Banter #1 - The Rodenberg Chain
August 3rd, 2010
The Rodenberg Chain consists of about 45 shooting medallions and coins, with a central silver shield bearing the words "Rodenberg Schützen Festival." The medals were engraved with the names, dates and number of targets shot by the winners in their respective years. The dates ranged from 1893 to 1938, the last date the pre-war festival was held. The chain was "liberated" by an American armored crew late in the war. It lay hidden for over a half century with the family of an Indiana veteran, until purchased by Wittmann in 2009.
The emails for this particular morning were getting interesting... Up popped the fussy picture of a large neck chain filled with old shooting medallions. The writer explained that the “necklace” belonged to her late uncle who had brought it home from the war. The Indiana family had no affection for it and since they saw that my site was devoted to German things, wondered if I would interested in purchasing the necklace? As I studied its features, I liked the looks of the relic as there were many elaborate medallions and coins, all engraved with names, dates and the number of “rings” (or bulls eyes) that were hit. Additionally, the large center piece of the chain appeared to be silver and looked alluring to me. It featured a standing lion image giving the chain a more quality look compared to similar chains I had seen in the past. I knew that these chains were awarded for shooting contests held throughout Germany and that they were worn by the champion of the contest and later displayed usually within the shooting club facility. I offered the family a more than reasonable price for the Shooting Chain (I really wanted to get this thing) and a deal was cut. When I received the chain in hand, I noticed that the large center piece, that had originally caught my eye, had the name “Rodenberg” engraved into the surface. After checking my atlas map of Germany, as well as studying the accompanying listing of towns and cities, I did not see any mention of “Rodenberg”. I figured it was probably one of those “Kreis areas” or “Provinces” not named on modern maps, or possibly it was a former town name that went into oblivion after the war. I gave up further research and had my son Robbie, our staff photographer, take some shots of the chain. I wrote up a description, as usual, detailing a number of the names and dates on the medallions and we proceeded to put the artifact up for sale on our website.
The Rodenberg Chain is shown being worn in the year 1930, by the winner of the shooting competition for that year. Note there are a couple of medals at the bottom area of the old chain which have been lost to time on the recovered chain. The traditional garb for the Shooting Festival has always been extremely formal, complete with "stove-pipe" top hats. We were assured that nothing could change the clothing that is worn, a tradition is everything in Germany!
About 6 months later, I was away attending a Militaria show and while sitting in my hotel room, I decided to check my emails on a laptop that accompanies me on my many travels. To my astonishment, there was an email from a man in Germany explaining to me that he recognized my “Kette” ( or chain in Deutsche) and that it was connected to the small village of Rodenberg, located about 20 miles outside of Hannover. The writer, Norbert Thombansen, was a member of a Schützen Verein in another German district, and told me he would write the Bürgermeister of Rodenberg and tell them about his discovery of this chain on my web site. Norbert further explained to me the traditions of the shooting associations throughout Germany and the fact that many of these organizations were centuries old. He stressed the importance of these prize shooting chains to the local citizens, as often their father's, uncle's, grandfather's and other ancestors were the named recipients on the medallions. Each year's winner was entitled to retain the chain for a number of days or sometimes until the next year's competition. Since this chain bore dates and names going back to the 1890's, I was beginning to realize the importance of this piece to this small place. I began to understand that perhaps, I was in possession of something that was really not a war relic, but rather was an important component in the history of a German town. Two days later, I received another email. It was from the Rodenberg Director of Town Government, Günther Wehrhahn. Herr Wehrhahn explained to me that every year in July the “Citizens Shooting Festival” is held. The winner's name and shooting details are engraved on a medallion and attached to the chain. The winner gets to wear the chain for three days while the town's citizens celebrate his success. He went on to tell me that the Rodenberg Shooting Festival has been held annually for 390 years – in ten years it will be four centuries old! Herr Wehrhahn further revealed that the old Rodenberg shooting chain had been missing since the war. He was fairly certain that the chain we had on our web site was the missing one, but wanted further details as to some of the other winner's names so he could be sure. I had my son, Robbie, take some good pictures of the reverse of the medallions and sent them off. The response was as we thought – this was truly the missing Rodenberg Schützen Kette! I was astounded that Fate had treated us to what was literally a needle-in-a-haystack find, and that we had unwittingly uncovered this historic treasure. Herr Wehrhahn wanted to know the best way that the town could get the Kette back to Rodenberg? Did I want Euros or Dollars? I gave his question a little thought and then heartedly responded , “Günther, not only will you get your Shooting Chain returned, but I will personally bring it to Germany and present it to the town. It will not cost you a pfennig.” In retrospect, I am sure that anyone of us in this business would have done the same. How often do we get a chance to right a wrong and even to slightly change history? I can not think of a greater reward in this hobby.
The Americans are pictured next to the Rodenberg Director of Town Government, Günther Wehrhahn and behind, the shooting festival enthusiast from another town who discovered the Rodenberg Chain on the Wittmann Militaria website, Norbert Thombansen. Lined up are Willi Warda, Wittman, Sr. and Robbie.
