Where is home? Where you were born, grew up, and went to school? Or where you happen to be living right now? Or where you had the most life-changing experiences? Well, I guess we all need to figure that out for ourselves. For me personally, however, there’s a straightforward answer to that question.

We Germans have a wonderful phrase that is hard to translate: Heimat, pronounced sort of like (“High mott”) – which means “native home” or the “area where you grew up”. Well, my Heimat is  in the Spessart region of lower Franconia, Germany – not far from Würzburg, the town of my childhood.

And here is the “epicenter” of my Heimat: Leaving Würzburg in a northwesterly direction, take one of the two roads on either side of the Main River, pass Karlstadt, and go all the way to the town of Lohr. At Lohr, head southeast, following a very plain looking sign pointing into the forest. Before long you’ll see a little chapel built of reddish sandstone (so-called Buntsandstein) – a typical building material in this region. In this narrow and still somewhat untamed valley with a thick blanket of beech trees, it looks like it probably did some several hundred years ago. All I must do is close my eyes and take a walk down “memory lane”. I can see that idyllic trio of forest, valley, and chapel. Without a doubt, that trio is part of my soul, childhood, and family history. In my mind’s eye, I amble into the valley from the edge of the forest and once again hear the steps of my parents – the stern voice of my father and the soft soprano of my mother. Many a Sundays we came to this place – Mariabuchen (“Mary’s birch trees”), as this idyllic spot is also known.

Mariabuchen is one of the countless Marian pilgrimage sites of my Franconian Heimat – sites that we locals cherish dearly. Legend has it that around 1400 – almost a hundred years before Columbus discovered America – a shepherd carves a figure of the Virgin and the Child and places this piece of art in the knot-hole of a birch tree. Over the years, the wooden statue was overgrown by the tree and became the site of many miracles. Before long, this “forest sanctuary” was removed, and only one generation later the first Marian pilgrimage to Mariabuchen took place. As early as 1430, the first chapel was built in the forest. For several centuries, Catholics far and wide held to the tradition of Mariabuchen. Finally, in 1701, the pilgrimage chapel that was to become so familiar to me was consecrated. And the day after Pentecost in 1726, the first Capuchin monks arrived, founding the cloister that still exists today.

It was late summer, 1997, I was on my way from Frankfurt to Würzburg to visit my mother. As I often did, I took a detour and visited Mariabuchen before heading directly for my hometown. It was a Saturday afternoon, the shadows were already lengthening, and the first fallen leaves were blowing across the marrow path leading down to the chapel. But this time I was not alone in that little sanctuary. A few people in festive clothing quickly walked past me. As I stepped into the sanctuary, a wedding ceremony was about to begin. The chapel, which seats about a hundred people, was about half full that evening. I quietly sat down in a pew towards the rear and watched attentively as the service got underway.

Lost in thought, I walked back to the parking lot, got into my car, and drove on to Würzburg.

A young Priest was officiating. He had physical features you rarely see in Franconia. He was probably in his mid-thirties, slim, erect, and with jet-black hair. He looked Latin American. I can remember it as if it were yesterday – the way he blessed the young couple in German – speaking like a native; the way he gave the sermon – short but to the point. About half an hour later, as I was leaving the chapel, I struck up a conversation with some of the wedding guests. No one knew who this priest was or where he came from, but they were extremely curious about him. Someone said, he was a local boy but had become a missionary. Someone else had heard that he had been adapted by German parents. They said his brother became an engineer and that this man became a priest. Lost in thought, I walked back to the parking lot, got into my car, and drove on to Würzburg.

