A trip down memory lane
June 20, 2013
VILSECK, Germany -- As the rain drizzled down in the early evening, May 31, 100-year-old Otto Wiesmeth plowed through an overgrown path, here.
His grandson, Alexander, held on to his opa's left arm -- at times assisting, other times just trying to keep up.
It was here, in the area between Rose Barracks' Main and Back gates, where Otto spent his formative years in the early 1900s.
But in 1937, as the German government expanded the Grafenwoehr Training Area, Otto's parents, along with more than 3,500 residents of neighboring towns were evicted.
And though Otto spent his entire life within about 100 miles of Rose Barracks, today was the first time he had returned to his childhood home in the past 76 years.
Franz Zeilmann, media and community relations officer for U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr, guided Weismeth and six family members as they looked for remnants of old structures near the Main Gate.
They found nothing but foliage and light tracks from the former Reichstrasse 85, which ran just east of what is now Big Mike Lake.
Zeilmann followed the old road's path, pointing out that many of the housing areas are named after towns that were absorbed during the expansion like Kittenberg, Gruenwald and Langenbruck, where Otto spent the majority of his youth.
Near the back gate, just past the intersection of Constabulary Boulevard and Old Ironsides Street, the group stopped at the Langenbruck Cemetery.
Peering out from under his umbrella, Otto recognized the name of his town's butcher, Suttner, but commented on how few of the graves still existed.
Many of the evicted residents had disinterred and reburied their relatives in other towns. Only about 40 plots remain.
As they exited Rose Barracks' back gate onto the training area, Alfred Wiesmeth, Otto's son, used a combination of old photographs and a 1950s era map to pinpoint various landmarks.
Down a soggy, gravel strip, which is now a troop marching road, Alfred located the old bahnhof in one direction, and 100 meters from that, his father's childhood home.
"With Navi (GPS), you never know where you are," said Alfred, who admitted he has always had a fascination with maps.
A mass of 30-foot trees and thick bushes had overrun Otto's old neighborhood, strangling the vestiges that might have provided a window into his past.
A few kilometers away, the group paused at the Wolf Hunter's Chapel, a humble 17th century structure surrounded by more woods.
According to local lore, a hunter shot and wounded a wolf, which then attacked him. As he battled the wolf and prayed for divine intervention, his son appeared, and with one shot, killed the wolf. The hunter built the chapel as a symbol of his gratitude.
Outside the chapel, Otto's face lit up as he shared stories from his youth. Wearing a permanent, wide grin, his long earlobes shook as he talked.
He attended high school in Regensburg, served an officer in the German army, studied math and physics in Munich, and taught high school in Weiden, where he still lives today.
"He always studied and learned throughout his life," Alexander said of his grandfather. "He saw (learning) as a way of getting out of this area, which was very poor at the time, to make a better life. He never stopped learning, perhaps that's why he has lived so long."
Alfred recounted one of his father's anecdotes that occurred immediately after World War II in May 1945.
Because German citizens were forbidden to travel between cities at the time, Otto hopped on his bicycle and rode from Munich to his wife's family's farm near Vilseck, about 50 kilometers from the Czech border. Each time he encountered a checkpoint, he ducked into the woods and continued his trek.
He was eventually caught near Weiden, and spent a few days in a holding camp before completing his journey.
Like Otto, many of the families who were evicted in 1937 remained nearby. Most re-established themselves in Wolfskofen (near Regensburg) or the newly created Sorghof, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary, July 26-29.
Former residents and their family members still attend tours throughout the year that are put on by the garrison, Bundeswehr, Bundesforst and Grafenwoehr's Heimatvorein (cultural association).
In addition, each year on the Sunday after Allerheiligen (All Saints' Day), Nov. 1, the garrison hosts former residents at the Langenbruck Cemetery. Zeilmann said last year about 60 people attended but the numbers dwindle each year.
So how did it feel to be back after all these years?
"It's a little depressing," Otto said. "Everything has changed and only the Wolf Hunter's Chapel and the cemetery are still here."
Throughout the rest of the tour the rain never let up. I asked Otto if the weather here was this nice in the '30s.
He said it was always this beautiful.
Some things never change.