“Rothenburg ob der Tauber 4 km,” a sign announces as the car drifts to as stop at a “T” in the road. Samuel puts the car into gear and I rouse myself from a nap as we lurch forward and turn left. I crank up the seat to an upright position to catch a glimpse of the rolling hills of corn and wheat.
One century ago, a great grandfather of mine emigrated from this town according to my cousin’s research. My late grandmother’s stories placed her father’s hometown as Nuremberg, which with the approximations of an elderly memory suggest the little town of Rothenburg, about 80 kilometers to the west, as a probable place. Both of her parents immigrated to the United States as adolescents together with their families, leaving the rolling hills of Bavaria far behind for a new life of economic opportunity in Baltimore.
As a child, I obsessed over this distant ethnic identity as a German. It was one of my fascinations I fell into with a deep, though ephemeral intensity. I acquired a German flag for my collection, a book that I never read on Adenauer, the German leader during the reconstruction after World War II, and a pocket-sized German dictionary, which fit conveniently into my pencil box so that I could look up important vocabulary like “geschlecht” during the school day. I repeated the few German phrases that my mother taught me like mantras passed down from her grandparents:
“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
“Ich spreche kein Deutsch.”
The town emerges from the farmland first as a gas station and set of shops, then in its medieval splendor, complete with town wall, moat, and watchtowers. We park on the side of the road and follow a path around to the main gate where a cobblestone street flows in lined with old Tudor houses with signs indicating restaurants and shops. We walk into a restaurant and order a pizza to go. We have 15 minutes to explore before the pizza is ready and then we must return to the road. Samuel amuses himself by playing the role of tour guide and pointing out various sights of supposed relevance to my family history. “…And this is your great grandfather’s house, here the well where he drew his water…”
Samuel tried to talk me out of our detour here while we were stuck in traffic several times on the autobahn around Stuttgart, but I tried to convey its importance to me, which he found a little funny, since I have no living relatives here. He graciously accommodated my desire however by making the one-hour detour on the way to his family reunion in the north.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber was founded in the 12th century and prospered until the Thirty Years’ War when the Count of Tilly, commander of the Catholic League, decided to quarter his troops there. Rothenburg was a Lutheran city, but easily overcome by the troops who left it empty and impoverished after their several month stay. The Black Death arrived a few years later and virtually wiped out the remaining residents, leaving the town as a fossil not uncovered until the 19th century by artists and tourists. The Nazis adopted Rothenburg as the archetypal German hometown and the state leisure organization arranged frequent day trips for the masses from all across the country.
We walk down the hill to the black stained stone of St. James Church before turning around to meet a hoard of Japanese tourists about to attack the gothic structure with their cameras. We sneak around them and climb back past the numerous gift shops, restaurants, bars, and inns inviting us in with multilingual chalk signs placed on the cobblestone street towards where our pizza waits for us. I snap a few photographs and we take our pizza outside of the city wall where we find a bench to sit and chow down. I gaze back at the city as we walk to the car and prepare for the long journey north to the Sauerland, where Samuel’s family still lives.
The next morning we arrive at the wooden gate of his uncle’s retreat. There are two fish ponds fully stocked with trout fed by the stream at the back of the property and a small lodge in between with its door open and several people loitering outside. Smoke issues from a charcoal grill and the scent of freshly grilled sausage wafts through the cool air. The people approach us with handshakes and hugs and I am introduced to a series of aunts, uncles, and cousins as a friend visiting from America. We set up our tent beside the stream and settle down to a meal. Samuel’s elderly grandfather is eager to try his broken English out on me by telling stories from his life, much to the amusement of the others. After eating and taking a rest, I decide to go for a run in the countryside.
At my grandfather’s funeral the priest called my cousins and I up to the altar for his homily. He explained the symbol of the candles on the altar representing Christ.
“Candles provide light just as Christ was the…?”
“Candle!” I blurted out.
“Not quite,” the priest said.
“Light of the world!” said my Catholic school educated cousin.
A dirt path adjacent to the stream eventually pours into a paved road. I follow the road as it meanders between sloping pastures without a car or person in sight. I breathe in the fresh air warmed by the afternoon sun and continue to a “T” in the road. A small white chapel sits in the grass across from the intersection. I enter through a gate and look through the open door of the chapel. There are two or three candles flickering before an image of Mary holding the infant Jesus. I lower myself onto the kneeler and fold my hands intending to pray, but no words come. I stare at the rather uninspired icon of the holy mother for a moment before standing up and turning to a bag of tea lights placed on a shelf on the right wall. I strike a match and place the candle on the altar, silently departing to continue on my way.