St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, Germany: Holy Thursday, April 18, 2019
Many people think Bach’s music is meant to play in the background on the radio. But on this evening, up in the choir loft the Gewandhaus Orchestra is playing a St. John Passion that writhes and struggles, filled with pain and loss. Then the voices from the choir loft jolt we who listen:
“Herr! Herr! Herr!”
They are serfs wailing, “Master! Master! Master!” They are beggars calling, “Sir! Sir! Sir!”
Berlin, Palm Sunday, April 14
In the afternoon, we moved to an apartment near the Brandenburg Gate. My daughter had reserved it online. It was a pleasant but ordinary flat, which looked out on a small parking lot. We kept wondering why guides were leading groups of tourists to look at it. Then our daughter came back from such a tour. She pointed down to the parking lot and said, “That’s where Hitler’s bunker was!”
We decided to walk around and see some of the usual places tourists go to see, such as the Reichstag and the Tiergarten. Our route took us past a plaza filled with 2,711 concrete slabs. They were of different sizes and the ground beneath them at places dipped and rose like an undulating lake of concrete plinths.
Then we saw the sign. There is a directness in the German language that comes through here: Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas—Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Along with other people, we moved among the slabs. People appeared and disappeared as they wandered among them. The experience is confusing—disorienting.
Nearby we chanced upon a small glen that contained a black pool with a triangle in the middle. We discovered it was the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism.
Berlin, Monday of Holy Week, April 15
It seemed that we couldn’t get away from the specter of the past. So my wife and I walked to the Berlin Story Museum, which had advertised an exhibit titled: “Hitler: How Did It Happen?” The route took us past “The Topology of Terror,” an outdoor memorial at the site of the Gestapo Prison. Only later did I learn that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had once been held captive there.
The museum was in a surviving air-raid shelter. As we meandered through the museum, the history grew ever more bewildering. For instance, a photo showed Hitler as a baby, staring at the camera, his expression a bit alarmed as the audio guide said, “He is ordinary.” The exhibit followed him to Vienna and Munich, where he failed miserably as an artist. He lived in flophouses and a homeless shelter. The audio guide said, “Hitler is a nobody.”
Then World War I broke out. He volunteered in Munich. As an Austrian citizen, he shouldn’t have gotten into a Bavarian unit, but he did. His reserve regiment, after only two months of training, was rushed to the front in France. The Germans called this “the Massacre of the Innocents.” In Hitler’s company, after two months of battle and out of 250 men, he was one of only forty-two soldiers still alive and serving on the front lines. Then he served four more years as a messenger on the deadliest battlefields in history up to that time. He was wounded three times. But he survived. Here looming before me was a daunting question. Couldn’t the creator of the universe have discreetly polished off Corporal Hitler at the Somme or Ypres? Would our free will really be impinged if he who knows the fall of a sparrow had steered a piece of shrapnel to his femoral artery? Or wafted a bit more poison gas his way?
If Hitler’s survival was some sort of dark miracle, his rise to power is equally astonishing. After the war, he was still a nobody. Yet he took over a drinking club of rightist crackpots and made it a ruthless weapon that ruled Germany. Then as Fuhrer he conquered or cowed most of Europe. At many points his enemies could have stopped him. But they didn’t.
We moved slowly through the museum. In a photo, a man stood at the edge of a mass grave. A German officer pointed a pistol at his head. The man gave us a look of resignation and contempt.
An exhibit displayed a snippet of a Wehrmacht soldier’s letter. He told his wife his unit was massacring civilians. “It can’t be helped,” he wrote.
Photos showed us a pogrom. A young woman sat on a cobblestoned street. Most of her clothing had been ripped off. She tried to hide her nakedness while reaching out beseechingly. Her eyes were incredulous and desperate.
How did it happen? The museum tried gamely to answer. But the more we saw of Hitler and the Nazis, the less we understood them.
Leipzig, St. Thomas Church, Holy Thursday, April 18
In the St. John Passion, the tenor sang:
. . . while the whole world
Suffers along with Jesus’s suffering;
the sun clothes itself in mourning,
the curtain is ripped, the mountain crumbles,
the earth shakes, graves split open,
because they are watching the creator growing cold . . .
It’s not some new discovery by the German philosopher who hailed the rise of the Ubermensch. It was a discovery of the first Christians that Bach also pondered: On the cross, God is stone cold dead.
Berlin, Monday of Holy Week, April 15
We had to leave the Berlin Story Museum to meet the rest of our group at the Berliner Dom—the Protestant cathedral. It is a magnificent monument to the Hohenzollern kings and queens whose tombs are below. We listened to a prayer service, with lovely organ music. Yet the service brought a question to mind: So what? Modern science and politics, ancient faith and morality, Western art and values—all of it did nothing to stop the rise of Nazism.
