Although I never lived in the house, the place in Germany that I associate the most with “home” is my grandfather’s ancestral farm and mill in east Westphalia. It is filled with many happy childhood memories. That’s where I learned to ride a bike, snuck into the pig stall, got muddy playing in the stream, and lingered around my grandfather’s two older brothers (my grandfather died in the Second World War) as they were working the fields with Ella the draft horse.
It was on one of those farm fields that in 1958, a farm worker made a stunning discovery when the plough hit something solid in the ground. He dug out a three-legged bronze vessel and placed it in front of the barn door. My mother’s cousin remembers how she and her mother took it to the kitchen sink and slowly washed away the heavily compacted soil. Out came 60 large silver coins, three silver garment ornaments, and three silver knife shafts from the early 17th century.
The treasure had been buried during the Thirty Years War. It was a war as complex as it was long, fought over religion and territorial hegemony in Europe and involving, at different stages, the Holy Roman Empire under the rule of the Habsburgs, Denmark, Spain, France, and Sweden. The war started on May 23, 1618 in Prague when a group of Protestant Bohemian noblemen threw three Catholic officials of the Holy Roman Emperor, Matthias of Austria, out of a window, an event known as the Second Defenestration of Prague. And it ended with the Peace of Westphalia, a series of peace treaties signed between May and October 1648 in the Westphalian cities of Münster and Osnabrück.
Being located in center of Europe, the Thirty Years War took an especially high toll on the land that is now Germany. Historians associated the treasure found on my family’s estate to the passing through of the Danish army in 1625. The famous poem Tears of the Fatherland, by Andreas Gryphius, written in 1636, draws a harrowing picture of what the population lived through, and under what circumstances the treasure must have been hidden:
(…) The towers are on fire, the churches turned upside down.
The town hall is in ruins, the strong ones are destroyed.
Young girls are raped. Wherever we turn our gaze,
Fire, plague, and death pierce through heart and spirit.
Ever-fresh streams of blood run through town and ramparts.
It’s been three times six years now, since our mighty rivers’ flow
Was blocked almost by corpses, just barely trickling through. (…)
A few years ago, my mother’s cousin, who has lived on the family estate all her life and devoted herself to the never-ending task of preserving it as a historic landmark, gave me one of the coins as a necklace. It is one of my most treasured possessions though I admit it gives me a bit of a shiver each time I wear it.