With this commitment made, we were invited to come to the Rodenberg Shooting Festival, held from July 10-12th. Hotel rooms would be reserved for two of my sons - Tom, Jr. and Robbie - and my great friend, Willi Warda (who speaks the language) and me. The hotel was even named, “The Berghof” – what could be better! I did not know what we would do for three days in Rodenberg, as I was primarily interested in doing my duty and making the presentation - then off we would go to show my family and Willi the Wewelsberg Castle, the City of Swords - Solingen, and finally spend a few days in Munich and the Obersalzberg. But, not so fast Wittmann, as we were unexpectedly in for the time of our lives. After a wonderful flight with the best airline in the world - Lufthansa - we rented a car in Frankfurt and were off on the Autobahn to the little town of Rodenberg. Upon arrival in the town we were whisked to the Rodenberg Town Hall and given a special tour of the facility. We were shown the formidable old castle at Rodenberg and its museum. We were given a personal visit to an original windmill high on a hill, and once used to grind the wheat grown in this farm community for flour and, of course, beer. We were told that hundreds of years ago Rodenberg became a German “Stadt”. In order to qualify for this important ranking, a small city must provide three things for their citizens: protection, free speech and have the ability to produce beer! These were the ingredients for success!
The officials and "Altemann" of the Shooting Festival commitee are lined up with American attendees, (from left) Thomas T. Wittmann, Jr., Willi Warda, Robert H. Wittmann and Thomas T. Wittman, Sr., in the center front row. The mounted "Oberst" of the Festival, Heike Katurbe (2nd from right) is shown wearing red, green and white sash being the colors of Rodenberg.
We were then taken to dinner in a wonderful Beer Garden and entertained by the local oompah band. The next day, to our complete surprise, we were paraded throughout the town as if we were the Kaiser and his imperial family – the local people waved and cheered during the entire route. I began to wonder if we had been first to land on the moon or maybe we had won the World Series or something? It was difficult to imagine all of this. We were the “stars” of an impressive parade. I was even put into an open horse-drawn, vintage carriage for the entire route – I was wondering if I needed lessons on the proper manner on how to waive to crowds and I truly hoped the cigar I was smoking didn't offend anyone! The pomp and circumstance was incredible. On the third day there was yet another parade. This one was extremely formal and militaristic. The participants consisted of three groups; the young men – they wore matching hiking style outfits, the middle aged men up to 50 years – they wore black suits and white ties, and lastly, the “Altemann”. These great people got to wear tuxedos, tails and top hats! This has been the dress code for at least a hundred years and as I was to learn, traditions live on in Germany. The band played march music and the young man sang enthusiastically to the stirring rhythm. The middle aged men actually still “goose stepped”! The leader of the parade, the Herr Oberst, rode a fine stallion and barked orders to his rank and file in the manner only the Germans can do. Although the temperature was in the high 90 degree area, there was never even a drop of sweat! I began to feel like I was in a movie. We loved it!
Wittmann was emotionally overcome when 2500 Rodenberg residents gave he and his family a rousing standing ovation lasting over 5 minutes. If there were ever any doubts, at a time like this, it was easy for Wittmann to know that returning the chain to these outstanding people was the right thing to do.
The parade route led to an open field and at its edge was the club house where the shooting event took place. While the contest was held, a professional photographer took our pictures, posing with the Shooting Festival Officials. The German press was also there for the occasion. The contest was over in less than an hour, and I began to realize that the shooting match was really an “excuse” to have a three-day parade and party for the entire town. Next came a great traditional lunch in a grand tent holding about 2500 Rodenberg residents. After the delicious roladen and gravy meal accompanied by endless rounds of beer, the Shooting awards were presented and soon it was my turn to take the stage. As I rose from my chair, though, suddenly the American flag was unraveled and flown. Simultaneously, the band played the Star Spangled Banner. I have had some emotional moments in my life, but never anything like this. My boys and I stood and proudly saluted the flag. When the anthem ended, there was a five minute standing ovation for us! This was something one could only imagine in a dream. I was very proud to be an American. All of this fuss over returning a shooting chain! Wow!
Filled with emotion, I climbed the stage fortified with the cased Rodenberg Shooting chain in my arms. It really looked great in the wooden case, as it was displayed against regal black velvet. One of the "Altemann" had told me that he remembered what happened to the chain. He said at war's end, there was an American armored patrol in Rodenberg. They were inspecting houses for weapons and found the chain still on the wall of the last Schützen König. The old man tensed his lips and sullenly remarked, “the Kette was last seen leaving Rodenberg, dangling from the barrel of a Sherman tank!” I reached the stage and began to feel butterflies in my stomach. I had come to the crescendo of this glorious adventure. I hoped that I was up for it. I had prepared a short speech in the German language. It went pretty well and was finalized with the reading of the brass plaque we had commissioned to accompany the chain. I know my pronunciation was terrible, but I think the citizens liked the fact that I tried to do this in their language. In frustration, I finally ended the speech in English, briskly telling them “and don't lose it again!” They seemed to like my “wise guy” quip, as all of the German papers reprinted the line. I gave the cased “Kette” to the gracious Bürgermeister.
This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event. I was glad that it could be shared with some of my family. I thought that I would share this story with all of you with this writing. I am getting up in years and I must say, life has been very good to me. I hope that I can still go on for a lot more years, as this fantastic hobby never grows old and everyday is still filled with excitement. I think what happened in Rodenberg will give my boys some thoughts for the future. It was a chance to go back in time and to a degree, to learn what life is really all about.
Thomas T. Wittmann
Originally published in the "Wittmann Offering" print catalog, the Banter is Tom Wittmann's personal column about the collecting hobby. After its long hiatus, we are very glad to once again be able to offer the Banter to you here at Wittmann Antique Militaria. We hope that you've enjoyed this edition of the Wittmann Banter, it was a story that was quite literally a lifetime in the making. In the future we hope to be able to bring you more from the mind of Herr Wittmann on a semi-regular basis, provided, of course, that he can find a spare minute in the day to write something other than emails!