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The story takes place in an area of the German VulcanEifel, in the Verbandsgemeinde of Daun.  This part of the Eifel is dotted with lakes, formed in the depressions left by dormant  volcanic craters.  Situated on top of a hill that runs along the shore of one of these crater lakes is a small, forlorn church, as it has stood for the past 1300 years or more.  This chapel is the only surviving reminder of the vanished parish of Weinfeld.  

Surrounding the chapel is a cemetery, which has been used for countless centuries to bury the dead of the Weinfeld parish.  From its high vantage point, the chapel's ancient graveyard, or Friedhof, solemnly overlooks the dark and placid waters of the Weinfeldermaar, also known as das Totenmaar, or the Lake of the Dead.

There once lived a prosperous, yet generous nobleman in a castle with his beautiful wife and newborn son.  One day, the nobleman left his castle for his customary hunt.  When he returned at the end of the day, he was shocked and dismayed to find his castle was no longer there.  In the place where his castle once stood was now a lake.  No one could be found, not his wife, not the servants.  Believing all had drowned in the lake, the nobleman was despondent.  But soon a quiet sound could be heard coming from the opposite side of the calm waters.  The nobleman quickly made his way around the lake, and there he found floating on the water in the cradle near the bank, crying softly, was his infant son.

Though grieved for the loss of his beloved wife, the nobleman was grateful the life of his infant son was spared.  As thanks for this miracle, the nobleman built the chapel of Weinfeld, which has stood through the centuries along the shore of the lake that claimed the life of his wife, the Totenmaar, the Lake of the Dead.

The Chapel of Weinfeld is the oldest church in the Eifel region of Germany, built on foundations dating back to Roman occupation.  Within the immediate area of the church, ancient Roman coins and artifacts have been found.  Speculation is that the site was used as a place of worship at that time, perhaps even of Celtic origin, and was converted into a church when Christianity spread through the area.  In 1778, a cornerstone in the old foundation of the chapel was discovered with an inscription which suggests the first church was built on the spot in the 6th century.  The church structure itself is mentioned in a document dated in 1044, but the earliest mention of the parish of Weinfeld, or Weihefeld (meaning friend’s field – not wine field) dates back to 731, during the time St. Boniface brought Christianity to the region in Europe we now call Germany.

Weinfeld was not a large village, but it was spread out over a fairly wide area.  Its relative isolation did not help Weinfeld avoid a tragic history.  In 1522, a great plague broke out in the German Emperor’s army.  As chronicled in a contemporary Saarland report: “At that time, warring peoples had brought a plaguelike sickness in, which in the Rhinelands wrought great devastation. The people died en masse and suddenly.”  The doomed village of Weinfeld was devastated, as nearly all inhabitants succumbed to plague in that one year.  The few survivors either moved away or relocated to the neighboring village of Schalkenmehren, which was part of the parish of Weinfeld.  In 1562, the last resident of devastated village of Weinfeld, the parish priest, also made the move to Schalkenmehren.

For then a disaster came over the Eifel. In the meantime, feudal states had developed around the desolate, wooded hills that were rich and powerful enough to consider their own borders as too narrow. They took advantage of every weakness of their neighbor or of a doubtful inheritance to wage dreadful wars against each other. Here you had powers of a dimension fighting each other as you did not find them in the Eifel, and even the side effects of their disputes brought death and misery to the land. For the Eifel was never the target of military actions but always their backland, and maybe that was its misfortune: an army marching through, a siege, a battle were bad enough — but an army that settled for the winter meant nearly indescribable misery.

