A German innkeeper had little hope for the future a hundred years ago. He purposefully etched a warning into a rock on the side of the river Elbe in what is now the Czech Republic, fearful of the future, before sailing into the unknown in search of redemption.
More than a century later, current researchers have discovered the foreboding message. Unfortunately, it was already too late by that point.
Vlastimil Pazourek had been fascinated by the history of his town since he was a child. He knew everything there was to know about Decin, Czech Republic, so was perfectly suited to his role as head of the local museum.
But when his phone rang saying he had to get to the river as soon as possible, he was suddenly terrified at what fate had in store for his beloved home town.
Vlastimil threw on his jacket and headed straight down to the Elbe River as fast as his bicycle would carry him.
When he arrived at the bank, there were several other townsfolk gathered around staring into the river. The museum curator locked eyes with a local fisherman – and the expression on his face said it all.
The historian had read several stories of things turning up in the river, but only a few had sparked such panic amongst locals.
Dangerous munitions from World War II had started to emerge in recent months. But it was the reason things had started turning up from the depths that was really frightening people.
This wasn’t just an unexploded bomb that residents had discovered in the Elbe – this was something that would mean far graver consequences for everyone that lived in Decin.
The residents had finally found the warning that had been etched into the river rocks in 1904 by the desperate innkeeper. But what was he warning them about? And why did it take so long for anyone to see it?
Vlastimil had to get down into the river to see the stone for himself. With the help of a local fisherman, he quickly found himself wading out to the place where the low water levels had revealed the ominous warning.
“Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine,” innkeeper Franz Mayer had written on the side on the enormous boulder more than a century earlier. Vlastimil didn’t speak German. If he had, he’d have soon realized the danger both he and the fisherman were in.
Neither Vlastimil nor the fisherman had their phones on them to use an online translator, and not many people in the town spoke German.
But a bystander on the bank looking down at the two men trying to puzzle out the message offered assistance. And when he called down the translation to them, they both froze as a chill ran down their spines.
The Elbe is an incredibly valuable asset for the town of Decin. Up until the 1990s, around five million tonnes of imports and exports were transported along its waters.
But these days, less than one million tonnes of goods were sent along the river. And the German’s 100-year-old message explained why.
“If you can see me, then weep,” the man called down to Vlastimil. The translation left the two men in the river confused.
Was there something in the water they should be worried about? Why would someone go to so much trouble to carve a message like this into a rock? But then it dawned on him – he knew what the message from the past was telling him to be afraid of in the river.
Vlastimil was actually well aware of the dangers Decin faced – but seeing it hastily hacked into the river rocks themselves gave him an uneasy feeling.
In fact, a group of residents had actually campaigned to do something about it, but some feared that if they intervened with the old river, they could make things far worse.
The message was warning future generations of the low water levels in the river that would lead to devastating the local fishing and trade communities.
Decin was in a precarious situation – and the message from the past only made everyone in the town feel more anxious about the impending lack of water. But there was something they could do if they were prepared to take a serious risk.
The low water level in the Elbe had been causing the town difficulties for years, so an action group came up with a controversial plan to build a weir on the river.
But environmental groups have strongly opposed the plan, claiming that interfering with the flow of the water could cause irreparable damage. But more messages from the past have since emerged.
Since the water level of the Elbe has continued to drop, 20 similar rocks – ominously dubbed “The Hunger Stones” – have emerged with dire warnings for future generations.
The oldest one dates back to 1616, serving as a chilling reminder of how closely tied to nature our survival really is. And no one knows that better than Vlastimil.
“Over the centuries, many people earned their living on the Elbe as rafters,” the history buff told AFP. “And when there wasn’t enough water to float their rafts, they lost their livelihoods.
“The rafters engraved the dates of those bad years on the soft sandstone boulders typical for this region, hence the name ‘hunger stone’,” he added. But it’s not like the locals have never tried to do anything about it.
The Elbe has been deepened and rerouted with nine separate dams over the years to keep the livelihoods of the Decin people safe.
Would you have panicked if you found a scary message from the past at the bottom of the river, or would you have instantly recognized it as an indicator of impending famine?