HOHENFELS, Germany -- The more than 40 square miles comprising the Hohenfels Training Area once housed 88 towns and villages. During 1938-1939, the German army confiscated the land for use as a training area. Hundreds of families were forced to relocate, never to return.
Born in one such village, Bergheim, Paulina Carman was just 11 years old when her family was compelled to abandon their farm and depart the Upper Palatinate region of Germany.
"The German army came and handed us a flyer and said we had to leave," Carman said. To this day, she says she still doesn't fully understand why.
Though Carman never thought she'd see Bergheim again, through the efforts of her nephew Johann Seibert, Norbert Wittl, U.S. Army Garrison Hohenfels public affairs officer, and Lt. Col. John J. Strange, Jr., USAG Hohenfels commander, the now 84-year-old woman once again walked the hills of her childhood home.
"Everything looks so different," said Carman as she stood by the old church that is virtually all that remains of Bergheim today. Refurbished as a bat sanctuary, the church stands mere yards from where the Schott family farm once flourished.
Paulina Schott became Paulina Carman when she married American Soldier Robert Carman in the late 1950s. After the birth of their first child, the family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where Carman currently lives with her daughter, likewise named Paulina Carman.
"My mother has a book about Bergheim that explains about the families that lived there, especially at number 12 (the Schott farm)," said the younger Carman. "At home in the States, she has it out all the time, showing me photos and telling me about the neighbors and such. Even though it was so many years ago, it's still fresh in her mind."
The elder Carman is one of 12 Schott children and said it was very difficult for her father to be uprooted and moved from his home. The family migrated to the Lower Bavaria region of Germany where they moved several times before settling in Hobmannsberg.
The visit to the old homestead became a family event with 17 members of Carman's extended family making the trip with her, as well as two former classmates from her old school in Schmidmuehlen. For them, the experience was just as moving.
Nephew Hans Schwager said the most he'd ever seen of Bergheim was a towering tree spotted from the distant hill of Kreuzberg.
"I always said to my wife that one day I will go to Bergheim, but she told me to forget it," said Schwager. "This is truly wonderful."
Carman is one of only two surviving members of the Schott children. She came to Germany this April to visit her 95-year-old sister for what may be the last time.
"They get together and talk about the old times," said the younger Carman. "A lot of the stories she tells me, you don't read in the history books."
One such story involves German soldiers arriving on the farm and pressing Carman's brothers into service.
"They were farmers, they didn't understand about the war," the younger Carman said. "But they were told, 'Get on the truck or we'll shoot you.'"
Even today, memories of the war influence her mother, the younger Carman said.
"We take so much for granted nowadays," said the younger Carman. "They had to salvage everything. Even today, if there's a moldy piece of bread, she'll tear the green part off and eat the rest. I'm like 'Mom, what are you doing? We can throw this away,' and she'll say, 'You didn't live through the war; I did.'"
Having visited the remains of Bergheim now, the younger Carman said she has gained more of an understanding of her mother and her past.
"It excites me to be able to see this," said the younger Carman. "Looking at the pictures in books, hearing her tell the stories, and now actually being here, it gives me a sense of closure. I can just imagine the trauma they had to go through."
Standing among the overgrown lots amidst the crumbling ruins of a once thriving village, Carman said she felt sad for all that has been lost. Yet she still loves her old home.
"I'd build a house and live here if I could," she said.