A lifeline and a force of nature, the Rhine has always shaped the lives of the people of Neupotz. The building named Leben am Strom (living near the river) located in the centre of the Palatinate municipality shows how residents have lived with and around the water over the centuries—and how they have protected themselves from it.

The water came after New Year’s Eve. It rained incessantly. A sudden thaw had set in in January 1955. The Rhine rose by more than three metres in just two and a half days. The harbour in Karlsruhe was already under water and boats were motoring through the streets of Speyer. And in Neupotz? The residents were packing their belongings. Hesitantly at first, then in a rush. “My father had already harnessed the cows to the waggon,” Emil Heid recalls the time. “We got ready to leave the village at any time.” Finally, the dykes threatened to burst. On 17 January 1955, the Rhine reached a level of a whopping 8.38 metres at Maxau, the highest it had been in 138 years. The rising water level finally came to a standstill. The dyke held, shored up by sandbags.

The original river course near Neupotz. However, the scene doesn’t always look this peaceful.

Emil was 15 at the time, but the event is etched into his memory and still present. As is the case for all Neupotz residents. “Fear of the water is always there,” he says today. Everyone here knows the history of the village, which was once called Potz. It had been a fishing village. Its population had lived off the Rhine. Until the river flooded vast areas after a dam had burst near Jockgrim in 1535, taking the village with it. The remaining families settled as far away from the Rhine as the district would allow—and founded Neupotz (literally: New Potz).

Leben am Strom (living near the river). Emil Heid can tell quite a few stories about that.

Emil is now standing in front of one of the old half-timbered, renovated houses decorating the centre of this new village. The wood painted red and the shutters light blue, it is a real gem. The building has housed the local history museum and information centre since 2013, exhibiting stories with a clear focus: water. It tells the story of Potz and Neupotz and illustrates how the locals live their lives with and around the Rhine—and how they protect themselves from its great force. The museum is a special place of remembrance that invites visitors to join in and interactively conveys how flood protection—then and now—can work.

Emil enters the largest room on the ground floor. On the floor is a large aerial photograph of Neupotz and the Rhine polder, which was inaugurated in 2013—during Emil’s term of office. He was mayor from 2004 to 2014 and is a real local. He was born here, learnt to swim in the original course of the Rhine and caught fish in the nearby brook, “with my bare hands.” Just his place of work was elsewhere; a tyre manufacturer in Karlsruhe, for 40 years. He never moved away and doesn’t even understand why you’re asking about it. “Why would you want to leave this place?”

Fear of the water is always there

Emil Heid

Emil’s time in office was shaped very much by the construction of the Rhine polder. A local protest group formed shortly after the construction plans had been published. Residents were worrying about their fields near the Rhine and about their safety. “The dyke was to be moved westwards, closer to the village,” Emil explains. “That scared people.” Emil tried to mediate in this situation. “I knew that something had to change when it came to flood protection. And I also knew that the villages along the Rhine had to stick together, and each of them would have to contribute to the project.” And he understood the citizens’ concerns. The authority in charge of environmental matters, the Struktur- und Genehmigungsdirektion Süd, also took the concerns seriously and approached the people of Neupotz at citizens’ forums. It adapted construction plans; gravel extraction was given fixed rules; the village was freed from heavy goods traffic; and the Leben am Strom museum was set up with the community being involved, promoting acceptance among the locals.

Step by step the exhibition illustrates how the polder works.

Emil approaches the loudspeakers on the window side of the room. This is where everyone has their say once again. Statements made by Emil as well as by opponents and supporters of the polder were recorded and are on replay here. They talk about how they finally reached a consensus. The museum is therefore not only a museum of local history, but also a fine example of how conflicts can be resolved at a local level.

There were many statements expressing many opinions. Finally a consensus on the construction of the polder was reached.

Emil uses the aerial photograph to explain how the polder works. Small boards with handles assist him. “This is where the new dyke runs,” he says and places the board with the corresponding number on its spot, lighting up a screen with a picture of the dyke. Today, the Rhine can spread across the fields and meadows to the east when there is a flood. If the level continues to rise, the controlled polder comes into play—a retention basin that can hold 13.85 million cubic metres of water. “We haven’t needed it yet,” Emil adds.

The Rhine polder today—ready to absorb millions of cubic metres of water, whenever necessary.

The museum shows the Rheinauen floodplains, a natural treasure of the region, as well as the river as a habitat and the efforts to reintroduce salmon to the river. The second room on the ground floor shows the development of shipping on the Rhine—from Romans’ ships all the way to modern container ships. A model of the Roman ship Lusoria Rhenana is exhibited there forming one of the stations in the network of extracurricular educational centres of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate together with the museum itself.

Model of the Roman ship Lusoria Rhenana, a replica of which is moored not far from the museum in summer.

A creaky wooden staircase leads up to the upper floor, where visitors can walk through Potz, the former fishing village, and tie a net themselves. The people of the village lived from fishing as long as until the end of the 18th century. This came to an end with the straightening of the Rhine at the beginning of the 19th century, leaving the locals without what had been their main source of living. By 1822, there were no more fishermen in the village, which became a farming village with basket-making as an important additional industry. Visitors also learn how many inhabitants left their homeland in the 17th and 18th centuries to try their fortune across the Atlantic.

Emil standing at the original river course near Neupotz: “Why would you want to leave this place?”

The museum offers guided tours and workshops, many of them especially designed for children. Emil conducts a number of them. He enjoys bringing people closer to the history of his home region—inside the museum and outside, “on excursions,” such as the one to the polder or the one to the Rhine meadows, the flood plains. Emil jumps on his bike and cycles to Setzfeldsee lake where a replica of the Lusoria Rhenana is moored in summer. Opposite from here is the upper part of the original river course of the Rhine, featuring a small bathing beach. He stands on the reed-covered jetty that leads into the water and repeats his conviction: “Why would you want to leave this place?”

The Leben am Strom museum and information centre is open every Wednesday and Friday from 2 to 4 p.m. It also offers guided tours for groups outside of these hours. You can enquire in writing: haus-leben-am-strom@neupotz.de



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