Read “His Last Trip to Germany, Part I” here.
In the summer of 1938, Mathias Noehl of Holsthum, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany, who had immigrated to America as a young man in 1886,1 returned for a final visit to the place that he considered to be the paradise of his youth. He wrote of his experiences in his memoirs, excerpted here.2
Holsthum, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany photograph, 2009; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2013.
When Mathias reached the town of Trier, near his home village, he exclaimed, “Oh joy without end! Is it a reality, or only a dream? After forty-four years, back to Trier.” Mathias entered a restaurant, and wrote, “I was served a good meal by a girl from the Mosel, who looks very much like my wife, when fifty years ago she offered her garden products for sale in the market place of Trier. The drinks were also good, but when I made known to her that I came from America, the friendly features of her face froze up and all my hopes to be treated kindly vanished.”3
Although his spirits were dampened by the encounter, Mathias continued, “As I was desirous to reach as quickly as possible my native village, which was five miles distant to the west, I went to an auto-livery. They brought me over the hills of the forefront of the Eifel, to Holsthum.” He reunited with his relatives, and was disheartened to note the absence of those who were lost in the World War:
“The sadness written on their faces gave me to understand how much they had suffered from the shortness of provisions after the World War. Our creator will judge severely those nations who let mountains of foodstuff spoil rather than to help their fellow man, especially the children.”4
Mathias’ return to Holsthum was wrought with emotion. He wrote, “God has helped me to find the way to my old home, but the hour of meeting my relatives again was full of sorrow. Reaching hands, shaking hands, tears of joy running to the earth, I asked myself, ‘Has God spared me no suffering?’ Oh, if only I had remained hidden in my exile in North America.”5
He continued, “Through the lines of the living I hurried to the cemetery, more than one thousand years old, to the kingdom of the dead, to the graves of my parents and brothers. In our house at home, I found all the pieces of furniture […]. There was the old kitchen range in its old place, on which my mother had prepared so many good meals for her seven boys, and shed also many a drop of sweat, and wept tears for her children who were scattered now in all parts of the world.”6 Mathias also visited the Shankweiler Klause, a church located in the forest, for a religious holiday:
“It was very beautiful, especially the singing, which could be heard from the heights of the rock, in all the adjoining valleys. It was so good that I had the privilege to sing with my comrades for the last time in that memorable church. May the echo of our singing be heard from that rocky height for many generations, till the end of time.”7
However, Mathias noted, “The mood of the people was not as joyful among the visitors as in my childhood days. The many baskets of cherries, which on that occasion were formerly sold there, were not there. A late frost had killed all the fruit blossoms, a hard blow for all the Rhineland. Of the many tents, where formerly toys were sold, there was only one left. But the thirst was well taken care of; there was plenty of beer to be had. Though the fruit harvest was a failure, the wheat crop was so much better due to the artificial fertilizer, which was not known formerly in my younger days. They now produced a double crop.”8
Mathias wrote of his time in Holsthum with a sense of wistful melancholy, stating, “I knew well that my stay could not be of long duration, so I made use of every hour to view once more the paradise of my youth, with all the objects of interest that had remained.” He described the two rivers, the beautiful forests, and the fruit trees which he had helped to plant decades before. At one point, Mathias settled down for a nap beneath those trees, admiring the fields before him.9
He wrote, “Awaking from sleep, I did not remember right away where I was […]. The river, flowing close by, threw off its disguise, and proved to be the Enz, and a shout addressed to me from the hill, ‘Heil Hitler,’ recalled me from my condition of drowsiness, into normal consciousness.” Mathias revived himself with coffee, and, “After that, being out of tobacco, I went to the store to buy the much-coveted tobacco, but tobacco is so loaded with taxes that it has to go up in smoke mixed with many herbs and leaves.10
St. Rochus, Holsthum, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany photograph, 2009; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2013.
“Next day I paid a visit to the chapel of St. Rochus. It was clean, in good repair in spite of its age of 500 years; Christ’s chapel built on a lovely road. May yet many pilgrims enter into thy roof to seek and find consolation. Then I visited the fields which were once the property of my parents and grandparents, and were now divided among brothers and cousins.”