Beginning with the Juelich feud in 1542, continuing with the War of Cologne in 1583, the land of the Eifel was the battleground of competing German and foreign armies.  The fighting intensified greatly during the 30-Years War (1618-1648)

But all this fighting appears pale compared to the terrors of the 30 Years War, starting in 1618. Kaufmann verified that during that time 205 towns, 327 castles and forts, and 2,033 villages were destroyed in the Rhinelands. The real horror hides behind terms like, "Quartier", "Kontribution" "Fourage", "Tractament". These are synonyms for uninterrupted pillage, going on for decades among the Eifel population, who themselves, marked by starvation, were expected to provide bread, meat, wheat, and beer for the marching armies. The chronicler of Muenstermaifeld left a moving description that compares the conditions in his area before and after the wars: agriculture had completely ceased to exist; the once-prosperous livestock had been totally wiped out; the majority of the people were starved, had fled, or died. Whole villages disappeared forever.

King Louis XIV of France fought the “predatory wars” (1667 – 1697) against the Dutch, the Eifel again being the battlefield.

Then it turned into a war of destruction, after this plan could not be realized militarily. Although the height of the campaign was the total devastation of Rhineland-Palatinate, the command of the French war minister to the ill-famed General Bouffler "Destroy, demolish!", also brought the Eifel to the verge of ruin. The war aim of the French was to put a large area of scorched earth between France and the German Empire, therefore, forts, villages, and towns were systematically destroyed.

The witch prosecutions added to the despair of the Eifel, where thousands of innocent people were tortured and burned.

By the beginning of the 18th century

In a hopeless struggle for existence, the last part of the huge beech forests that once covered the whole Eifel was cut down, until even the thus-gained charcoal for the ironworks became scarce and expensive. Thereby the competition with the cheaper coke was lost, the iron industry of the Eifel folded, thousands lost their jobs. Then, when the great famines caused by rained-out and frozen harvests started, a big part of the population left the land.

The Weinfeld chapel itself had remained intact, though its use declined through the years.  Eventually, through neglect, the chapel fell into serious disrepair.  By 1803, only the Easter mass was celebrated there, and only a few short years later, the chapel was completely abandoned and became a ruin.  Only the old cemetery surrounding the chapel remained in use by the residents of Schalkenmehren for the burial of their dead, as they had since the distant past.  As a result, was recommended by the Bishop of Trier in 1870 that the old decrepit Weinfeld church be torn down, and the cemetery be abandoned.

High above in the mountains of the Eifel is a lake – dark, deep, circular, eerie like an abyss.

Once upon a time, subterranean powers rampaged down there, fire and lava were hurtled to the surface; the basin is now filled with a smooth body of water, like tears in a bow.  The depths of the lake are bottomless.  No trees, no flowers.  Bare volcanic heights like giant molehills stand in the form of a wreath, good for nothing except as pathetic pastureland for cattle.  Thinly spread stalks of grass bow in the win, pale buckwheat cowers behind blackberry undergrowth.  No bird sings, no butterfly tumbles by.  It is a lonely and deathy barren.

This is the “Weinfelder Maar”, or, as the local people call it, the “Totenmaar”.  Unlike the tears wept into it by the heavens, it has nowhere to flow to.  It lies there and dreams and is morbidly unhappy, like everything around it.

 - Clara Viebig

I began my own genealogical journey to Das Totenmaar in 2003.

My maternal grandmother was Helena Maria Rieman.  She was born in Ashton, IA in 1896.  Her father was Theodore Francis Rieman, born in Kenosha, WI in 1864, and his father, Johann Riemann, was born in 1829 in the village of Neunkirchen, in the Kreis (county) of Daun.  I have documented 4 more generations of the Riemann family born in Neunkirchen before the documentation evidence via the church books runs out.

Johann’s great-grandfather was Nicolas Riemann, born 3 Jul 1732.  He married a woman named Christina and lived in Neunkirchen with their 4 children until his death in 1777.  Unfortunately, Christina was a complete mystery.  I could not locate any record of Christina’s maiden name in the Neunkirchen church books.  There was no record of Nicolas and Christina’s marriage, and though their children’s baptisms took place in Neunkirchen, the parent’s names were simply recorded as, “Nicolas Riemann (Rieman/Rheman/Roemann) et uxor (and wife) Christina”.  Their children’s marriage records also made no mention of their mother’s maiden name.

So, who was Christina?  From where did she come?  There were dozens of small towns in the area.  Where would I begin to look?

