The Plague

How the plague came to our village, nobody remembers.

Maybe a cattle trader was to blame, or a visiting relative, or the postman. Or maybe a goose from the swamps, caught in a trap and eaten for lunch, carried it into the first family that died.

It was a spring day in the 1850s, this much we know, when the son of that family began to feel unwell. He started coughing and developed a fever. At first he did not tell anyone. They were peasants, his father was tilling the field and needed his help.

At that time, the villagers lived in lowly thatched houses, along with some cows and sheep, all under the same roof. Their land belonged to the King of Hanover or local aristocrats who collected one tenth of every harvest.

It took one day for the boy to die. His cough and fever worsened, he spent his last hours in a delirium. His parents sat by his side all night, trying to cool his sweaty face with water. His mother picked some lice she noticed on his scalp. They just had enough time to bury him, then they got ill and died as well. So did others who had attended the boy’s funeral.

Word of the outbreak spread to the nearby town, and to the Kingdom’s local authorities. They quickly placed the village under quarantine, and had it surrounded by armed troops. For weeks, the soldiers did not let anybody out or in, not even doctors or priests.

The plague had the village all to itself.

Some 150 years later, our neighbour Heinz came over one day. Something seemed to trouble him. He had been busy digging holes for the cornerstones of a new pigsty, he told my father, when his spade had suddenly hit human bones.

Heinz was the village cemetery’s kuhlengräber, the grave-digger, like his father and grandfather before him. He was used to the sight of dead bodies but this was different. As he had dug deeper, he told us, he had found half a dozen skeletons, with tissue clinging to their bones.

Whose remains were they? Heinz and my father wondered. Maybe Russian POWs murdered in the last days of the Second World War?

They asked the village elders, who still remembered the war, but they shook their heads. Nazi atrocities were not to blame for this mass grave, they said, but probably a plague outbreak in the previous century.

A plague outbreak? My father and Heinz had never heard of it. Our neighbour’s great-grandfather had moved to the village in 1865 and bought the farm that year. Curiously, the identity of the seller was not known. Only his initials were carved into the barn’s front beam and a date: 1783.

The village elders told them the story, as they had heard it from previous generations, of what happened during the outbreak.

When the Hanoverian army cordoned off the village, the inhabitants were left to their own devices and food reserves. They were not allowed to approach the soldiers. Any attempt to communicate with them resulted in warning shots. The villagers were totally cut off from the rest of the world, with no knowledge of what was going on elsewhere. They must have felt utterly abandoned.

Each day, the death toll increased. The mysterious disease moved from house to house. The villagers were desperate. God had forsaken them.

The village’s remoteness, at the far end of a dirt road and abutting on impassable swamps, made it easy for the army to isolate it. Those who tried to escape were either shot dead, or they drowned in the swamps. Many years later, after they had been drained, peat-diggers would once come upon a dead male body. It had been preserved wholly intact by the oxygen-free morass, the face looking just as it did when it went under.

As the quarantine went on, the army officers noticed through their field glasses how all activity in the village gradually died down. People no longer left their houses, except to carry the dead outside. Cows wandered around, mooing in pain as their udders were bursting with milk. Smoke stopped coming from the chimneys.

When the first soldiers finally entered the village, they found it empty. A few bodies lay in the streets, with crows picking away at their flesh. One sole survivor, a maid, emerged from a barn where she had hidden for months, eating carrots and straw. Everybody else had perished.

That was how the village elders told the story.

For years afterwards, they added, the village remained deserted, the farms abandoned, and the land fallow. The victims’ relatives and legal heirs, if they lived elsewhere, refused to set foot in the village. It was thought to be infested still and haunted by unredeemed souls.

Only a decade after the catastrophe did brave new settlers, including my forebears, enter the village and re-commence farming. Their arrival marked a new beginning in the village’s 500-year history. Over the following decades – as these lands became part of the Prussian Kingdom and later of the German Reich – most farms once again changed owners. Many villagers emigrated to America, others were killed on battlefields. Their places were taken, from 1945 onwards, by refugees from Pomerania and East Prussia.

Despite these dislocations, the plague outbreak – and the state’s cruel response to it – never vanished from the village’s collective memory. As the country went into corona lockdown last month, I remembered the old stories. Now was the time to write them up.

Still, I thought it best to do some research to separate facts from fiction. Who knew, perhaps the village elders’ lore was merely a rural legend?

The obvious starting-point was the village’s cemetery but the oldest tombstones there only dated back to the late 19th century. However, the plague victims should still be listed in the local church’s death registry. I called a local historian who often does research at the municipal archives. He is known as ‘the mole’, for his love of perusing dusty records.

A plague outbreak? He had never heard of it and was fairly sure that the church registry of the mid-19th century would not show any massive spike of deaths.

Maybe the authorities covered up the outbreak and their brutal measures? I suggested but he doubted this. Plagues were still common then, he said, and so were military quarantines.

It sounded like I did not have a story after all. There was simply not enough evidence. I could no longer interview the village elders at the time. They were long dead now, just like our neighbour Heinz and my father.

The plague outbreak appeared to be a myth, a fairy tale.

A few days later, the historian called me back to say that he had found something. It was a brief directive, sent by a state official in 1858 to a teacher who was taking up the post in the village school. He was not to enter any houses, the directive said, which had been affected by the disease.

What disease? I asked, excited.

Typhus, the historian said, there was an outbreak of abdominal typhus in your village in 1857. He had also checked the church’s death registry: nearly one third of the villagers had died that year!

The directive also indicated the duration of the typhus outbreak. The village school had been closed from the spring of 1857 until 1858.

One whole year, all four seasons – this was how long it took.

The source did not mention any military measures or mass graves. The village elders, departing from the story’s essential truth, had obviously embellished and dramatized it over the generations.

But then again, had they really? It was not hard to imagine how the terrible details reflected the villagers’ experience during the quarantine: being isolated for one year, abandoned by the state, unable to alleviate or share their suffering. The sickness and death, the grieving, the fear, the despair.

The long winter, the sheer terror of it all.

Even after their ordeal, the survivors were probably treated as pariahs in the nearby town and villages. Maybe that was why so many sold their farms and moved away. Shaken and traumatised, they wanted to leave that annus horribilis behind. Perhaps the village was haunted after all.

When this current plague outbreak is finally over, in our global village, I wonder what memories future generations will keep of it.

What stories will they tell about it?

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