|Part 1: Baumholder & Erzweiler in the Early War Years|
|The combat arms post of Baumholder is often overshadowed by Ramstein, its flashy neighbor thirty miles to the southeast. Yet this hilly town of 4800 Germans and 13,000 Americans has its own chapter of WWII history beginning with the German military buildup in the 1930’s.
In 1937 the German Army needed additional military training sites for its troops. The area north and northeast of Baumholder was chosen for its diverse terrain and sparse population, and development of a massive military training site was begun. The Baumholder site eventually joined Grafenwoehr, Wurzberg, and Bamberg as German Army training areas which remain in use up to this day. Unfortunately, the designation of 25,000 acres as a training site in 1937 prompted the dislocation of over 4000 inhabitants from 13 villages and 14 farms. The human cost in establishment of the training site is mirrored in one woman’s story.
Erzweiler: The Hidden Costs of the German Military Buildup
Gerda (Neu) Heintz of Schoenenberg/Kubelberg enjoyed an idyllic childhood in the village of Erzweiler, east of Baumholder. Her well-tended home stood on the main street, just adjacent to the present site of the war memorial. Down the street was a stone two-story school for the village of 600 people, built in 1920 and serving about 35 children. Frau Heintz’s father worked in the coal mines while her mother stayed home with the two children. A late 1930’s photo of the school, with the Neu family home in the background, shows the schoolmaster tending a garden of late summer flowers while children play around the school and on the street. Frau Heintz said her home was so close she could shout to her mother when she left the schoolyard for lunch!
This rural region enjoyed a tentative prosperity in the middle 1930’s as construction of the “West Wall” along Germany’s western border brought jobs and public works projects to the economically depressed area. Then a 1937 order from ReichsKanzler Adolf Hitler changed the fate of Erzweiler: the ground had been selected for a military training area, and the villagers would be evicted and the buildings razed. A late 1930’s slogan painted above a bar in Erzweiler now reads like a warning: “You are nothing, the People are all.” The resettlement began in January 1939 with the departure of ten residents, soon to be followed by six more families. The final eviction date was postponed to allow the dedication of the War Memorial, but by April 1942 Erzweiler had been officially incorporated into the training area. Permission of the German Army and later the French occupation forces allowed a few residents to stay until total destruction of the village in 1974.
Frau Heintz said the dislocation of her family from Erzweiler changed the course of her life. Shaking her head with sadness, she said her girlhood friends and family scattered throughout the region, everything familiar disappeared, and “nothing was ever the same again”. The relationships outlasted the destruction of the physical realm, though, and endure to this day.
Frau Heintz said the government payment for their Erzweiler property allowed her family to purchase a home and large lot nearly 50 miles away. Today she lives just a few meters from where her parents relocated after the eviction from Erzweiler. Baumholder historian Herbert Grimm noted that payment for appropriated land was in many cases “not generous” and occurred after the war started, when it was difficult to buy anything of value. In addition, the municipalities were paid for land in treasury bonds through the German government, and the currency devaluation in 1948 slashed 90% of the value.
The cost of the military training area was not measured solely in money, however, as the fourteen villages were erased over the next few decades. The war further dispersed the population and friends lost touch. Frau Heintz’s charming home in Erzweiler, the schoolhouse, the shops – everything was eventually razed to the ground in the years between 1939 and 1974. Forty years later Erzweiler is marked only by a crumbling wall, a small chapel, and a war memorial. A dwindling group of Erzweiler natives meets every May for a “Heimattreff” – a hometown meeting - remembering old times, taking photos, and renewing friendships that go back seventy years. Former resident Anne Bohmers, now of Baumholder, poignantly expressed her feelings in a 1999 poem published in the Rheinpfalz newspaper:
O Erzweiler, my home
No place can be more beautiful to me
We loved you with our entire hearts
And think of you now with pain.
We stand today in this valley
And see our home as it was in earlier times.
Then go my thoughts from house to house,
Today so deserted and sad.
In a few years, the aging group of lifelong friends will dwindle even further and only a written record will attest to their disrupted lives.
|Baumholder's Stadtweihe in the 1930's|