In Memoriam: Berlin, part 2

On the night of November 23rd, 1943 Allied bombers destroyed much of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church at the heart of Charlottenburg, Berlin. Built by the Kaiser at the end of the 1800s in honour of his father, the church lay largely entombed by its own fallen stone. All that remained was a shattered shell and the bell tower. The church’s priest , persecuted for his steadfastly anti-Nazi beliefs throughout the regime’s reign, conducted a Christmas service at the end of the war, the parishioners congregating beneath the barely suspended arches of an open-air ruin. Soon after, however, the church was condemned as too dangerous for continued use and a decision was made to retain what remained of it as a memorial to the futility of war and to construct a new church beside it.

Designed by Egon Eiermann, the new church was consecrated in 1962 on the same day as the new Coventry Cathedral in England – the old one having been irreparably damaged by German bombers in 1940. Hanging amongst the mosaics of the original entrance hall to the Wilhelm Memorial Church is the Cross of Nails, made from the charred and twisted pieces of iron that once held the roof timbers of Coventry’s destroyed cathedral together. The gift of the Cross of Nails speaks of the church’s guiding purpose, dedicated as it is to reconciliation – between people, faiths, races and cultures – and the fostering of mutual exchange and understanding. 

The modern church bears little resemblance to its predecessor. The bell tower stands like an obelisk beside the old, and the octagonal church is emblematic of 1960s urban architecture. But they act as ideal complements, bridging the divide in forms of design while articulating a decisive, and ultimately necessary, break from the past. While there were calls to restore the church to its original, 19th century design, a bolder vision saw how potentially empty of meaning the resurrected edifice might have been.

Inside the new church I experienced the spirit of its intended purpose. The walls are a honeycomb of blue light.  Over 21,000 pieces of glass, all blown by hand in a single French workshop and flecked with emerald, yellow and red, surrounded me. I took a seat and stared at the enveloping blue space while an organist played above me. It recalled to me the first time I’d seen a painting by Mark Rothko, the experience of being submerged in another world, a mesmeric space of purity and contemplation – a thought no doubt intensified by the fact that some of the painter’s late, meditational works are the sole exhibits of a chapel in Houston, Texas.

But the longer I sat there the more timeless the moments seemed, like waves washing endlessly ashore. I could have sat there for hours without knowing, doing nothing, caught up in the blue light, the empty space, the stillness and silence. While there I remembered a framed letter that I’d read while inside the ruins of the old church. Written by a Canadian whose father had died in the Second World War, the son spoke of the complex set of feelings he experienced when coming to Berlin on a visit for the first time. Anger, blame and grief all dwelled within his words. But while listening to the recital of a Bach cantata in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church something altered within him. Surrounded by the glimmering blue glass, the transfixing light suspended at the core of each piece and the shadowplay of the cantata, the man felt forgiveness for the first time.

The weight of place can be overwhelming. At times we focus our mourning intently, gathering up incalculable losses and letting them rest at a singular site that speaks for all – a place of collective and distilled memory. Memorials mark our world in its entirety, symbolic and actual shrines, museums, temples, cenotaphs, hillsides, graves and other sites of remembrance or atonement. Unable to contain the myriad stories of individual lives and loss they can nevertheless act as a catalyst to begin anew without forgetting the past, or to allow a process of healing to be sustained. Memorials feature across the surface of Berlin, a tideline where the memories of many wars and atrocities have come to rest – whether the markers of the Cold War dead placed at the point of their failed crossing from East to West or the standing stone memorials to the murdered Jews of Europe sited in a vast space near the Brandenburg Gate. But it was away from the city’s more conspicuous memorials that I found a place that evoked in me an enduring impression.

Designed by Daniel Libeskind as a symbolically fractured Star of David, the Jewish Museum of Berlin contains stories, photographs and artifacts spanning nearly two millenia of Jewish history in Germany, not only the terrible end of that time. It is a celebration as well as a requiem. But there was a door at one end of a corridor that rarely seemed to open, despite the hundreds of people touring the exhibits. A sign beside the door read ‘Holocaust Tower’ – and like many of our most significant moments it was the unexpectedness of its arising that helped lend it its depth. When the door closes on the sounds of the guided tours, of children running along the corridors and adults asking questions or whispering in front of an exhibit, there is a simultaneous opening. Museums rarely contain space for silence and consideration. By their very nature they draw people together, into conversation with each other around the archived objects. Some things, however, exist beyond the range of language.

