A Youthful Quest Fulfilled
Bob Paulson, one of the founding members of the German-Bohemian Heritage Society narrates the story of his long search for his ‘Roots’ that brought him to the ruins of the village of Neubäu in the foothills of the Böhmerwald.
I remember that as a youth my family would take numerous trips each year to New Ulm, Minnesota, a drive of about 100 miles from our home in St. Paul. As these were the war years, this was a real sacrifice because of gasoline and tire rationing. Even so, we made several trips a year to visit my grandmother Matilda or ‘Tillie’ as she was known. It was always an adventure to visit New Ulm, because this town of about 10 thousand in south central Minnesota was very rich in history with the terrible Dakota Conflict of 1862 and its rich German heritage.
It was during these visits that I gained my deep love of history. My two brothers and I would always go to the Brown County Museum to see all the interesting Indian exhibits and would also rummage around in the attic of Grandma’s old house to look at all the old clothes and the many interesting photos. But best of all we would climb to the top of the old shed in back and investigate the ‘old stuff’ from the farm. There were kerosene lanterns, cabbage cutters, butter churns, harnesses for horses and oxen; all sorts of treasures.
St. George Chapel There was an old photo that Grandma kept on her dresser, a picture of a very small chapel. I remember Grandma telling me with obvious pride, the story of her father, George Rewitzer, who had sent money back to ‘the old country’ to the village where he was born, so that the villagers could build this tiny church. As a young boy, George had had to walk to the neighboring town to attend Mass, since there was no church in the village where he lived. The villagers named this church St. George, after my great-grandfather. I was never to forget this story, and the unabashed pride my grandmother had in relating it.
These visits to New Ulm gave my life a very special direction. Old time music, feather beds, klöppeled lace from the old country, sauerkraut, schmierkuchen, dumplings and pork, Shell’s beer, homemade sausage, love of nature, the stories, songs, poems and sayings that were handed down to me by my mother and my grandmother; all this cultural wealth made up the rich legacy from New Ulm that gave me my cultural identity.
About 20 years ago, along with many others, I became interested in my ‘roots’, in the origins of my cultural heritage. I looked once again for the old photo of my great-grandfather’s chapel, and found, in addition to this, many other photos taken in the old country. I never really knew where the ‘old country’ was. I remembered that my grandmother spoke German and that New Ulm was a very German community. After much research, I discovered that not only were my great grandaparents Germans, but they were Germans from Bohemia, part of what is now the Czech Republic, but when they emigrated, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I also learned the story of the Sudeten Germans and of their horrible expulsion from their homeland after WWII Rewitzer Family.
I was determined to get back to the ‘old country’ to see my great-grandfather’s little chapel. In 1978, my mother Rose, my wife Dorothy and I traveled to Bohemia, in what was then Czechoslovakia, on a genealogy tour. This country was then under very strong Communist control. The borders were very heavily fortified with barbed-wire fences and watch towers. We flew into Germany, crossed the border from Bavaria at Furth im Wald to the homeland county of Bischofteinitz, which in Czech is Horsovsky Tyn. We were horrified to see the condition of the villages. Many of the homes were falling down. The churches and cemeteries were in disrepair. We found out that what few inhabitants there were in this part of Bohemia had been forcibly moved from eastern Czechoslovakia to work in the the collective farms. These workers did not want to be here and had no intention of keeping up the community in which they were forced to live. Many of them were, in fact, Gypsies. Most of the people who worked in these collective farms lived in drab, crudely built concrete apartment flats built on the outskirts of the villages.
We had made all our travel arrangements through CEDOC, the Czech Travel Bureau. We were probably the first American tourists in this area since WWII We stayed in the Hotel Trauber which once was a very fashionable hotel, but had been converted into a austere workers hotel.