“At last I came to the most beautiful valley of our district. To hear once more the echo, I sang, I called, I shouted, all in vain. The inhabitants of the mountain opposite remained silent, and Theresa Miller, the dairymaid of the same age as myself, whom I saw sixty years ago tending the cows, was not to be seen. Only an eagle flying over a high rock pierced the quiet landscape with its pitiful cries, as though complaining to the misfortune of the Fatherland.”11
Mathias paused to reminisce at a mighty walnut tree under which he recalled his elderly grandfather would enjoy his afternoon naps. Then, “Saying farewell to the paradise of my grandfather, I turned towards the village and suddenly found myself face to face with my old dairymaid, Theresa.” This was a bittersweet reunion, as they exchanged news of long-lost friends.12
Mathias attempted to visit his godmother in Allsdorf, a village four miles away, but he faced difficulties: “The road to this place had been changed during my absence […], and so I lost my way in the beautiful forest. For three hours I ran over roads that were prohibited […] on account of army maneuvers, trying to find my way out.” Mathias happened upon the ruins of the Castle Prümzurlay, where, in the eighteenth century, his grandfather had conducted an orchestra to entertain the noble inhabitants.13
Prümerburg and Prümzurlay, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany photograph, 2009; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2013.
The next day, Mathias was able to find his way to Allsdorf, and he was pleased to find his relatives well. However, upon his return, he had to avoid the army maneuvers that were taking place in the river valley by cutting through the forest:
“I saw trees freshly cut, to widen the road lying over the way, without seeing any woodcutters. I also saw a red and white flag, diagonal across the road, which frightened me more than any object I had seen in the forests of America or the plains of Canada. Halting for a few moments, I dared to cross the road, and ran as fast as I could towards the valley below.”14
It is evident that although Mathias was deeply sympathetic to the plight of his homeland following the World War, he looked upon Germany’s new direction with suspicion. Indeed, despite his feelings of goodwill towards his kin, he faced intense scrutiny as an American in a land that he could no longer call his own. However, Mathias was determined to make the most of his time there, and although his relatives warned him against it, he made up his mind that he would cross the border into Luxembourg:
“I came at the border of Echternacherbrück into the dreaded crossfire of the German customs official. I showed my traveling papers as well as the sum of money I carried with me, which, according to the customs regulations, was too large to be taken across the border. As a consequence, I was bombarded with questions as never before, since our field watchman had caught me sitting in our neighbor’s apple tree!
“All the money I carried with me, except ten marks, I had to leave behind in the hotel. Then I received permission to cross the frontier. In Echternach, Luxembourg, I found the people very much depressed, on account of the prohibition of the people on the German side to do any trading in their border city of some six thousand inhabitants. In the beautiful marketplace, I thought I saw grass growing between the pavement stones.”15
Finally, Mathias was able to visit his relatives in the village of Bastendorf, with whom he had an emotional reunion. Before Mass with his relatives the following morning, he strolled through the village to collect his thoughts:
“My parents, brothers, and other relatives had promised me everything that was necessary to establish myself as an independent man. But no, as though driven by an invisible power, I stumbled along the steep street as if I was going to a funeral. And now, on the 12th day of July, 1938, I am standing once more at the same crossroad and feel compelled to leave once more the beautiful woods and meadows to return to the land of the dollar.”16
After parting, Mathias wrote that he felt, “Lost in my dream, half this side and half the other side of the Atlantic.” At the border, he gave his remaining 4 Francs to the Luxembourg customs official, in order to ease his crossing, and reported, “I was fairly well treated by the custodians of the law.” He retrieved his money from the hotel and treated five laborers to beer and cigars, “for which they thanked, but they did not enter into any conversation.” Finally, Mathias wrote, “After I had worked myself through all the red tape at Echternacherbrück and received a moral lesson out of the proceedings, I took the stagecoach and arrived at Holsthum.”17
Mathias’ memoirs ended abruptly as he described visiting an abandoned Franciscan hermitage the following day. We know that he returned to northeastern Iowa, where he and his wife had raised nine children. He surely shuddered as he followed the news of World War II in the years to follow, and likely realized how fortunate he had been to return to his childhood home while he still had the chance. However, his memoirs were left incomplete. Mathias passed away on 31 January 1950 at the age of eighty-one.18