HOHENFELS, Germany (July 11, 2014) -- Within the Hohenfels Training Area, the ruins of Schmidheim village usually play host only to the bats that nest in the renovated church tower, but once a year the area comes alive with laughter as former residents and their relatives gather for their annual reunion.
The more than 40 square miles that comprise the Hohenfels Training Area once housed 88 towns and villages. When the German army first created the training area in 1938, 544 properties and farms were taken over.
In 1951, when U.S. forces claimed the training area, the base was expanded and an additional 780 families were relocated, among them the 58 inhabitants of Schmidheim.
Roughly 60 guests assembled at the remains of the village, July 5, to share memories, honor those who have passed, and rejoice at being home.
"This is a very important thing for the elders, and also for the younger generations when they can see the land where they come from," said Guenther Mitschke, whose mother-in-law, 92-year-old Franziska Kremser, is Schmidheim's oldest living former resident.
"People in cities don't feel the same," Mitschke said, "but we people from rural communities feel more connected to the land; it's part of who you are."
The Schmidheim reunions have been occurring for nearly a decade, but this year's get-together featured a special guest. Brig. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, commanding general of the Joint Multinational Training Command and soon to be deputy commanding general, United States Army Europe and Seventh Army, in Wiesbaden, Germany.
Piatt said he felt honored to be allowed to share the day with the Schmidheimers.
"It reminds you how strong a community is," said Piatt. "You can come and see ruins. You can look at landscapes, read stories and look at old photographs, but until you meet the people who tell a story from the heart, you don't really understand the history."
Though little remains of Schmidheim today, the crumbling walls of one of the village's most important structures still stand, and guests delighted in sharing stories about the old "gasthaus" and brewery, with its one-lane bowling alley.
Regina Roedl, born in Schmidheim in the 1920s, told how the owner was also a musician, and the young girls of the village would all gather on the pub's second floor, where he would play and teach them to dance.
"It's nice to hear that story exactly where it happened," Piatt said. "I think that being here is helping them remember the details as they talk about their childhood. That's the foundation of their whole lives, and it all happened here, and [now] they're here, and this is just a wonderful experience."
Frieda Ohneis, 86, lived in that guesthouse. Her father was the owner and musician, as well as the butcher and blacksmith. She led her family through the ruins, pointing out the room where her brother was born, where she lived, where they brewed beer.
"Every time I come back, I have all the pictures in my head, all the memories are still there," Ohneis said.
Not all the memories are pleasant, though. Ohneis indicated an alcove above the door and described a glass-enclosed crucifix that had once rested there. One day in 1945, at 2:30 p.m., it fell and shattered.
"My mother said, 'something bad has happened, I feel it,'" Ohneis remembered.
The family learned six weeks later that Ohneis' brother, a soldier in the German army, had been killed at that exact moment in Russia.
Ohneis' 24-year-old granddaughter, Theresa Conradin, has attended the reunion seven times and always relishes the opportunity to visit Schmidheim.
"It's a little like home for me, too," she said. "There's so much history and it's really cool for my grandmother that her whole family comes along."
In fact, four generations of Ohneis' family attended the reunion, including Eduard Goss and his wife, daughters, and grandchildren, the youngest only 4-years-old.
"It's difficult to explain all the emotions," said Goss' daughter Katharina, speaking for her family. "It's important for us to see where our grandmother and our grandfather grew up. They were married in this church. The first son was born here, so it's really historical for us."
With children playing and dogs rolling in the grass, old friendships were rekindled and memories shared. Mitschke looked around at the group, smiling.
"When today is over, they will all just be waiting anxiously for the next meeting," he said.