I had very detailed German maps of the area, and our plan was to visit the villages in which my mother’s grandparents were born. We traveled first to the village of Muttersdorf where the Grossman family originated, and located the ruins of the Grossman home and the mill that Joseph Grossman operated for the landlord. We also visited the very beautiful church of St. Bartholomew which was in very poor repair. Much of the ceiling and the walls were water stained and the plaster was falling because the roof was in very bad condition. Next we saw the cemetery and were horrified to find that many of the stones from the graves had been removed and piled in a corner of the cemetery. We were delighted to find that most of the names on the gravestones that remained were names of families found in New Ulm, Minnesota. After visiting Muttersdorf the plan was to visit Neubäu and the chapel of St. George. Little did we know what awaited us.
Leaving Muttersdorf we crested a hill and were surprised to find that the neighboring villages of Gross-Gorschin and Klein-Gorschin no longer existed. They had been totally destroyed, wiped off the map. This was the first indication to us that all the villages near the border had been destroyed by the Communists. The panorama from this point was breathtaking. We could look out and see the beautiful Böhmerwald, the fabled Bohemian Forest, the lush woodlands and rolling hills, that made the early immigrants to America so homesick for their beautiful homeland.
At this point on the road we noticed a signpost. Since we could not read Czech and since other cars were traveling this road, we continued on to the bottom of the hill and turned along a road that ran at the edge of the forest. Only then did we notice the barbed-wire fences, the search lights, and the tank traps.
Just then a young Czech soldier appeared out of the woods in front of us and motioned for us to stop. He came forward and reached into the car to take our keys and asked for our documents. He left us there and as we waited we looked up to see a watch tower with a soldier looking down aiming an automatic weapon at us.
The young soldier soon returned with his portly sergeant. We tried to explain that we were American tourists looking for the villages of our forefathers. Because we spoke no Czech and they spoke no English or German, we were not able to communicate very well. We did learn, however, that we would be detained until the Communist officials from Bischofteinitz came. We waited patiently, enjoying the beautiful surroundings, the lush forests, and the gently flowing stream nearby. Presently their car pulled up behind us and a tall man with very tiny round glasses, got out. He was wearing a long trench coat. He looked exactly how you would expect a Communist official to look.
Accompanying this austere individual was a very ruddy faced soldier who could speak German, probably from East Germany. My mother quickly explained that we were looking for the village of Neubäu and did not mean to do any harm. The Communist official told us that we had broken the law and that we would have to be punished. He did not immediately explain what the punishment would be, and, of course we envisioned the worst. Maybe we would be imprisoned and no one would ever find us.
Presently the young Czech soldier came back to our car with our passports. We were then fined 100 Kronen for our crime and were escorted back to our hotel in Bischofteinitz by the German soldier and the Communist official.
Later that day, while driving out of Bischofteinitz, I was again stopped by the police. I was immediately given a breathalizer test for alcohol. I passed, of course, but was fined again because I had taken off my seat belt while waiting in the car. The rest of our stay in Bohemia was very uneventful by comparison. This was my wonderful welcome to my homeland!!
We later learned that the village of Neubäu had been destroyed, and that the place were we had been detained was within a few hundred yards of the old road to the village. We also discovered that this was a very famous escape route from Czechoslovakia and that seven persons had been killed trying to escape near here during the past year. In the ensuing years between 1978 and 1993 my wife and I went back several times, but my mother was too afraid to go back to Bohemia ever again.
When the Iron Curtain came down in 1989 and the Czechs became free people, all the barbed-wire fences and guard towers were taken down and travel restrictions in the border area were removed. We were finally free to visit Neubäu. The former inhabitants of County Bischofteinitz, the Sudeten-Germans, who had been forcibly expelled from their homeland in 1946, returned by the thousands to visit the homes that they had not seen for nearly forty years. Many of them camped in the village squares renewing friendships with their neighbors that they had not seen for so many years. It must have been a very emotional experience.
