Kesternich, Modern Day / Modern Day



Gerhard, the Mayor of Kesternich, & Jonah Edward Kelley's nephew, Dack
Gerhard, the Mayor of Kesternich, & Jonah Edward Kelley’s nephew, Dack

Kesternich is a small village just inside the German border from Belgium. It is the site of two major battles during World War II. These battles are tied to the Siegfried Line Campaign, the Battle of the Huertgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge, and the assault on the Roer River dams at the outset of Operation Lumberjack.

Kesternich is a small village, which in 1944-1945 consisted of about 112 houses constructed in a method of timber-frame and stucco construction called fachwerkhäuser. Poised on top of a spur ridge, the land inside the village along the main east-west road is relatively flat. The land falls off sharply to the north into a gorge known as the Weidenbachtal, and to the south into a gorge called the Tiefenbachtal. To the east, at the end of the village, the terrain slopes down to the Roer (Rur) river gorge. Surrounding the village along the ridge was a series of small fields. The houses were not tightly packed, but were surrounded by small yards containing many outbuildings and sheds. The yards, like the farm fields, were often separated by a form of traditional tall, dense hedge that is used as a windbreak. Defenders inside the village commanded excellent fields of fire.

During Dack’s visit to Kesternich, he was given tours with the mayor and with Gerhard, a local history of the 78th Lightning Division.  On the photo to the right, you can see a “selfie” with the three.  They also visited the church that was destroyed in the battles, visited the streets & home where Kelley was killed in battle 70 years earlier, as saw the “Dragon’s Teeth” setup during WWI to block the Allies from crossing into Germany.

Here is the story of the cross in the pictures below:

Cross from the original church.

Villagers in the German town of Kesternich have scheduled a church festival in September 1984 to celebrate the return by St. Mary College of a gold crucifix that adorned the town’s church nearly 40 years ago. The 19-inch crucifix reached its homeland by an American biochemist who largely is responsible for its return.

The story of the crucifix began with the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, when an American soldier named Tom O’Donnell removed it from the bombed-out Saints Peter and Paul Church. Wanting to save the cross from destruction, he sent it to his sister, a nun with the Sisters of Charity, in Leadville, Colorado. Months later, the cross was taken to Leavenworth and put on display in the library of St. Mary College, Malone said. In letters he wrote home, O’Donnell explained that he found the cross while he was surveying the ruins of the church during the Battle of Kesternich.

O’Donnell said the church had been demolished by tank artillery fire in a battle with about 50 German soldiers inside the church. Although the altar was destroyed, O’Donnell said he found the crucifix on the altar barely scratched. The ruins of the church were to be blown up to rid the area of underground mines, so he removed the cross and sent it to his sister.

Picture Dack took of the church.

In July 1982, Malone visited his sister in Leavenworth and learned of the cross’s background. A resident of West Germany, Malone photographed the crucifix and returned to Germany with the pictures. There, he showed the pictures to residents of Kesternich, some who said they remembered carrying the cross in processions. The people of Kesternich had returned to their town after the war and rebuilt it, erecting a new church on the foundation of the old one, Malone said.

Sister Mary Janet MgGilley, president of Saint Mary College, told Malone the order would be happy to send the cross to its home and Malone reported back in letters that the villagers were ‘ecstatic.’ The town has scheduled a church festival Sept. 10 and 11 to celebrate the return of the cross, Malone said.

‘The Cross of Kesternich, which Tom O’Donnell saved from destruction and which you have cared for all these years, is practically the only thing which survived the war intact,’ he said in a letter. ‘It means more to them than just history and cultural tradition. It is more like returning a chunk of their soul, which they had thought lost forever.’

A business associate of Malone, Dr. Otto Berendes, returned the cross to Kesternich on Aug. 10, 1984.

War Memorial Kesternich

n 1993, a plaque was attached to the war memorial of Kesternich. It commemorates the 78th “Lighting” Infantry Division and the 272. Volksgrenadier-Division which fought against each other in the fierce ‘Battles of Kesternich’, from December 1944 to February 1945.

This memorial also commemorates the residents of Kesternich who were killed or missing in World War I and World War II.


From Keyser to Kesternich

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