The RVH Archive – note attached to FarFlung but Unlost, a letter-based narrative of exile and migration in war-time, ed. M.E.T. Horn 2022

The letters that comprise Far Flung but Unlost had been filed at the time of the various exchanges. That is letters-in were placed in binders as they were received – with individual binders reserved for family correspondence; for correspondence with colleagues and friends; business and authority letters; and for correspondence with the extended family and friends of the family from Cologne days. Carbon copies of typed out-correspondence were similarly filed; handwritten letters to parents were carboned when a machine was not available. The binders would have been used in responding to mail, and keeping tabs on delays or mail that may have been lost en route. 

This system was in place from the time Robert Horn left for Australia, equipped with the goodwill of his teachers and family, and introductions to trading partners of the family firm. It was not only a matter of keeping track of mail being sent and received, but of his embracing the immediate uncertain future stripped of citizenship by transferring his allegiance to a new country. In this the family Horn’s experiences compare with many others. 

What marks them out is not their particular circumstances, – with war and the closure of borders threatened, all non-Aryan Germans were in this situation – but the remarkable survival of the physical cache. Almost all letters written and received for the period from when Robert left the RSS Strathmore in Melbourne in November 1937 through to the end of 1944 are present, and have survived the 50 years from when they were placed in tea chests in a watery basement of suburban Sydney.. 

By November 1944 Robert Horn was engaged and shortly to be married, only to be called up within days for overseas service in the AIF, foreshadowing a new chapter for him as it was to be for his correspondents. The discursive exchanges with his German family of the previous 7 years were dramatically rejigged in the 18 months of war-enforced separation from his new wife. Needless to say the marriage survived and thrived. The urge to record life around persisted, reflected in a 50-year uninterrupted run of annual roneoed family letters that followed marking domestic milestones for the benefit of distant friends and family. 

It is difficult not to see an unexpressed intention behind the re-emergence of this systematic record. The letters in the shape we have received them give a window on the scattering of society – families, extended and intimate, individuals, institutions – and its reinvention in new, far-flung, places, yet with core connections – loyalties and affectations – intact, indeed ‘unlost’. For this reason we refer to the cache as an archive. It is not that RVH was famous or did remarkable things justifying retention of any scrap that may shed light on character, formation or motivation. It is rather an archive in much the same way as the log of a ship charting new waters acquires an historical cachet. For each letter there is a sense that the future is not determined, that the charivari of encounters and episodes form the leitmotif to larger cultural, political and social shifts of which they are indicators.   

It is hoped that for a reader, generations on, knowing from the outset how events are to unfold, unlike for the protagonists and walk-on characters, the passage through the letters can transcend the circumstances of their accumulation to give an authorial commentary on the times and the transformations in social relations observed that is both readable and retaining scholarly authenticity.     

Stephen Horn

Canberra, October 2022


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