So lost in thought was I, that I didn’t even notice I was already on the Autobahn. For some reason – even without really wanting to – I had wound up on memory lane. I was back in Bogotá, on a foggy and misty autumn day in 1970 – sitting next to my young wife at the airport. We had just gotten married and were on our way to Germany. I was looking forward to showing her my Franconian Heimat. There we were, sitting at El Dorado – Colombia’s largest airport. Waiting for our plane, we were sitting around with a few dozen other travelers. A young couple with two small children settled near us, immediately piquing my interest. My ears picked up German words from adults, yet the boys – probably five and six years old, respectively – were whispering in Spanish. For a while, I involuntarily eavesdropped on their conversation. The longer I listened, the more I realized the delicate situation going on. The two boys were on their way to Germany – apparently for the first time. It seemed they were looking forward to the rich country across the ocean, which they knew from hearsay only; but they were wondering what Germans eat and drink, what kind of clothes they wear, and whether they play soccer, too. But what these little guys were looking forward to most, was all the fine German cars they knew they would be seeing. The elder of the two – six-year-old – was consoling his little brother, holding his hand and trying to distract him from the fact, that they were about to leave their South American homeland (their Heimat) forever. I noticed a long pale scar on the older boy’s right thumb, which gave this harmonious scene a surreal touch. While I was going on, the man and woman were fumbling around with a German-Spanish dictionary, trying to communicate at least a few words to the two boys. Unfortunately, the grown-ups’ mangled pronunciation kept them from scaling the huge language barrier: the boys hardly understood a word the adults were saying. I was impressed by the fact the two boys were speaking about their new – parents! – in an exceedingly loving and kind way. Yes, these boys had, in fact, been adopted, as I was soon to find out.

After about fifteen minutes, I addressed the parents in German and offered to interpret for them – a gesture they greatly appreciated. In this way, I was able to make closer contact with my fellow countrymen, who knew neither language of Colombia nor its people. Interestingly, both parents were from the Spessart region. They had adopted the tow boys in Bogotá- The new parents were probably about thirty years old, and were dressed well, but modestly. In the few minutes that remains until boarding, they told me their story. They had been married for some years, but it turned out she was unable to have children –  a great disappointment for them. They had made friends with a Priest from Aschaffenburg who was a missionary in Colombia and, over time, the couple had entrusted to him their wish to adopt a child. The missionary had shared with them, that it was relatively simple to adopt children from Colombia. This as an option the couple has also read about in their church bulletin, so they accepted the missionary’s help in establishing contact, with the appropriate agencies in Colombia. Only a few weeks later, the Colombian agencies were able to make an actual offer. Apparently, there were two young boys in Bogotá who had lost both parents and were now desperately seeking to be adapted. It took the German couple only a few days to decide to take both children. And here they were, returning to their Heimat with both little boys they had just adapted. The German couple looked exhausted, but happy. Lovingly, the young German couple took the boys by the hand. And willingly, the boys let their new parents lead them to the plane. Unfortunately, our seating assignments were not close to this charming family, so my wife and I could only wave to them from afar, when we changed planes in Miami. They boarded a different plane, and that was the last I ever saw of them.

By now I had reached Würzburg. I took my bag, locked the car, and walked up the stairs to my mother’s apartment. Just before I opened her door, something in my memory went “click” -connecting 1997 to 1970, Mariabuchen to Bogotá. Could one of those adopted brothers possibly be the priest who had just conducted the service, the priest with the jet-black hair and the dark skin? What were the odds? One in a million? I closed my eyes, swayed back and forth, and suddenly had a flashback of the priest making the sign of he crosses at the close of the wedding, “in the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

And he had a deep scar on his right thumb.


Photo: Tilman2007Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link You liked this article? You can support us with PayPal!

Arthur Pahl

Arthur Pahl was born in Gladbeck / Westphalia and grew up in Würzburg. After a apprenticeship in the hotel trade, he completed an internship in Swiss fine dining, worked as a steward on an ocean liner, lived in the US, Colombia, Canada and Brazil, was a rice farmer, emerald trader, taxi driver, Tomb stone seller and stockbroker before he succeeded in Germany, where he has been working ever since as a tour Manager for international tour groups. Arthur's personal motto is: "Writing is Living - reading is understanding Life.
Arthur Pahl