As I sat under the cathedral dome, I also thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer sitting in Berlin’s Tegel Prison (about six miles away) and contemplating a world that could spawn Nazism:
The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience—and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore.
It wasn’t until later at dinner that we heard about the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral, and that the world was already beginning to debate whether that church could be rebuilt.
Leipzig, St. Thomas Church, Holy Thursday, April 18
The chorus sang:
I, I and my sins,
Which are like the grains of sand by the sea:
These have roused the misery—
The army of torture—
That batters you.
The words are hard for us modern Christians. But as we listen to the painful phrases in the St. John Passion, I feel we can’t avoid thinking that confronting our sins and Germany’s crimes seems to highlight the sins and crimes of all history. In the St. John Passion, the voices from the choir loft, which have been singing our deepest thoughts, are the same voices that are filled with both hate and horror as they scream and shriek: “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!”
Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, Wednesday of Holy Week, April 17
Leaving Berlin, we drove to the town of Oranienburg. At first it seems to be an ordinary town in the country. Then you see gray walls and you know you have arrived at the memorial to the concentration camp, which mostly held political prisoners of all stripes.
The site of the camp has a few reconstructed barracks. Inside there are exhibits of individual histories and the story of the camp. For example, Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law and co-conspirator Hans von Dohnanyi was executed there. Other prisoners included misfits, dissenters, the mentally disturbed, criminals, grumblers, trade unionists, vagrants, liberals, and anyone else who drew the ire of the Nazis. There’s no obvious rationale; seeing the camp demolishes any notion of reason, even evil reason. The camp goes beyond evil to something for which we have no categories or words. I thought seeing the camp would overwhelm me with emotion. Instead, after touring it I felt scrubbed of all human feeling. Empty. Grayed out.
In a relatively short time, we were ready to leave. We wound up going into town and eating a late lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant. We sat in the sun at tables outside by the sidewalk. We ate Vietnamese food, and slowly came to ourselves again.
Bonhoeffer wrote from prison:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matthew 8:17 [“He took up our infirmities, and bore the burden of our sins”] makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. . . . Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.
But, when we are faced with ruthless evil, how can a suffering God help?
Leipzig, St. Thomas Church, Holy Thursday, April 18
The soprano sings:
Melt away, my heart, in floods of tears
To honor the Most High;
Tell the world and heaven of this anguish:
Your Jesus is dead!
The aria is pure beauty, but it is the beauty of sadness and grief. Her anguish is lovely, but it is anguish still. Critics say faith is meant to distract us from our anguish. Here, however, faith is anguish. It includes our loss, our yearnings, our regrets, our pain, our suffering, our evil. Religion doesn’t dispose of them. It confronts them, it embraces them. It perhaps even intensifies our experience of them. Perhaps in that music is like faith: both in fact intensify our feelings, our experiences, our humanity. In contrast, it is our doubt-ridden modern world that is numb and bored. It is modernism that, in fleeing from suffering and pain, makes our lives duller, drabber, shabbier. Yet don’t we need consolation too?
Dresden, Good Friday, April 19
We drove from Leipzig to Dresden. It was the nicest day of spring yet. We wandered down to the Old City. Tourists eddied around the plaza, the Neumarkt. The blue skies and bright-colored buildings cheered us up. It was hard to believe the city had been rebuilt after being leveled by Allied bombings in World War II.
We wanted to attend Good Friday services. Our map to the Old City listed a Frauenkirche. It was pretty easy to see its dome looming over the edge of the market and exuding the confident merriment of the baroque. The interior was all swirls, curlicues and whorls, with layers of white and pink and gold. It was like being inside of a birthday cake, if a birthday cake had a lot of gilt. Finally I understood the baroque. It wasn’t fussy and decadent, as I had supposed. Instead the baroque was youthful, bright, joyful, exuberant, and giddy with faith—glorious, bubbly, delighted faith.
We were there in time for the noon Good Friday service. The program said there also was a 3 p.m. service that included choral selections from the St. John Passion. Well, why not a reprise? So after the service, we had lunch at an outdoor café in the plaza, and we strolled around the city. It is a trove of art and architecture overlooking the Elbe River. We picked up a bit of the history of the church. It survived bombardment by the forces of Frederick the Great and escaped intact from the revolutionary violence in 1849. But on the night of February thirteenth, 1945, a wave of British bombers attacked, deliberately igniting a firestorm. A few hours later, a second wave of RAF bombers targeted the rescue efforts. During the day of the fourteenth, American planes followed up with bombing attacks on the smoldering city. An estimated twenty-five thousand people died.
For a couple of days afterward, the Frauenkirche’s scorched dome endured. But then it collapsed, smashing much of the remaining structure. The rubble sat there for more than four decades of communist rule.
