Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2013/37 posted by hidden europe on

Folk in Hemmeres make the point that theirs was the first village east of the River Our in which the Americans set foot. The truth is that several patrols made forays over the river on the evening of 11 September 1944. And it was on the railway embankment that Ernest Hemingway stood to observe the American invasion of Germany in the closing months of the Second World War.

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Dear fellow travellers

"This is where Ernest Hemingway had his chicken supper," says a man in Hemmeres, pointing to a large wide-gabled house behind a chapel on the village's main street.

The man's wife begs to differ. "No, I think it was over there that the Americans ate," she says. "And it was surely more potatoes than chicken."

Whether Hemingway really had time for roast chicken in Hemmeres is in doubt. There is however no question that Ernest Hemingway was in town. But 'town' is too grand a description for Hemmeres, a wee slip of a place in the Our Valley where this week autumn is slipping quietly into winter. The last of the leaves have dropped from the elder, rowan and birch. Now there are snowberries aplenty.

We slip through a coppice to the riverbank, looking across to Belgian territory on the opposite side. The remains of an old red-brick railway bridge over the river adds a splash of colour to the landscape. It was on the railway embankment that Ernest Hemingway stood to observe the American invasion of Germany in the closing months of the Second World War.

The Our Valley marked the Siegfried Line - Germany's front line of defence. Brits humorously boasted, in the early days of the war, that they would before long be hanging out their washing to dry on the Siegfried Line. In the end it was American, rather than British, troops who first crossed the River Our.

Folk in Hemmeres make the point that theirs was the first village east of the River Our in which the Americans set foot. The truth is that several patrols made forays over the river on the evening of 11 September 1944. The couple in the village tell us how the Americans gathered up a bag of German soil and swiftly returned back to the safety of the American lines on the west bank.

"Only a few weeks later did they come back with Ernest Hemingway for their chicken supper," adds the man.

No signs in Hemmeres commemorate the visits of Americans to this valley in the Eifel hills. No plaques recall that Hemingway, then a war reporter, penned despatches from Hemmeres. It is no surprise perhaps that Hemingway does not feature prominently in local narratives. He described the villagers as "ugly women and squatty ill-shaped men."

But Hemmeres has made its mark on the wider world in other ways. After the Second World War, the village was ceded to Belgium and the villagers were by all accounts quite happy with that arrangement. When German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer went to Brussels in 1956 to negotiate the return of Hemmeres to Germany, the locals were none too pleased. "We sent a telegram to Adenauer right in the middle of the Brussels talks, making it clear that we'd like to stay in Belgium," explains an elderly farmer as we stand by the old mill in the village.

But loyalty is always negotiable, and promises of big improvements in infrastructure lured Hemmeres back into the German fold. The village became part of Germany in 1958. Today this community of some two dozen people is a sleepy spot. Traffic on the main highway from Liège to Trier speeds across the Our Valley (and the Belgian-German border) a mile or two away to the north. Those who take the time to cut off the main road will find landscapes of quiet beauty in and around Hemmeres and other villages on both sides of the border.

Sixty years ago, children from Hemmeres would walk to school in Auel in Belgium. Today a bus picks up a couple of youngsters in Hemmeres each morning and takes them to German schools. Like so many of the communities from which we have reported over the years, Hemmeres is a spot where a legacy of conflict and border adjustments still inflect everyday life. But Hemmeres today seems a far cry from the war-weary village observed by Ernest Hemingway in late 1944.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Posted in Moments
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.