I, too, had the opportunity to return to my ancestral ‘homeland’ during the summer of 1993. I had arranged to lead a tour, sponsored by the German-Bohemian Heritage Society from New Ulm, to visit Bohemia and to attend the Bischofteinitzer Heimatkreistreffen. This is a week-long reunion of inhabitants of Bischofteinitz during which they gather together in the Bavarian border town of Furth im Wald to renew acquaintances and visit their homeland across the border in the Czech Republic.
During this reunion, I was fortunate enough to meet several people who had been born in Neubäu, and had plans to travel there the very next day. They told me that if I wanted to go along, they would be very happy to take me. Of course, I readily agreed to join them. I could hardly sleep that night in anticipation of fulfilling my dream of so many years. I was actually going to see my great-grandfather’s village of Neubäu!
My new friends arrived at my hotel early the next morning in a small camper van. During the drive through the beautiful countryside I was to learn much about them, my family, and the village of Neubäu. I soon found out that Matilda, one of my new friends, was my third cousin. George Rewitzer was her great-grand uncle. She knew all about him. She new exactly where he had lived, that he had emigrated to America, that he and his sister had sent money back to Neubäu for the construction of the chapel, and that his family had sent CARE packages to her family after the war. I also found out that, in 1949, the chapel was the first structure in the village to be destroyed by the Communists; an example of their hatred for the Catholic church.
After a drive of over an hour, I began to recognize familiar landmarks. We were on the same road which we traveled in 1978. Here was the same stream alongside the road. Here was the spot where we were arrested, but the barbed-wire fence and the guard tower was gone. Vivid memories raced through my head. We drove a few hundred yards further and pulled off the forest road. I then noticed a sign nailed to a tree which read ‘Neubäu 2 Km’. I was finally going to see the village where my great-grandfather was born.
We crossed the small stream, the beginnings of the Radbusa River, and started climbing a rather steep, rock strewn road. We passed though some incredibly beautiful forest land flanked by small fields and pastures on which some cattle could be seen grazing. Wild roses were blooming everywhere alongside the road. We proceeded up this hill for maybe an hour when we sighted the first ruins of the village of Neubäu. The view from there was breathtaking. One could look out and see a beautiful panorama of the the hills and forests of the ‘Böhmerwald.’
My cousin showed me, with tears in her eyes, the ruins of the home in which she was born and the school which she had attended as a child. I had brought along with me detailed maps of Neubäu showing the locations of my great-grandfather’s farmstead and of the chapel of St. George. Further up the road we came to the site of house #6, the home of my great-grandfather George Rewitzer. Standing proudly on either side of the entrance waiting to greet us, were the two stone gate posts, complete with their rusted hinges. Nothing was left of the farmstead but a pile of stone where the house once had stood, and a small part of the wall of the attached barn. It was a very overpowering feeling to be standing on the very spot from which George Rewitzer departed his home in 1869. I tried to imagine what it was like for him, a boy of 17, to say good-bye to his family and to know that he would probably never see them again. This was a moment that I will treasure for the rest of my life.
On the very top of the hill we found the ruins of the chapel. At long last I had found my great-grandfather George Rewitzer’s chapel in Neubäu. I was overcome with joy. I then knelt down and said a short prayer in thanksgiving. I had come to the end of my quest that had begun nearly fifty years ago at my grandmother Tillie’s house in New Ulm, Minnesota.
Meanwhile, my friends were looking though the ruins and unearthed a piece of the tile roof and a small section of the interior wall of the chapel which they proudly presented to me. I now have these treasures, along with the photo of the chapel that I received from my grandmother, displayed in an honored place in my home. I was told that the citizens of Neubäu intend to use a metal detector to try to locate the wrought iron cross that once stood atop the chapel and to build a memorial to the people of Neubäu with this cross as the centerpiece.