In order to narrow down the possibilities, I began my search for clues within their children’s birth records.  Could evidence to her identity lay in the names of her children’s godparents?

Three of the godparents to the Riemann children were named Schneider who lived in Schalkenmehren, so it was obvious that the Schneiders were related in some way to Nicolas or Christina.  Since godparents in that area traditionally came from one of each of the parent’s family, and because the other godparents were already known to be from the Riemann side, it was reasonable to assume the Schneiders were from Christina’s side.  The LDS has microfilms of the Schalkenmehren church books that records marriages from 1767.  Since Nicolas and Christina’s first child was born in Neunkirchen in1769, I had hoped to find their marriage record in Schalkenmehren between 1767 and 1769.

Unfortunately, after carefully reviewing the marriage records 3 times, it was clear that the marriage record of Nicolas and Christina was not to be found in the Schalkenmehren church books.

I was up against a brick wall and out of ideas. I decided the best course of action, for the time being anyway, was to go no further.  You see, sometimes it helps to walk away from a problem and come back to it fresh at a later date, after giving your mind a chance to clear out all the accumulated clutter.

In this case, I stayed away for 5 years.

Early last year, I took up the case of Christina again.  I still was certain the Schneiders of Schalkenmehren were related to Christina.  But how could I prove it without the marriage record?

And that’s when I noticed records of a little parish called Weinfield mixed in with the Schalkenmehren records.

What was Weinfeld?  Why were records of Weinfeld listed here?  What does Weinfeld have to do with Schalkenmehren?

The answer was always no further away than Wikipedia’s Schalkenmehren’s page:

Some mention of the now vanished village of Weinfeld must be made, for it is linked historically with Schalkenmehren. The only building from this forsaken village that still stands today is a small church which even now appears as a charge in Schalkenmehren’s coat of arms. It is consecrated to Saint Martin. Weinfeld lay east of this church, where a cross-country path to Mehren now leads. It had been a Roman settlement that converted early on to Christianity, perhaps as early as Constantine’s time, but certainly after Saint Boniface’s works in Germany.

I rented the LDS microfilm, and there, on the last page in the very last entry before the church books of the forsaken parish of Weinfield were closed forever, was the November 14, 1766 marriage record of my 5xgreat-grandparents, Nicolas Rhemann and Christina Schneiders.

Upon further study, I also discovered Christina Schneiders was baptised at the Weinfeld chapel in 1743.  Her parents were married at Weinfeld in 1724, and both parents were baptised at the chapel as well.  Both sets of grandparents were married at Weinfeld, one couple in 1700 and the other in 1701.  Christina’s parents and grandparents were buried in the cemetery surrounding the chapel, and doubtless her great-grandparents and endless generations before them were buried there as well.  

They are all buried there still.

Fortunately for the little chapel of Weinfeld, Schalkenmehren’s Pastor Johan Konter, who retained the title as parish priest to Weinfeld, went against the Bishop’s recommendation and decided to rescue the old chapel instead of razing it.  Pastor Konter collected the donations and supervised the work, and in 1877, the doors to the restored chapel were open to the public once again.  

These days, special masses and events are occasionally held in the Weinfelder Kapelle.  But the primary function of the chapel is to service the surrounding ancient graveyard that is still in use by the descendents of the Weinfelder parish today.

Typically in Germany, one doesn’t buy a burial plot.  One rents a plot.  The leases are normally for 20-30 years, after which the lease can be renewed, or allow to lapse.  Once a lease has lapsed, the occupants are removed from the plot and disposed of.

This is not the practice at Weinfeld.  The dead are never exhumed, they are never separated from those they loved in their former lives, nor from their tiny chapel.  The dead of Weinfeld have been there for untold centuries, and will remain buried there for centuries more, always in the shadow of the chapel, always keeping vigil over the dark, calm waters of das Totenmaar, The Lake of the Dead.

Originally posted to Genealogy and Family History Community on Mon Oct 31, 2011 at 08:05 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Community Spotlight.

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