Silence lowers like a sudden fall of snow inside the Holocaust Tower. There were a few of us inside the chamber, but I may as well have been alone; the place instills such solitude. It rose unhindered around me, its symbolic emptiness not eased in any way. Built of unadorned concrete the tower is neither heated nor cooled. The bare walls climb 24 metres to reach the only possibility of light – a thin slit in one high corner letting in the only light there is, that of the day and season itself. The blade of stark, October sunshine streaked through the opening to hit the opposing wall, from where it fell like pollen to the floor. We were clasped in a half-light and suspended in silence. Only it was a strange kind of silence, disconcerting because of its common, everyday quality. The high sliver in the wall where light enters allows the sounds of the city to seep in as well. Closed off from the museum – the echoes of stories and photographs of Jewish life in Germany still carried inside me – I heard sparrows and car engines, a blaring horn and the wind catching the corner of the building, a man calling a woman’s name across the street. A lament for the ordinary. The sounds were as invisible as the lives in the museum, but I was more certain than ever of their presence. The world without became the world within, remembered out of the silence.

19 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Berlin, part 2

  1. I am struck and somewhat shamed by the ignorance with which I might have viewed the juxtoposition of the memorial church with the old: the 60’s architecture so stark and bleak, the ruins all the more sad and sorry beside it. But how much more wise was the effort to “bridge the divide” and how much less meaningful might be the old church restored. I’m sure I would not have been able to see this deeper wisdom and I am indebted to you for so eloquently teaching me.

    I’ve been looking forward to this Part 2 and you have far from disappointed. You’ve given me a feel for a Berlin that I’m likely never to experience in person, yet understand more personally now than from anything else I’ve ever read. Thank you, Julian.

    1. Thanks so much, Cindy, for the extremely kind compliments. Your thoughts are always deeply appreciated. I think what you’ve written is a very honest response to the architecture, and a world away from ignorance. So often we dismiss a great deal of modern design because it doesn’t appeal in the same way as more traditional architecture. I find myself doing this all the time. But what I tried to keep in mind while in Berlin were the effects of war, the context of the architecture. While some people argued for restoration and others in favour of taking the old church down, the fanfare surrounding the decision to build the radically different new church beside the ruins of the old was huge. What did the design mean, little more than a decade beyond the end of the war, to the decision-makers and people of the time? How did they look upon the city and the meaning of its reconstruction after its devastation?

      The idea of restoration came up in the earlier post as well. While countries like Poland, of their own particular necessity after the great losses they endured, restored so much that had been destroyed, including whole cities like Gdansk and central Warsaw, what I appreciated on so many levels about the Wilhelm Church is the fact that it quite clearly proclaims that things can never be as they were again. That the clock can’t be turned back. I see the new church as part of Germany’s immense struggle to face up to its guilt, to find a way forward. But what I also kept asking myself over and over is this: is the meaning of a building to be found on its interior or exterior, in its function or form? It’s a very old question of course, but I gradually came to love the church simply as it was – a difficult but astonishing memorial to all that had been done and lost. Many thanks again,

      Julian

  2. What a wonderful and poignant piece. I love reading your work because you bring such a keen power of observation, and thoughtful interpretation and analysis into your writing. You have touched on much of what I felt when I visited Berlin many years ago. Thank you.

    1. Thank you so much, atlasadams. Your generous words are greatly appreciated, as is the time and care you’ve taken to read and comment. Glad it resonated with your own visit to Berlin, a city that seems to linger with its visitors. Thanks again and best wishes,
      Julian

  3. I am so moved by your post, thank you. I am currently reading a non-fiction about a girl who grew up in Germany during WWII, so I feel like I’m there.
    The honeycomb structure of the church is pure genius, and captures the poetic essence of so many things in life. The outside being cold, hard, and stark, is necessary so that the inside can be breath taking and heavenly.
    So glad I subscribed!

    1. Wonderful to hear from you, and thanks for the kind comment! What’s the name of the book you’re reading, if you don’t mind me asking?

      I agree, the blue honeycomb is genius. While during the day the natural light from outside streams into the church, at night the indoor lighting makes the whole church gleam blue on the outside. Quite extraordinary.

      I’m delighted that you subscribed as well! Many thanks,
      Julian

    1. Great to hear from you, Lisa, and thanks for the compliments! Delighted that it spoke to you in regard to your family history. You must have a wealth of stories from that time from your parents. Difficult ones as well I imagine. Many thanks for reading.
      Best wishes,
      Julian

  4. Julian – thanks for your informative, insightful and moving writing and your wonderful images. As an elementary school pupil I was taken on a class trip to see Coventry cathedral, probably soon after it was consecrated. I understood that I was expected to marvel at the stained glass window and in fact bought a postcard of it to take home to Mum – how we are trained to be good tourists, eh? But not until reading your piece did I know about the correlations between the bombing and subsequent redesign and rebuilding of Coventry and Wilhelm Church and the closer material links between them. Your description of the effects of the blue stained glass on your consciousness reminds me that in certain colour therapies, blue light is thought to have the power to reach and heal deeply held trauma. Did the architect know this, I wonder.

