I’m reluctant to say goodbye to Łukasz and his family because now I want to buy my own metal detector and continue digging in Poland. But, Paweł and I have a long drive ahead to ŚwieradÓw ZdrÓj, a Polish spa town in the Lower Silesian Voivodeship, near the Czech border.
ŚwieradÓw ZdrÓj was once called Bad Flinsberg, and Germans flocked there for the mineral baths at the turn of the last century.
I first heard about the mountain village from my mother-in-law, Liselotte. Her two spinster aunts, Grete and Ella Niemann, lived there in a beautiful home then called Haus Niemann. The aunts sold hand-made chocolates from a small kiosk nearby. In their spare time during the war, they baked cakes to send with chocolates and newspapers to Reiner and his brother Wolfgang in the military. Imagine Reiner eating hand-made chocolates in his muddy battlefield hole, the one he shared with frogs and horseflies.
Reiner loved Bad Flinsberg. He saw his family for the last time there after he had managed to survive the destruction of the 6th Infantry Division at Babruysk in early July 1944. He and his father hiked to the top of Tafelfichte, or Smrk, the highest peak in the Czech part of the Jizera Mountains. I plan to make it up there.
I’m eager to see the former Haus Niemann, so when Paweł’s little red car starts making weird sounds on the highway, I know we’re in for a delay. Paweł is under the car in no time though and yanks off the offending loose part.
Nine hours later, we’re happy to be in the mountain village and hungry for a good meal.
But first, we wash up at Hotel ŚwieradÓw and walk a half-block to see the famous family house. I stand in front of the building and take a full breath. Yes, this is the home I know from family photos. It's now the ŚwieradÓw police station, which feels like a funky, fairy-tale twist.
In the morning, I meet the town’s unofficial historian, Magda, and she hands me an old photo of the house and a page from a registry that must be dated after 1950 because both Niemann sisters are listed as dead.
I want to know what happened to the Niemann aunts when the Russians occupied the town in 1945. But, Magda can find no record of this. A German historian in Leipzig told me that Grete died in 1947 and Ella in 1950, so both must have experienced the end-of-war chaos that Reiner predicted and history books describe in horrific detail.
But now, I'm too excited to think about the war. Madga has arranged for me to see inside the house.
A city official lets us in, and as we tour, she tells me the house will come up for sale in a few months.
I ask loads of questions, and wonder how to raise the money for renovations.
"Buy a Polish lottery ticket,” two strangers in ŚwieradÓw tell me. And I take that as a sign.
I push Paweł (who's never bought a lottery ticket) to help me buy thirteen of them. We both think the number is lucky, so my stars must be aligned. Right?
I don’t want to leave ŚwieradÓw until I’ve climbed the Tafelfichte and taken the cure in a mineral bath. Paweł is more than willing to lead me up and down the mountains.
"Look how cool the old Kurhaus is,” I whine.
Okay, so I’ll just save that treat for my return with family. We’ll call it the "GRAND HAUS NIEMANN HOTEL TOUR,” and we’ll soak for days. Then we'll cash in my lottery tickets, buy the house, and turn the basement jail cell into a wine cellar.
All jokes aside, I’m glad to end my third research trip in this still mountain setting.
As a writer, I want a happy ending to this story, though I know that's impossible. Reiner is gone and mostly forgotten, except by me, who obsesses over him.
Near the end of his life, he reflected on war and wrote words that perhaps few 22-year-olds would understand today. I, too, wonder if I understand exactly what he meant.
"War, which arises from baseness, imperfection, and a hatred of Mankind, has its most important impact on the positive nature of man in that it is a self-chastisement and a self-purification of Mankind."
But, he left another phrase that gives me purpose for telling his story. So, I pass it on to you, in hopes that you will look into your own family stories.
"In each of us is the other preserved."
Reiner Niemann, 1944
Now, if you're wondering about those lottery tickets... ha! You'll have to read my book about Reiner or travel to ŚwieradÓw ZdrÓj, Poland to find out. I have a strong affection for this country that has treated me so kindly, and maybe you will too. And by the way, I know a guy with a metal detector and a great photographer, just in case you need them.
You can find links to the other parts of the Finding Reiner series right here.
The North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) announced Whitney Stewart won BRONZE place in the 2014 NATJA Awards Competition in the Travel Series - Online category for Finding Reiner.