Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Write a Travelogue (11/06/14)
- TITLE: Gernsheim--A Trip Back in Time
By Myrna Noyes
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Nestled alongside the mighty Rhine, the clean, well-kept village was founded by ancient Romans in the first century after Christ. History literally seeps from the riverbank and the surrounding farm fields, as Roman artifacts have routinely been unearthed there since the 1800’s. A recent archaeological dig uncovered remains of a Roman fort from 70-80 A.D., its trenches filled with left-behind shards and other remnants of the era. On a walk through town, we came upon a Roman well now situated near a street traveled by automobiles instead of horse-drawn chariots. We also saw a portion of a first-century Roman column. Located in the open, with no protective barriers, we touched them with our hands. History at our fingertips.
We visited a tree-shaded pilgrimage chapel set in green seclusion, dating from the year 1490. My mind struggled to realize the fact that I stood in a building erected just before Columbus’s voyage to the New World. Another day we saw a remaining piece of the wall that surrounded the village in medieval times. Our host Hans showed us a copy of a Gernsheim map drawn in 1675 that reveals a prominent church, castle, and many smaller buildings situated in orderly groupings, seeking security within that wall. Since my family is well-documented as living there then, I wondered which house was theirs and what daily life was like for them in this enclosed community. I desperately wished I could travel back in time for just one day, or even one hour, to watch them at their tasks and activities.
In front of the local museum stands an imposing statue of Peter Schoeffer, born in Gernsheim in 1425, who was a colleague of Johan Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press. Because of this distinguished former citizen, the village is also known by the longer designation, Schoefferstadt Gernsheim. Hans, along with the entire town, is deeply proud of this distinction.
“Esselbach House” is where one of my ancestors, known for watering down the wine, had a restaurant in the late 1800’s. The exterior facade still bears his name engraved upon it. I had my picture taken before the front door, knowing that my forebears stood there, too.
The nearby remnants of a bombed bridge jut out over the Rhine, a reminder of WWII’s devastating impact. Interestingly, it wasn't destroyed by the Allies, but by the town itself, to slow the progress of advancing enemy troops. Never rebuilt, cars today are ferried across to the opposite bank.
Strolling the narrow cobblestone streets of the town’s center, where cars are few but bicycles are plentiful, I gazed at hundred year-old homes, quaint shops, and civic buildings. We entered the incense-steeped, renovated Catholic church where my family worshiped since its construction in 1753. Pictures in the entry documented the extensive damage inflicted by a WWII bomb—steeple top, roof, windows, demolished. I wondered how many distant aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents were baptized, married, and buried from this sacred space.
Hans, as church and town historian, had access to actual books dating back to the 14th century. As a surprise, he created a spiral-bound book for me with photocopies of records, pictures, and even signatures of my ancestors from 1600 through the 1800’s, when my great-grandfather immigrated to America.
The most meaningful memento came from two newfound cousins, as we stood for photos on the steps of the Stadthaus, or City Hall. One of them handed my dad a sepia-tinted photograph in which a sober, handsome lad stared directly at us. He appeared dressed in his Sunday best, along with his younger siblings and mother. (His father had recently deserted them, leaving twelve year-old Jacob as “man of the family.”) What an emotional moment, as Dad, who’d never seen a childhood photo of his father, stared back at this near-reflection of his own boyhood self! The portrait, taken around 1885 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, had been mailed to relatives in Germany, where they’d kept it safe until this time. We’d flown over 6,000 miles to have the joy of reclaiming this unexpected treasure.
My past drew very close to me in this place. I felt it tugging at my heart and heard it whispering in my ear. My ancestors seemed to stretch out their hands to me, and I reached through the mist-veiled centuries to grasp hold of them.
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