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A Last Gasp on Magic Mountain Last Gasp; The Alpine Sanatorium is About to Close Its Doors After 150 Years

November 25, 2004

Karl-Heinz Helmus and Friedrich Baumann have only a pair of lungs between them. The British and Soviet armies saw to that. In 1944, Helmus was travelling through Luxembourg in a German military convoy when it was attacked by Allied planes. The bombardment blasted him from his vehicle and deprived him of the use of his right lung. The following year, Baumann was hit by a Red Army grenade during the battle for Konigsberg. Hot metal fragments punctured his left lung – and four years in a Russian labour camp robbed him of the chance of recovering its use.

Since then, they have spent part of every year in a sanatorium in Davos, the resort in the Swiss Alps, 1,600 metres above sea level, where the air possesses recuperative properties that have yet to yield all their secrets. Retirement – Helmus from his job as an electrical engineer, Baumann from an import-export business – increased their appetite for this form of therapy.

In the dining room at the Hohenklinik Valbella, they sit nursing cups of rose-hip tea and taking in the view: the fir trees, the lights in the valley below, the moon over a rocky peak so beguiling that Thomas Mann named a book after it. On the Magic Mountain, the old men can breathe easily.

“It’s not just for our physical illnesses,” Baumann says. “It’s for our well-being. Coming here is like being part of a family. That’s what the atmosphere is like. That’s why we all feel so well here. That’s why we’re so shocked that this place is closing down.”

A century ago, asthmatic and tubercular patients from as far away as Rio de Janeiro and Ulan Bator dragged themselves to Davos to lie on rattan loungers and breathe in the glacial air. The town, deep in the Swiss Alps, was a pathological colony in which the ill outnumbered the healthy, and the economy thrived on malady and death. Wealthy patients in its 30 sanatoriums paid for food and clean linen, X-rays and arsenic injections, fresh-cut flowers and ironed shirts. And when they had no further need for such services, they required someone to find them a plot with a view, someone to rope their cadaver into the bobsleigh, someone to hack through the frozen earth and provide them with a permanent place of rest.

Today, only four establishments remain. Chemical therapies have replaced traditional tuberculosis treatments; war veterans are too infirm to travel; asthmatics rely on Ventolin. Valbella will close this month, ending 106 years of medical practice at the site. At least two other clinics are scheduled to follow. If Baumann and Helmus wish to return, it will have to be to the Wolfgang, a more impersonal institution. They are not enthusiastic. Baumann has visited the Valbella for 15 years, Helmus for four. “The Wolfgang is more hospital than sanatorium,” Baumann says. “I may stay at home.”

They are not the first to fall under the spell of the Valbella. In May 1912, Thomas Mann steamed into Davos-Dorf station, the unfinished manuscript of Death in Venice in his case. He came for a three-week visit to his wife, Katja Pringsheim, in Davos receiving the kind of treatment prescribed for bronchial cases since the mid- 19th century. Every day she was wrapped in layers of camel-hair rug, laid out on the balcony and given as much yogurt, butter, soup, chicken and cake to eat as she could. Her husband’s famous account of a “long building, with a cupola and so many balconies that from a distance it looked porous, like a sponge” is a description of Dr H Phillipi’s International Sanatorium which, in 1918, changed its name to the Hohenklinik Valbella.

In The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp, a young engineer, visits his cousin, Joachim, in the International Sanitarium Berghof. Among the patients are Herr Albin, given to disrupting meals by pressing a revolver to his head; Karen Karstedt, suffering from necrosis of the fingertips; and a monocled teenager who, Mann writes, “carried his little finger, with its abnormally long nail shaped like a salt spoon, to his mouth when he coughed, and was manifestly a first- class donkey.” Oddest are the Half-Lung Club, survivors of the pneumothorax operation. (“They fill you up with gas,” says Joachim, “nitrogen, you know – and that puts the cheesy part of the lung out of operation… Hermine Kleefeld is the pride of the group because she can whistle with hers.”)

The journey to the sanatorium is much the same for me as it was for Hans Castorp. When I change at Landquart to connect to Davos, my tattered copy of the novel proves a useful guidebook. “Here,” Mann writes, “after a long and windy wait in a spot devoid of charm, you mount a narrow-gauge train; and as the small but very powerful engine gets under way, there begins the thrilling part of the journey, a steep and steady climb that seems never to come to an end.” It still thrills. The squat red train grinds around vertiginous alpine bends, skirts the trees, edges up snow- covered slopes. It’s only at Davos-Dorf that the confluence between fiction and reality comes to a sudden end.

The Valbella’s cupola has yielded to a boxy structure of whitewashed concrete. The balconies could still take any number of sun-worshipping consumptives, but nothing remotely spongiform remains. “The building was renovated in the 1950s,” says the medical director, Dr Konrad Hartung: “renovated,” I assume, being a Swiss term meaning to raze a building and substitute it with something entirely different.