On our return down the hill I cut some wild roses from a bush that grew at the entrance to my great-grandfather’s farmstead. I later placed these blossoms on George Rewitzer’s grave in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. As we continued walking down this beautiful forest road we simultaneously began to sing, ‘Es war in Böhmerwald, wo meine Weiege stand,’ (It was in the Bohemian Forest where my cradle was…,). A truly fitting ending to one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.
Shortly after I returned home from my visit to my ‘Heimatland’ in June of 1993 I received a exciting letter from my cousin Hilde Wörhlin from Germany. She wrote me that a beautiful wrought iron field-cross had been found in a grove of trees by three young girls tending cows in the pastures of House #16, Vogelhaus, the home of my great grandfather. This cross was then taken to Germany and refurbished and was to be the centerpiece of a memorial to be erected in June 1995 on the site of the Chapel of St. George in Neubäu. She said that delicate negotiations had been going on with the Czech authorities and the mayor of the neighboring village of Waier to erect this memorial, because there was still a very technical question about the land ownership in this area. The problem was circumvented because the memorial would be erected on churchland. She concluded her letter by asking if I would be able to come and represent the family of my great grandfather George Rewitzer at the dedication ceremonies in 1995. The villagers of Neubäu wanted the ‘American’ to be with them on this great day. I quickly answered her letter and told her that I would be very honored to come.
The day of our journey dawned bright and sunny as we all gathered at the Festhalle in Furth im Wald. We formed our large caravan of cars behind a large tour bus for the trip to Neubäu. We crossed the border without incident; in fact all we had to do was wave our Passport; no different than crossing into Austria. After about forty five minutes, we began to drive on the very road where my wife, my mother and I had been arrested in our attempt to reach Neubäu in 1978, before the Iron Curtain had been lifted.. The memories of that day came back to me in a rush. In fact, the caravan stopped within a few hundred yards of the exact spot of our arrest. We had been that close to our goal in 1978.
Neubäu is located at the crest of the Neubäuer Höhe, a height of land rising several hundred meters above the Radbusa river valley The village is two kilometers, about 1.6 miles off the main north-south road near the border with Bavaria.
The journey to Neubäu is by way of a washed out, rock encrusted road that first crosses the tiny brook that is the beginning of the Radbusa river and then slowly winds its way amidst hardwood forests, though fenced meadows and crop land to the crest of a large hill. From this place one can look out and see the beautiful surrounding Böhmerwald, the Bohemian Forest. A sign in Czech and German, Novosedly, Neubäu, points up the hill.
It was an inspiring sight to see the great number of people gathering for their pilgrimage up to Neubäu. There were babies and toddlers who would be told some years hence, that they had been to Neubäu on this special day. There were teenagers who were to see the site of the village for the first time and whose parents had share their many memories with them. They were to find there roots for the first time. There were those in their late fifties and early sixties who were pondering their many fond memories of their childhoods in Neubäu. And there were old folks walking proudly up the hill with the help of canes and walking sticks who, on this day, were reliving all the pleasant memories of their years in their beloved village, and who again were tasting the bitterness of being torn from their beloved ancestral homes. I was very moved by the sight of the nearly one hundred people slowly making their way up the winding road to Neubäu. I was very proud to one of them. I felt the real presence of my great grandfather George Rewitzer with me.
After a strenuous climb of about a half hour or so we came to the ruins of the proud little village of Neubäu. On either side of the road, in groves of trees, one could make out the remains of what was once were cozy farm steads. The piles of moss covered stone marked the walls of small homes and barns. This was all that was left of a village that had been home for hundreds of years to an honest hard working and God loving people. We passed the ruins of the fire hall with its fire pond . We passed the remains of the school where a group of townsfolk were gathered telling stories of their school days long ago.
We continued up the winding road to the far the north eastern corner of the village where my cousin Hilde took me aside and showed me the farm stead from which my great-grandfather emigrated in 1869, over one hundred twenty-five years ago. Standing proudly guarding the farm were the two gate posts with their now rusted hand forged hinges. A row of moss coved stones marked the limits of the small house and barn and, off in the corner, stood another pile of stones that was once a small hay shed. That was all there was left. The sum total of years of work by countless generations of Rewitzers. What a tragedy!! Why?? A question repeated thousands of times in this world of unanswered questions.
