By Rick Steves
Under a castle, surrounded by vineyards, this medieval village sleeps peacefully on the Rhine. Strolling along the riverside park with the mighty Rhine on one side and the medieval walls of Bacharach on the other, I’m in another age...until two castle-clipping WWII fighters rip through the silence.
The Rhine valley is stained by war. While church bells play cheery ditties in Holland, on the Rhine they hit more like anvils. Speed limits on the local roads are two-tiered: one for cars...one for tanks. As the last of the WWII survivors pass on, the war memories are fading. The war that ripped our grandparents’ Europe in two will become like a black-and-white photo on the mantle of a long-gone and never-known relative. Ultimately, it will take its place in the ranks of those seemingly pain-free, bloodless struggles from the distant past which are filed neatly into the history books.
The old riverside war memorial in Bacharach — a big stone urn with a Maltese Cross — seems pointedly ignored by holiday-makers. Erected to honor the dead of Bismarck’s first war, it was designed with vision to accommodate the wars which followed: Blank slabs became rolls of honor for the dead of 1864, 1866, 1870, 1914–1918....
I ask a local guide to translate the words carved on the stone. “To remember the hard but great time...,” Herr Jung begins, and then mutters, “Ahh, this is not important now.”
Herr Jung, Bacharach’s retired schoolmaster, takes me on a historic scavenger hunt through the back lanes of Bacharach. Like any good small-town teacher, he seems to know and be adored by everyone.
Herr Jung explains, “We turn our backs to the monuments of old wars. We have one day in the year when we remember those who have died in the wars. All those who lost sons have a monument in their heart. They don’t need this old stone.”
“I remember the Allied bombings,” he explains, “hiding in our basement here in Bacharach, praying with my mother. I was a furious deal-maker with God. I still can hear the guns. We watched great US planes fighting little Nazi planes. We were boys. We’d jump on our bikes to see the wreckage of killed planes. I was the neighborhood specialist on war planes. I could identify them by the sound.
“One day a huge plane was shot down. It had four engines. Biking to the wreckage, I couldn’t believe my eyes: a plane designed with a huge upright wing in the center. Then I realized this was only the tail section — as big as an entire plane. I knew then that we would lose this war.
“The years after the war were hungry ones. I would wake in middle of night and search the cupboards. There was no fat, no bread, no grain. I licked salt from the cupboard. We had friends in New York. They sent coffee, which we could trade with farmers for grain. For this I have always been thankful.
Herr Jung concluded, “When I think of what the Nazis did to Germany, I remember this: a fine soup cooked by 30 people can be spoiled by one man with a handful of salt.”
The writer Victor Hugo pondered the ruined 15th-century chapel that still stands today over the town and under the castle. In his 1842 travel book, Rhine Reise (Rhine Travels), he wrote, “No doors, no roof or windows, a magnificent skeleton puts its silhouette against the sky. Above it, the ivy-covered castle ruins provide a fitting crown. This is Bacharach, land of fairy tales, covered with legends and sagas.” ...And the remembrance of war.