|Part 2: War Comes to Baumholder|
|Construction on the military training area began shortly after resettlement of the families. By 1939, large numbers of German and Austrian units were trained in Baumholder, the 1st AD Museum brochure reports. The initial group of Rommel’s 15th Division Afrika Korps was trained at this location but Herr Grimm said Rommel himself was never in town. Likewise, Herr Grimm laughed that some Baumholder residents falsely claim “Rommel’s bed” is still preserved in the Aulenbach training area!
The prewar years in Baumholder brought unease along with prosperity. In 1936 the Nazi Party established Baumholder’s first Kindergarten in an attractive building next to the Protestant Church. But three years later, the sunny classrooms looked out on a military field hospital instead of a church. The German Blitzkrieg to the west in May 1940 prompted conversion of the Catholic Church of St. Simon and Jude into a Lazarett, and fresh military graves would soon appear in the shady cemetery next door. Before long the 1499 bronze church bell was melted down for the war effort, not to be replaced until 1953. Even street names were changed to represent the Nazi ideology. Schoolchildren greeted their teachers with “Heil Hitler”, though Frau Heintz said she and her girlfriends suppressed giggles at the exaggerated Nazi salute of their schoolmaster. Young men were conscripted for military service until “there was hardly a man in town”, according to Frau Ruth Grimm. Baumholder was at war.
Both British and American bombers attacked Baumholder in 1944, damaging the rail yards and several buildings. Even the Catholic Church took a stray shell from a German munitions train in Jan 1945. Unfortunately, Baumholder was also in the flight path of Allied bombers heading to Frankfurt and the chemical plants along the Rhine. US bombers hit by antiaircraft fire along the WestWall sometimes jettisoned weight by dumping their bomb loads over the border regions. A B-17 navigator, COL (ret) John Parker, declared these events “made European farming a dangerous occupation for many years”.
The Baumholder area plotted a ground defence as the Allies moved closer to the German border. Herr Grimm reported anti-tank ditches were dug and armed, and German Infantry received armor-piercing weapons. Fortunately the defence of Baumholder was abandoned as the Allies approached, and the Wehrmacht withdrew downhill toward Kusel and the Glantal Valley without confrontation.
A document in the Army War College archives reported active “VolksSturm” units in the Rhineland area in 1945, with terrain precisely mapped and assigned into areas of responsibility. The report lamented that US troops were unable to sort the “good guys” from the “bad guys” due to the language barrier, and were hampered by a lack of qualified translators. In another foretaste of future conflicts, Army commanders complained that locals educated enough to be fluent in English were suspected to have been leaders under “previous management”.
The human cost of WWII is felt most strongly in two locations in Baumholder: the Rathaus and the cemetery. Those primarily interested in WWII history or short on time should try to visit at least these two sites in the Altstadt of Baumholder, even if they miss the equally interesting Middle Ages locations or other WWII points of interest.
A framed display of over three hundred tiny photographs hangs just inside the Rathaus entrance, mutely marking Baumholder’s war dead between 1939 and 1945. The faces seem alive as they gaze out on the bustling traffic through the town hall. Today a diminishing thread of common blood and old friendships links the men on the wall to the Baumholder residents who pass without a glance. Without adjusting for age, these photos represent a startling 16 % sacrifice of the total male population of the town. Indeed, Herr Grimm reported that only thirteen of the 23 men in his Baumholder school class survived the war.
At an estimate of eight wounded for every combat death, another 2400 Baumholder men must have been wounded. Herr Grimm, himself seriously wounded three times in North Africa, doesn’t know the exact figure but solemnly agreed that perhaps a thousand local men came home wounded. His own nine month POW confinement in Topeka Kansas was spent undergoing “maybe five or six” surgeries in a US military hospital. “Your penicillin saved me”, he smiled, and “your good doctors”. A prisoner exchange in January 1944 returned the young Sergeant back to Germany, weighing only 96 pounds and with his right leg seven centimetres shorter than the left. Disabled or not, three days after arrival home in Baumholder he was ordered back to duty in Wittstock.
A second testimony to Baumholder’s war years is the town cemetery, located between the two churches on the highest point in town. A WWI monument in the shape of an Iron Cross topped by a pyramid stands at the rear of the cemetery. A few meters in front of this monument stands a cluster of slender metal crosses, one for each year of WWII. When viewed from the entrance, the WWII monument lines up perfectly with the WWI pyramid. As one steps back further, past the religious monument by the gate, the raised arm of Jesus cradles both the WWI and WWII memorials.
The military graves between the monuments contain both actual and empty graves, Herr Grimm said. The fallen were brought home for burial when possible but this was impractical on distant battlefields in Africa, France, or Russia. The cluster of graves between the monuments adheres to German military tradition which buries soldiers with their comrades, not their family. Comparison of the photos in the Rathaus with the few graves in the cemetery tells a somber story: hundreds of Baumholder men still lay far from their home and families.
The present cemetery was opened in 1914 when WWI deaths exceeded the capacity of the earlier cemetery adjacent to the Protestant Church. The location of the old cemetery is now occupied by the church playground; the earlier burials remain where they were.
An incident in 1941 links Baumholder to the Hinzert Concentration Camp, about 25 km northwest of town. According to information in the Hinzert museum, seventy of the 300 Soviet POWs held in the Baumholder troop training area were rounded up and trucked to Hinzert late one evening. These men had been identified by the Trier Gestapo as “Commissars”, Russian Army officers tasked with training Communist doctrine. Under the guise of a medical examination and vaccination, the men were injected with potassium cyanide in the quarantine area. A mass grave in the forest was already waiting.