    I hope there’ll be more of your Berlin pieces.
    Love, Judy

    1. Thanks so much, Judy. I’m delighted you liked the piece; I’m re-reading your comment with images of school trips to these iconic places playing about me. What a range of places we’re often taken to as children. I wonder if we retain something of these visits deep inside us. A knowledge that perhaps surfaces now and then as a feeling, or sensitivity to particular things. And I love the postcard; I remember my grandmother taking bus trips to York Minster, Durham Cathedral and Whitby Abbey among others and always returning with a small silver spoon fashioned with a crest of the particular place on its handle.

      I had no idea about the quality of blue that you mention. I’m deeply fascinated by what you’ve written and the question you pose as to whether the architect would have been aware of the healing property associated with blue light. I think I’ll have to look into that a bit further as it adds an additional layer to the story of the church. Thanks for adding that!

      I think that’s all for Berlin for now, I’m afraid, unless a sudden windfall funds a return journey anytime soon! I suspect we’ll be back in Prespa for the next notes, though I’ll probably write about Szczecin in northern Poland one of these days, which was the other side to the Berlin trip. Thanks again for reading, Judy, and for taking the time to comment…

      Much love,
      Julian

    1. Thanks very much, Cait. It was an extraordinary experience; though I already knew of the ruined church and made it a priority to see on my visit, I had no idea about the new church. Stepping inside was to enter another world. Delighted that you liked it, and many thanks again!

  5. Powerful and touching narrative, Julian. The story conveys a strong sense of being there, both evocative and vivid. Wonderful image of the Holocaust Memorial Standing Stones.

    1. Thanks, Pablo. Deeply appreciated comment. It’s quite an experience walking amongst the standing stones, as they are of different sizes; one descends, then rises, descends again into a maze of dark stone. The paths lead in every direction, but the journey remains the same…

      Thanks again,
      Julian

  6. A finely observed account of these remarkable commemorative spaces, Julian. I’ve long felt that, of themselves, such spaces are mute signifiers of the events that have necessitated their existence – it’s the meanings we bring to such sites of memory and mourning that invest them with significance. However,in the sphere of memorials and commemorative spaces there are many profound works of architectural and artistic genius that subtly yet powerfully provide the conditions for contemplation and reflection.

    I was there in the Holocaust Tower with you, Julian; hearing the faint rumble of traffic, the blaring horn, the man calling the woman’s name.

    A beautifully evocative piece.

    1. Many thanks, Pete. Like you, I think we bring our own meanings to these places. And those meanings can, of course, arise from a variety of experiences, sensitivities and memories in our own lives. But as you so rightly point out, commerative spaces do seem to offer an unheralded opportunity for profoundity. As though they were a meeting place for long-held visions. Not all of them, by any means. But certainly many. My experiences in Berlin at such sites have lingered long after my leaving; deepening, in fact, with the distance. Thanks again, my friend
      Julian

  7. Thank you, Julian, for your moving descriptions of these memorials and the feelings you had while visiting them. You’re so right, there are so many ways to “begin anew without forgetting the past.” I can’t get over how strikingly blue the light was in the octagonal church.

    Years ago we visited the Hall of Remembrance at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. It has a hexagonal skylight with translucent blue glass, a red granite floor, and little niches in the outer wall to light memorial candles. Though I was alone in my reflecting, there was also a strong feeling of shared memory with all humans…

    I think we humans need memorials, as a kind of frame of reference, to take stock of where we’ve been and where we want to go. To feel connected to each other across time and space.

    Your writing draws me in…

    1. Such a wonderful comment, Barbara. Thanks very much for adding these thoughts. I’m deeply drawn to your experience of being alone in reflecting, but having a “strong feeling of shared memory with all humans…” I can’t imagine a finer way of describing the purpose of memorials. Though I’ve never been to the Hall of Remembrance in Washington, I had a clean sense of how the space might feel through your description. Your words connected me to it.

      I agree wholeheartedly that humans need memorials. Even if we view them differently, or construct a variety of meanings around them, they still encourage us to ask those very questions that you list. Questions at the core of what we are. Many thanks again for the deeply appreciated thoughts…

      Best wishes,
      Julian

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