract on his mother’s right eye, and even went on to discover more species of animals. Even though he opposed the armed struggle of the Katipuneros, the Filipino fighters had already made him an inspiration and a battle cry in their battles against the Spaniards.

By the time he was arrested and sentenced for execution by firing squad in 1896, he was already widely recognized as a patriot and a hero by Filipinos. As a final act of defiance, he turned around to face his Spanish executioners while he was being shot, purveying the immortality of an idea sincerely conceived and practiced with conviction–liberating the Filipinos in spirit.

Not long after, liberation from the Spaniards would happen in 1898, and eventually from all colonizers in 1945. Rizal did not live to see the fruits of his secret mission, but the ideas he embodied were central to the revolution that led to the country’s independence. He was there the entire time.

After the lecture, Fritz was kind enough to leave us a parting shot, something that he recommends that we remember Rizal by. “Take him as a light in the dark.”   

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