Journey into the Heart of the German Countryside – Part 5 (continued from previous post)

Day 6 – May 3: The Sinti Children of Mulfingen

Upstream of Ailringen the Jagst Valley becomes narrower and steeper than in its downstream reaches. This is due to the fact that the river here is embedded in the upper Muschelkalk limestone, which has fewer shale beds in it and is therefore more resistant to weathering than its lower portions exposed downstream. All along the slopes there are narrow bands of piled up limestone blocks that border old vineyards, now mostly abandoned and overgrown. Already in the Middle Ages people had attempted to improve the vineyards by removing all exposed rocks and piling them into linear walls called Steinriegel. Exposed to the sun, these rocks absorbed the heat  during the day and re-radiated it at night, thus providing a more favorable microclimate in the vineyards.

Steinriegel, linear rows of limestone blocks like these shown in the neighboring Kocher River Valley, line old vineyards and fields along the slopes of the Jagst Valley as well.

Coming around a bend on my approach to the town of Mulfingen I encounter a group of 15 people about to embark on a hike. Their leader is a geology professor from a local university. Amused to find like-minded folk I tag along with them for about an hour as they inspect the geology in a small tributary valley of the Jagst. A woman in the group has noticed my limp and offers to drive me to my destination which is still some 15 kilometers away. I’m tempted, but tell her that I’ve got to hike every inch to Rothenburg if I can.

With a population of less than 4,000, Mulfingen is the biggest town I will see today until I reach my destination of Blaufelden in the evening. All towns in this part of Germany have near their center a small open space with benches and perhaps a few trees and an old fountain. Historically these spots served as a market and festival place on the main road through town. Mulfingen has such a space. It is bordered on one side by a large, multi-storied yellow building with large letters in green, orange and red at its front spelling out the name “St Josefspflege”. Teenagers run, some with cell phones in hand, towards the front door. This institution has, since  1976, served as a center for children with learning differences. But from its founding in 1854 until 1976 it served as a Catholic orphanage, with the Sisters of Untermarchtal responsible for the upbringing of the children. Before and during World War II it was the site of one of the most disturbing chapters in the Jagst Valley’s history.

St. Josefspflege in Mulfingen, a former orphanage and site of one of the most disturbing chapters in the history of the Jagst Valley.

Here, between 1938 and 1944 all Roma and Sinti children from the state of Baden Wuerttemberg were interred for ethnic studies by the Nazi regime. The Roma and Sinti peoples, often referred to as the Gypsies, arrived in Germany in the Late Middle Ages from India. Until more recently they often lived a peripatetic lifestyle on the periphery of established communities. The Nazis considered them racially inferior.

In Mulfingen the children were the subject of study by the anthropologist Eva Justin, who was using her observations to finish her doctoral dissertation. The title of this dissertation: “Biographical destinies of Gypsy children and their offspring who were educated in a manner inappropriate for their species”, leaves no doubt about her complicity in the crimes committed against the Sinti and Romani peoples. She actively lobbied for sterilization of Gypsies. The children lived relatively happy lives at the orphanage, amused at being filmed by Justin for what reason they did not know. However, after Justin had completed her dissertation and therefore no longer needed the children, plans were made to deport them. On May 9 of 1944 buses arrived at the entrance to the orphanage. The children were excited to learn that an outing had been planned for them. While getting on to the buses police arrived to oversee the event and the older children, who now guessed the real reason for the trip, broke into a panic. Several of the Catholic Sisters were sent on the buses to reassure the children. The supposed outing was actually deportation to the Gypsy camp at Auschwitz, where they arrived on May 12, after a circuitous 3-day journey that involved hiding from Allied air strikes. During their journey they were moved to a train and the escort was taken over by soldiers of the Waffen SS. Once at Auschwitz they were reunited with other Sinti children that had formerly lived in Mulfingen. The children were initially interred in Block 16, but then those under the age of 14 were housed in a separate children’s block. 4 of the older children were selected for manual labor duty, which would ultimately ensure their survival. The other 35 were either subjected to Josef Mengele’s cruel medical experiments or sent to the gas chamber on the night of August 3, 1944. The images of the children captured on film by Justin during happier times (shown above) at the orphanage are both haunting and disturbing. Standing outside the orphanage I can almost hear the echoes of their muffled laughter and running feet. Incredibly, Justin was never held accountable for her part in the horrible deaths of these children. She even found employment as a psychologist with the Frankfurt police department after the war. She died in 1966. Today a plaque in memory of those children stands outside the former orphanage, and their story is an important part of today’s curriculum at St. Josefspflege.

Memorial plaque for the 39 Sinti children deported to Auschwitz on May 9, 1944.

Several kilometers south of Mulfingen I reach the village of Eberbach. It is time for me to leave the Jagst Valley and head east towards my final destination of Rothenburg. Here the Roetelbach stream has carved a narrow valley from the Hohenlohe Plateau to the east down towards its confluence with the Jagst.  Both sides of the narrow valley are forested and add to the darkness of an overcast day. It begins to rain and the gravel road paralleling the stream itself becomes a water conveyance. A green Mercedes SUV passes by slowly on its way down to the Jagst Valley, the driver giving me close scrutiny. No doubt he’s wondering what a person with a limp and a pack is doing on a remote track in the woods in this weather. Near the top of the valley I join the Hohenlohe Plateau at the site of the ruined fortress Hertenstein. This small stone structure was built in the 13th Century at the crossing of two important trade routes, offering protection to travelers. Within only 200 years it had been abandoned and fallen into ruin.

Now my leg is becoming very painful and I have serious doubts about making it to Rothenburg, even though it is only one day’s walk away. The green Mercedes returns, now coming uphill behind me. The driver stops and opens his window. “Can I give you a ride?” Keenly aware of my worsening leg I gladly accept, making the last few kilometers into Blaufelden in sublime ease. He is a hunter and was checking on his deer stands. The conversation encompasses my hike, geology, and his daughter’s college study in the United States. “Are you staying at the tavern Zum Hirschen? It’s the only place to stay in Blaufelden.” Soon I’m at the front door, feeling somewhat sheepish for not having knocked out the last few kilometers, but knowing I saved my leg from something worse.

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