The Lost Boys of Erdeburg

Police in Erdeburg, Germany 1963 made a startling discovery when investigating a routine theft. Local farmer Helmut Walden complained about apples disappearing from his store, as well as several other petty thefts and noises in the night. Most alarmingly, the night before he’d called the officials, Walden found human footprints outside his 3-year-old daughter’s window. The footprints were much smaller than adult-sized, so Walden nicknamed them “kobolds.” The first investigation to the property found nothing.  Five days later Walden made another urgent call to the police. This time a sow was missing, as well as his grandfather’s gold pocket watch. Police investigated the barn and fields and again found nothing.  A day later Walden called them out to the farm a third time, sounding even more urgent than before. He had found a set of teeth-marks on his young daughter’s arm, and had trapped something in a corn crib.

What the deputy pulled from the crib was no unearthly creature, but a severely emaciated boy. Police reports state that the boy kicked and fought, spitting like a wild beast, refusing to communicate verbally. Officers searching the surrounding area were due for another surprise that day. This time, instead of stopping at the border of the farm, they delved into a nearby copse and found a makeshift camp as well as several boys, ranging from toddlerhood to mid-teens. What was clearly the eldest boy went after the lead officer with a handmade bone knife, which was easily twisted out of his weakened grasp. The boys had clearly been living as vagrants for some time, surviving mostly off what they could forage and steal from neighboring farms. The officers rounded the boys up and took them into custody.

The boys continued to behave strangely once secured in police headquarters. They refused water from cups and would only lap it straight from the bowl like a dog. They would not eat any food the officers laid before them but meat, picking and eating scabs from their own bodies. The boys were in much worse condition than initially feared, as a physician deduced that the “toddler” of the group was actually a seven-year-old, severely malnourished and developmentally delayed. The same applied in varying degrees to all the other boys. The eldest(whom the officers had estimated at fifteen) was probably in his mid-twenties and barely measured five feet. Their clothes were all handmade and therefore lacked any identifying tags. The boys were unable to speak or comprehend common German, instead they communicated in growls or a strange pidgin language the officers could not crack.

To the officer’s best guess, the boys were escapees or perhaps abandoned goods from a local cult that had gone underground around the beginning of World War I. The cult was an offshoot of evangelical Catholicism run by one Walther Neff, who had never been through a seminary. Instead, he claimed God had visited him after a head injury and showed him a path away from the sinfulness of the modern world. He preached a gospel that women were a lower race separate from men, disallowing any of his male followers from “polluting” themselves with carnal relations. Most if not all children on the cult’s land were estimated to be his.

The question of what was to be done about the boys still hung in the air. Though food and medicine was administered to them daily, the outcasts did not seem to thrive. The youngest especially had trouble, he could not feed himself and had taken to banging his head on any available surface until he drew blood. Cords, sashes, and anything that could be twisted into a rope had to be removed from their living quarters when it was found that the boys would routinely flagellate each other.  Language progression was slow. The twenty-year-old was deemed beyond hope of reform, but some of the younger boys showed familiarity with certain words.  “Wasser” they knew, and “dunkel.” Darkness, a shared fear. The boys refused to sleep without a small candle.

Long-term care had to be arranged for the boys. The eldest would be shipped off to an asylum, for there was nothing else that could be done at the time. The younger boys, though more willing to learn and socialize, were simply un-adoptable. They were half-feral even at the best of times and prone to violent fits.  Their exact ages and places of birth could never be determined, or their names.

Two last things of note happened before the boys were shipped off to their respective destinations and out of the eye of history. One was that the youngest died after nearly a year in captivity, a pre-adolescent the size of a two year old. An autopsy found his bones the result of many breakages and healings, which may have been partly responsible for his small stature.

The second happened when the visiting physician was concluding a monthly physical with one of the boys. His nurse stepped into the room to help gather samples into a bag and the boy clapped his hands and pointed at her, as he had during the word games the psychologists had played with him. He spoke his last recorded German words while gesturing happily to his mouth.

“Essen,” he said, “fleisch! Fleisch!”

Meat.

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