Erna Heinen-Steinhoff (1898-1969) spent many parts of her youth on a Westphalian estate: The Ahse House near Soest, in the municipality of Weslarn-Bad Sassendorf. Her wealthy family - the Steinhoffs zur Ahse - had been guardians of the estate since the 18th century, which they left to be managed by their stewards.
Her stays at the Ahse House, first as a young girl and later as a grown woman, would count among the happiest days of her life. She would always recount these times with great enthusiasm. The large parties and the outings she undertook on the old estate gave her material for many an anecdote. The painter Erwin Bowien (1899-1972) wrote in his wartime diary from 1944 about how Erna Heinen-Steinhoff would tell him of the exuberant festivities, the two and four horse drawn landaus belonging to the surrounding landowners which filled the courtyard, the legion of maids who toiled in the kitchen of the house to prepare their extravagant banquets, and the enormous kitchen that stored 200 eggs for baking, and how her cousin once daringly ascended the manor’s staircase on horseback following a night of drinking.
For some protagonists of the artists’ colony “The Black House”, the “Ahse House estate” was to become essential for survival during the Second World War and in the post-war period.
The estate first served as a hiding place for the painter and opponent of the Nazis Erwin Bowien (1889-1972) in the course of April 1943 as an asylum seeker, after the Wehrmacht’s invasion of the Netherlands. He was forced to leave his home in exile in Egmond a.d. Hoef and to wander without valid papers from safe house to safe house throughout the German Reich. There is a small ink drawing of Justus Steinhoff zur Ahse wearing a top hat dated from 9th April 1943, which stands as proof to this. This drawing is most likely to have originated from the Ahse house estate. Erwin Bowien’s time in Augsburg has since been verified.
Erwin Bowien’s supposed stay at the Ahse House in 1943 would have only been a minor episode in the history of the Black House artists colony. In the truest sense of the word, the Ahse House estate would only become vital to the survival of Erwin Bowien, Erna Heinen-Steinhoff and her family in their years of hunger following the end of the war. In 1945, Erna Heinen-Steinhoff, her husband Hanns and their children returned to the Black House in Solingen from Kreuztal-Eisenbach. However, there was not enough food to go around.
In his autobiography, “The beautiful play between spirit and world: My life as a painter”, Erwin Bowien writes of the regular journeys during the time of hunger from 1945 to the Ahse House via the “Soester Börde” to collect food from the Steinhoffs. (Interestingly, he does not name the estate, but rather only mentions Erna Heinen-Steinhoff’s relatives). He wrote in his memoires of the journeys he would from Solingen to Soest in overcrowded trains in conditions that would be unimaginable today every six weeks, where he would then make the final leg to the estate on foot. Weighing a mere 50kg, he would return to the Black House laden with potatoes and bags of wheat.
He once returned with two hens, which were unfortunately crushed to death in the overcrowded train. In these memoires, he makes no illusions to the fact that his muse, Erna Heinen-Steinhoff, and her young daughter Bettina would not have survived without the food delivered from the Ahse House.
The stately home of the Ahse House estate, on the banks of the river of the same name, had a plain blue exterior, beautifully situated amid a forest of tall trees. Its most important feature was its distinguished double staircase. The estate’s large hall housed a beautiful baroque white stone fireplace, with the year 1720 engraved on it. This is likely the year the stately home was constructed.
However, the estate had existed since the Middle Ages. King Frederick II of Prussia granted the estate manor house status in 1756. The stately home on the Ahse House estate was demolished in 1965 due to its disrepair. Erna Heinen-Steinhoff came to the estate for the final time just before its demolition and was left shocked upon leaving the property. She arranged for the painter Erwin Bowien to paint a visual of the house. A bungalow was built where the manor house had previously stood in the 60s. The most significant of its remaining constructions is the large timber-framed barn dating from the 18th century. The estate is now private property and is not open to the public.
The author would like to thank the historic Weslarn working group for providing the historic photographs of the Ahse House estate and for the provision of information pertaining to the history of the estate and the Steinhoff zur Ahse family.