I am not second-guessing the military and political calculations from a safe place eighty years later. Fighting a ruthless foe required ruthless methods. Inevitably, from that flowed pitiless thinking. It is a moral failing to be squeamish in fighting evil. Yet the triumph of my nation and its allies means I too am entangled in the horrors of history. The brutal truth is that, in our world, even necessary acts of justice are snarled in horror and destruction.
When the Berlin Wall fell, the Dresden community and the reunited German nation resolved to rebuild the Frauenkirche. The leaders of the movement declared in a manifesto, “We refuse to accept that this unique and magnificent building remains a ruin or is even demolished.”
Now that is faith. For, to the senses and to reason, the Frauenkirche had been a pile of blackened stones and debris for forty-five years. You can’t get more ruined and demolished than that. But the people of Dresden voted to rebuild the Frauenkirche as it had been.
First, it took more than a year to sift through the rubble to sort out 8,400 usable pieces of the façade, and 87,000 pieces of masonry that had made up the supporting stone structure. Every stone was given a brass identification marker, and sorted out on shelves in a structure put up in the marketplace outside. Then both old and replacement stones were painstakingly put into place, and the entire structure was rebuilt as close to the original as possible, including the altar and all the baroque exuberance we saw. It reopened in 2005.
Yet the reconstructed church raises questions, much as restoring Notre Dame does. Is the 2019 Frauenkirche the “same” church? Or was it merely replicated? Or is it something new and different?
We headed back into the Frauenkirche for the afternoon service. The Gospel readings from John alternated with choral selections from Bach’s St. John Passion. Here, however, the voices and music exuded loveliness and serenity—even in moments of evil and horror.
In the depths of my heart,
Your name and cross alone
Sparkle at every time, at every hour;
With that I can be happy.
Shine that image down on me
To comfort me in my affliction:
How you, Lord Christ, for my sake,
Bled to death so gently!
It was the sufferings of the Passion as seen from heaven. The agony and injustice had been transmuted into pure, crystalline beauty; that “moment of doubt and pain” had been transformed into certainty and bliss.
Maybe that goes back to the rebuilt Frauenkirche. In a way, our Western world is a pile of rubble and debris. One can wonder if any rebuilding is only a gesture, but aren’t most of our attempts at redemption feeble, halting, and partial gestures? Perhaps the Frauenkirche is a genuine act of faith in a secular age. Maybe that is the idea Bonhoeffer was groping for: When old words no longer move us, and we haven’t found new ones, maybe we can still move ahead, slowly, laboriously, but steadily, with actions.
We walked out of the church into the plaza. On that lovely spring day Dresden was bright and charming. Tourists meandered about the plaza. We passed a poster advertising another St. John Passion performance in the late afternoon, and later in the evening a performance of the St. Matthew Passion was scheduled in yet another church.
Leipzig, St. Thomas Church, Holy Thursday
At the very beginning of the St. John Passion, after the cries of “Herr! Herr! Herr!” the chorus sang:
Show us through your passion,
That you, true Son of God,
At all times,
Even in the most abject lowliness,
Have been exalted!
Maybe we can hope that, even when our souls have been blasted, our world is in ruins, and our beliefs have been razed to the ground, we can somehow reconstruct them. Perhaps even in our religionless time, faith is merely dormant in the stone-cold earth. And maybe someday, somehow, pain and anguish and evil will be transmuted into justice and joy and life.
Cover image by Marina Mazur.
Johann Sebastian Bach, St. John Passion, movement 1. Quotations from the Passion are from (a) the St. Thomas Church program notes, (b) the Frauenkirche program notes from Good Friday services, and (c) the corresponding text by Emmanuel Music, Emmanuel Church, Boston, Mass.; emmanuelmusic.org.
The movement numbers are from the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (NBA) system.
The English versions in this essay are based on (a) the translation at the Emmanuel Music site listed above, which seems to be fairly literal; (b) Google Translate versions; and (c) my own reading of the text, with my limited knowledge of German supplemented by online dictionaries.
John Keegan, The Mask of Command, (New York, Penguin Books, 1987), 239-243.
St. John Passion, movement 34.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, “Greatly Enlarged Edition”, (Kindle edition) p. 279.
St. John Passion, movement 11.
Bonhoeffer, p. 300.
St. John Passion, movement 35.
Overy, Richard; “The Bombers and the Bombed,” Viking; New York; 2013; esp. p. 210-216.
Taylor, Frederick; “Death Toll Debate: How Many Died in the Bombing of Dresden?”, Der Spiegel, Oct. 8, 2008; https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/death-toll-debate-how-many-died-in-the-bombing-of-dresden-a-581992.html
Zumpe, Dieter;The Dresden Frauenkirche, (Lubeck, Schoning GmbH & Co KG, no year given) p. 2.
Zumpe, Dieter,The Dresden Frauenkirche, (Lubeck, Schoning GmbH & Co KG, no year given), 7–41.
St. John Passion, movement 26.