Sunday, January 15, 2006

Just When You Despair

Just when you despair, you can be reminded of the
beauty of the human spirit, too. The story of the
Frauenkirche of Dresden is a lovely one. Dresden
was the most beautiful city of northern Europe. Just
as Florence gathered the great artists of the
Renassaisance,so Dresden’s architecture and art
reflected the best and most beautiful of that
and subsequent ages.

The original building of the church was something
of a miracle, requiring a Catholic German prince to
support the building of a Lutheran cathedral.The
church itself was beautiful, a monument to the
genius of architects, artists, artisans of all types,
and a hymn in stone to faith. It had a distinctive,
bell-shaped dome, and bells that were named for various
Old Testament prophets. During World War II, the
Nazis managed to confiscate all but one of the bells
to melt down for war materiél. The people of Dresden,
however, managed to hide one bell, Hannah, in the
surrounding countryside.

But on February 13, 1945, the Allies firebombed Dresden.
The bombing was so intense that many residents (few soldiers,
mostly elderly, women and children), died of asphyxiation,
and the fires burned for days. In the dawn of February 14,
the survivors crawled out of the rubble and looked at the
Frauenkirche (we would say, Church of Our Lady), a Protestant
church, which had been a haven of spirit and peace for all
Christians in the city, in a frightening time.

The beautiful dome still stood, and tears stood in the eyes of
grateful watchers, to think this church had survived. But as
they watched, the beautiful church collapsed, destroyed by the
vibrations. The church had been completed in 1743, and had
housed a famous organ played by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Thousands of people donated money to rebuild the church.
The efforts took off after 1989, after the reunification of
Germany. Dresden, having been in East Germany, had been
in a sort of time capsule. The Communist government had been
careful with the ruins, and respectful, though this was a
church, it was also an important historic and cultural site of
the German people. So the Frauenkirche was well-preserved
ruins, and the German people, ready to make a statement
about their cultural heritage and unification. A German
emigré to the United States, Günter Blobel, won a Nobel
prize for medicine, and donated the entire prize money
to the effort to rebuild the Frauenkirche. He had seen the
church as a child, when his parents and he passed through
Dresden as refugees.

The people who have rebuilt the church managed to do so
because there were the original plans, miraculously retained.
They also had many other resources to fall back on, attempting
to fill in the gaps in 18th century architect’s notes. For instance,
they asked the people of Dresden, to loan their wedding
photographs, taken for decades at the front doors of the church,
so that the restorers could study what the original door
carvings had been like. With enough photographs, loaned
trustingly, they were able to reconstruct the carvings in
complete and loving detail. I love this aspect of the
reconstruction. It means that so many people of Dresden,
current and past, contributed to the reconstruction, both
in monetary, but also in this memory-sharing and trust.
The reconstruction is an effort of the community.

And finally, the missing bells were recast, and named, again,
for prophets from the Old Testament. But they have new
designs on the bells. Hannah is rehung, but her newer
brethren have designs that reflect a changing meaning for
the Frauenkirche. Some people feel that the church should
reflect on the dangers of war. They made a point of re-using
burnt stones from the original building in the new Frauenkirche,
so long as they were sound. People do not all agree on the
meanings of this, but the design on Isaiah, the largest of the
new bell is this: a picture of the two World Trade Center towers,
toppling in flames. Most of my information came from two
excellent articles that ran in the Boston Globe in 2005.
The best site about the Frauenkirche, history and rebuilding
is at Wikipedia:

You can read an out-of-date website in English about the
efforts to rebuild the Frauenkirche at

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