After I spent some reflective moments, I was proudly shown the Rewitzer spring that joyfully bubbled out from some rocks on nearby hill. I had finally found the source of the Rewitzer family. I was told that the spring could always be counted on for fresh, clear water even in the driest of years. I reached down and took some of the cool water and washed my face. The feel of the cool water began to refresh my spirits. We reluctantly left the Rewitzer farm stead and proceeded another fifty yards or so up to the summit of the hill where once stood the Chapel of St, George. My great grandfather had sent several thousand dollars to help pay for the construction of this chapel. The villagers had asked him to come to Neubäu for the dedication ceremonies, but he said that he was already too old for such a strenuous journey. Now, over eighty years later, I had the privilege to represent the Rewitzer family at the dedication of this memorial.
On this promontory overlooking the beautiful Böhmerwald shining proudly stood a splendidly crafted wrought iron cross mounted on a stone base. On the cross itself was the inscription ‘To the memory of the Church of St. Georg, Neubäu 1911-1950’. On the base was attached a ceramic plaque with a picture of the little chapel, the same picture that I had seen so many years before at my grandmother’s house in New Ulm. The memorial itself was set on a platform made of stones taken from the ruins of the chapel. Surrounding the memorial were placed beautiful displays of wild flowers. It was truly a magnificent memorial.
Already gathered at the site were the many pilgrims who had labored up the hill. An altar covered with a hand made lace altar cloth had been set up. On the altar two large candles stood flickering in the ‘Böhmishe Wind’ which continued to blow quietly.
The dedication ceremony began with a hymn sung with appropriate reverence by all. Presiding at the blessing were a Czech and a German priest . The Czech priest was the pastor of the parish of Ronsperg. He gave me a nod of recognition for it was this same priest who had welcomed our German-Bohemian Heritage tour group to our `beautiful homeland’ in 1991 and had said Mass for us at Berg in the very church in which my great grandfather Helget had worshipped. Special guests of honor were the Czech mayor of Waier and the `American’, the great-grandson of George Rewitzer, — me.
Speeches were given by Erich Gaag, the Neubäu Ortsbetreuer (town leader), and Hanna Fabian, the person most instrumental in erecting the monument. I was also asked to say a few words. I presented a short talk in German where I pointed out that one hundred and twenty five years ago my forefathers were forced to leave their beloved village for economic reasons and fifty years ago the people assembled here were forced to leave their homes for political reasons. Both groups brought with them the same cultural legacy which made it possible for them to prosper in the new homes. This legacy is the bond that joins all of us together as one people, proud German-Bohemians.
After the memorial was blessed, Franz and Gretel, a well known folk duo, sang ‘How Great Thou Art’. The words seemed particularly appropriate for this day. As we concluded the ceremony by singing ‘Tief im Böhmerwald’ we could hear thunder in the distance echoing from the hills. The wind also began to pick up. It began to changed from a gentle warm breeze into strong gusts from the north. Rain began to fall, slowly at first but quickly changing to a steady downpour. Umbrellas mysteriously appeared and everyone began to make the long and difficult journey down the winding road in the heavy rain. Footing was particularly hazardous. The rocks, and grass became very slippery. A small river began flowing down the winding road. Everyone was soaked. Lightning flashed. Thunder boomed. Several four-wheeled vehicles, driven by Czech policemen, came up the the hill to assist the elderly.
As we finally approached the bottom of the hill, we had to cross a large open field. Suddenly a large lightning bolt lit the sky followed by a deafening crash of thunder. We were terrified!! Then I began to smile. It was just my great-grandfather George Rewitzer saying `good bye’ or better still ‘Auf Wiedersehen’, ’till we meet again.