The ethos, however, is unaltered. Hans Castorp intends to stay for three weeks. He gets out seven years later. Few people I meet at the Valbella have worked there for fewer than 20 years. Hartung arrived in 1975. A soft-spoken man in his early sixties, his features betray his conviction that the sanatorium is a terminal case. The German government no longer wants to pay to send patients over the border, and private patients are disinclined to make the trip. “People are anxious for their jobs,” Hartung says. “If they come to a sanatorium, they might find they don’t have a job to go back to.”

The Valbella’s German owners have sold the land. The building will probably be demolished. Hartung believes the sanatorium system, which has treated patients since the 1840s, will die. “It’s a great shame. The atmosphere up here stimulates the immune system. Did you know that if one breaks a leg in the lowlands, it takes much longer to heal than up here at altitude? We don’t know exactly why, but it happens.” I thank him for his time. He shrugs. “It’s no problem. There aren’t very many patients.”

Some remember the days when Davos was thronged with invalids. Terry Hewett, the superintendent of the Valbella bath house, says his father-in-law, now in his nineties, grew up in the Wolfgang sanatorium, where the family came as patients in 1904. The old man can recall meeting pneumothorax patients whose operations had been carried out with a sharp knock with a wooden mallet – and the pfennigs he earned mopping the blood of deceased consumptives from the floors.

The story is also told by the sanatorium’s archive. Maria Hohmann disgorges files from the time of Mann’s visits. The pictures show that the mountain was bald then, the fir trees hacked down to warm the rooms of the 2,000 patients. I flip open a folder. Here’s an advert boasting of the sanatorium’s modern fittings: a lift, electric lights, central heating, a laboratorium sputum- disinfektionsapparat. Here’s a photo of the Rontgen Room, with a fearsome X-ray machine – surely the model to which Hans Castorp submitted, condemning himself to a seven-year admission.

There are shots crowded with the faces of tubercular and asthmatic patients: boys doing drill in the snow, each in only a pair of flannel knickers; inmates jostling on the balconies, hollow- eyed, smiling weakly. A list of patients from spring 1913 reads like a world congress of pulmonary dysfunction. Jose Raymundo Saraiva from the Brazilian Amazon; Herr Ti- hsian-Hsu from Peking via the Trans-Siberian; Professor Hajek from the Volga valley. What a Babel of languages mealtimes must have been.

In the dining room that night, the Valbella’s last residents – a group of about 20 German pensioners – occupy tables under the panoramic window. Only one waitress is needed. My companions are an elderly East German doctor with rheumy eyes, and a retired couple from Munich, who demonstrate, with great delicacy, how I should scrape my leftovers into a plastic tub.

The meal is a pale, processed ghost of the food described in Mann’s novel. Hans Castorp dined on a chaud-froid of chicken garnished with crayfish and stoned cherries, and ice-cream and pastry in baskets of spun sugar. Our evening meal was cold meat, prawns and slices of gruyere and pumpernickel, followed by a sponge pudding slicked with industrial jam. The food at the Wolfgang, I’m told, is worse.

I make for the two oldest diners: an oval-faced octogenarian with neat Arctic-white bristles under his nose, and his more taciturn companion. Friedrich Baumann and Karl-Heinz Helmus turn out to be members of Valbella’s present-day Half Lung Club. Baumann tells me about the action he saw in Konigsberg, then the capital of East Prussia, absorbed after the war by Russia and renamed Kaliningrad. “There was a huge offensive by the Red Army, and we became trapped.” He describes the impact of a Soviet grenade, traces the places on his face and chest where the fragments became imbedded. “I was bleeding internally, but I could still breathe. But there was no possibility of getting to a hospital. The Russians threw us into a prison camp in that condition – you went in wounded or that was it. Fortunately, I’d always been a healthy person. Nature helped me to heal.”

From Konigsberg, Baumann was transferred to a labour camp in Estonia. “At first I did the full workload, but my condition got worse. I was suffering from dystrophy. Complete malnutrition.” He had trained as a hairdresser, so his captors allowed him to become one of the 5,000-strong camp’s 10 official barbers. “You had to cut off all the hair because of the fleas and lice,” he says, loosing an uproarious giggle.

Baumann was repatriated at the end of 1949. The sanatorium system, he argues, helped him to live another 50 years. “This sanatorium is in the best location. It’s very modern. We don’t understand why it’s closing. There are plenty of people in Germany who need therapy and rehabilitation. Asthma and allergies are increasing. There are many people who would find it good to come here. But the state is mean.” Tuberculosis, he notes, is on the increase in Europe.

The waitress is impatient for us to leave. The two veterans finish their rose-hip tea, and shuffle out. I ask if they’ve read The Magic Mountain. They exchange sceptical smiles. “Der Zauberberg?” Baumann says. “It’s a very large book.” The waitress snaps off the lights. Through the window, the moonlit peak looks pitilessly cold.