“Hello, can you help me please,” I implore in my bad German as I skid up to a suited gentleman at a bus stop. He appears startled, and backs further onto the sidewalk. I’m on my Aunt Sieglinde’s garden bike, a sturdy three-speed with no athletic grace and a wire basket on its handlebars. After peddling for two hours, I took a turn into a stretch of woods and came back out on a main road to go home. Or so I thought, except nothing looks familiar. I attempt to explain this, and the man leans towards me with a baffled frown. Finally I say Richtung Sulzbach, bitte and his face clears. He turns and points in the opposite direction of where I’m headed. Straight that way, he tells me. For many kilometers. And grins. Really.
Okay, no surprise here; I have a notoriously bad sense of direction. I smile, wave, and hop back on the bike. Angry clouds are rolling in. Great. In the near distance I see the looming buildings of an old abandoned steel mill called Maxhutte. I’m in the Rosenberg part of Sulzbach-Rosenberg, in Bavaria, and now I know how far I need to go. But rain or no, this monolith industrial site is a fascination. There’s got to be a place to hunker down and wait out the impending storm. I detour to the jumble of abandoned buildings with their jagged remnants of dirt-smeared windows. Concrete and steel skeletons decorated in rust stretch for a kilometer or two in each direction. Five smokestacks are staggered throughout and soar into the billowing black clouds.
The streets and sidewalks are devoid of any signs of civilization, although clearly-functional office buildings sit opposite the deserted plant. A small parking lot with a half dozen cars sits at the end of the street, but everything is deathly quiet. There’s an eerie presence in the barrenness. My senses are on high alert, expecting something to happen. Or perhaps I’m tapping in to the long-gone ghosts of thousands of workers. Like my great-grandpa.
Ur-Opa Martin Renner—along with almost every able bodied man in the surrounding area—worked here his entire life, in several capacities. One of these was to oversee the repair of rail lines that ran iron ore from the nearby mine to the blast furnaces, and continued on to transport the raw steel to various locations throughout Germany and Europe. During WWII, hundreds of forced laborers from occupied countries were used to load the finished product into rail cars. Martin was in charge of a group of Polish workers. My Aunt Sieglinde tells me proudly that he was known to be kind to them, for which he was often admonished by upper management. In a cache of old family photos from Martin, I found one that is probably of this group. Aside from looking hot and being thin, they look relaxed and gaze into the camera with a hint of a smile. Martin’s son Hans also worked here as a locomotive driver. He shuttled raw ore from the nearby mine to the plant. Martin and his family were allocated a flat near the mill. Probably in one of these ugly gray buildings; they have small balconies and could have been living quarters.
Raindrops the size of large marbles begin to plop on my shoulders and arms. Wind gusts swirl. I change my mind about waiting out the tempest. Time to go. I peddle as fast as I can and am almost back to my rental when the deluge stops. I’m soaked through. The fine hairs on my neck and arms feel electrified. I shower, put on warm sweats, and google the Maxhutte steel mill, to learn that it was a vital vein on the Bayerishe Eisenstrasse, the Bavarian iron Route.
Since the Middle Ages, rich iron deposits were mined along a swath of 120 kilometers that began in upper Franconia and ran south through Bavaria to Regensburg. The Bavarian Iron Route is part of the Cultural Path of Iron, a network that continues through Austria, Poland, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, and Italy. And what was all this iron used for in the Middle Ages, you might ask? Well, think agricultural tools like pitchforks, rakes, shovels, and so forth. But more importantly, think weaponry like cannons and cannonballs, and armor for gallant knights. Don’t let’s forget the essential torture chamber ensemble that included thumbscrews, foot screws, branding irons and the notorious Iron Maiden, a casket-like device with spikes used to impale its victims alive. A vital industry, iron created wealth, built castles and provided work.
It was already 1853 when steel production began at the new MaximiliansHutte, (named after Bavarian King Maximilian II) and grew into an impressive facility employing almost 10,000 people. Five blast furnaces operated day and night. After a peak in the 1960s, the demand for steel dropped. In April of 1987 the first bankruptcy occurred. Work continued to dwindle, and in 1998 the second bankruptcy followed. By 2002, the remaining 450 employees clocked out for the last time. The local unemployment office was filled with desolate and angry men. Their protests made national news.
Now the clusters of buildings sit and brood over a lost dynasty. Impressive and mostly intact, Maxhutte serves as a technical monument: it was the only plant in Europe that covered all stages of ore production in a confined space. The town museum devotes an entire floor to its history. Most impressive is the display of a blast furnace. In a scene straight out of Dante’s Hades, angry flame and smoke was fed day and night by hooded creatures in flame retardant suits. Silica, raw iron ore, coke, and limestone was dumped into the top of a massive steel stack lined with refractory brick, while preheated air was blown from the bottom. As the materials descended, pure iron was separated and became liquid slag, used to make steel products. Once activated, a blast furnace can run continuously for years without shutting down.
The combined municipality of Sulzbach-Rosenberg was separate until 1974. I asked Sieglinde if Sulzbach was dirty back when she was a child, during the war. No, not really. Rosenberg was often covered in a fine misting of dark ash, but the winds tended to favor Sulzbach and she doesn’t recall it as sooty. It’s almost impossible to imagine a bustling town filled with thousands working and living amidst noisy blast furnaces and gray soot plumes in this now idyllic landscape. Where did everyone live, piled on top of one another in tiny flats? How much additional industry—shops and restaurants—existed and also faded away along with the plant?
As imposing, and now depressing, as the complex is, it’s a testament to accomplishment. Thousands of folk gladly traded their beautiful countryside for a steady income. Maxhutte Rohrwerk GmbH still exists and runs a small operation manufacturing steel tubing. I wonder if they too feel the ghosts of long ago…ghosts of prisoners, later followed by the distorted faces and angry shouts of desperate workers demanding to know how they will now feed their families.
Dark, dirty, industrial, abandoned. During WWII, the work here must have been frenetic. I almost hear the pounding of machinery and men shouting, see massive billows of smoke spew out of multiple chimneys, smell steam hissing from the locomotive as it idles. I envision gaunt, strained faces of too-thin men, some with gloves and many without, grunting as they overload open box cars, black soot drifting down like snow from hell. Are these the ghosts I felt as I sat in the street straddling my bike? How fitting, then, that the thunder growled and the lightning sparked and the heavens wept.
BIO: German-born and American bred, Lock has been published in various literary journals. Currently working on a memoir about her scattered roots, she uses research as a great excuse to travel frequently. Find out more at www.maddielock.com.
Photo from Wikipedia
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