All over Germany, there are these Stolpersteine – Tripping Stones. They’re cobblestone-sized and -shaped brass plaques set into the pavement in front of houses where victims of the Nazi regime once lived. Not only Jews, but also homosexuals, gypsies, socialists and, as here, people with mental illnesses or disabilities who were “euthanised” in the course of “Aktion T4” because they were less than perfect. One of them was a relative of mine, a cousin of my great-grandfather. I hadn’t known.
I don’t recall having ever been inside of those before: a Simultankirche, or Simultaneum. But I got to see one this summer, on our trip to Germany. You might recall my pictures of Wetzlar, the Goethe-town? Wetzlar not only has beautiful half-timbered houses and the sentimental association with Goethe’s Lotte, it has the Dom, or Cathedral, one of the earliest Simultankirchen.
So what’s the big deal about those? You see, they’re ecumenical churches. Almost right from the start of the Catholic–Protestant split in Germany, since 1544 (Martin Luther was still alive), the Dom in Wetzlar has been used by both denominations. That’s right – unlike in so many other churches, the conversion of the townspeople to the Protestant form of Christianity did not mean that the Catholic believers were evicted. The rift between the denominations that has gone so very deep in so many places is, in this church, only evident by the fact that there are two altars – and up until 70 years ago, there were two organs, one in each end of the church, one for the Catholic congregation and one for the Lutherans. They simply take turns having their service.
The Dom in Wetzlar is ancient. The first church on that site was built in the late ninth century, but construction on the cathedral as it stands today was first begun in 1230. There is still clear evidence of the medieval building – wall frescoes from the early 14th century, a Pietà from around 1370, a late-Gothic statue of Mary with angels that are mounted on something rather like a chandelier (with no candles). It’s an impressive building, a centre of spirituality that has been a place of worship for Christians of either flavour for more than a millennium.
But why am I telling you about this today? Because it’s Remembrance Day. And one of the things that struck me quite forcibly when we visited the Wetzlarer Dom is what senseless destruction is wrought by war.
On March 8, 1945, Allied bombers flew over Wetzlar, and a hail of missiles struck the cathedral. The choir, the famous rood screen, the high altar, both organs, and all the stained glass windows were reduced to rubble.
The Dom is not just a building – it is a house of worship, a gathering place of the people, a symbol of unity despite differences. Seventy years ago, it was destroyed in the course of the horrific violence that is war.
The Wetzlar Cathedral was rebuilt. There are once again two altars; but the organ is now shared by both congregations – and the rood screen, which once separated the spaces of Catholics and Protestants, was never reinstalled. The pews in the choir, that very part of the church that was a sea of rubble after the bombs fell, are reversible, so that the congregation can face the altar of their choosing – Catholic in the apse, Protestant in the crossing.
The Dom is once again a symbol of unity, of ecumenical faith. But it is also a reminder of the devastation brought about by war. It’s been seventy years, but the scars will always remain. They are an indelible part of the millennium-long history of this amazing place.
It’s Remembrance Day in just a couple of days, and I’ve written before about how the perspective from the other side of the trenches is, in many ways, not so different from that of “our” side. War kills. War sucks in innocent people and destroys them.
Lee Strauss has a great book on sale this week (links at the bottom of this post) that tells that very story, the tale of World War II from an angle that most English-speaking people rarely hear. Playing With Matches is the story of Emil Radle, a young German boy in the 1930s, and his experience of the war. The book is fiction as far as the actual characters and exact events go, but it could be absolutely true. The boy in the cover picture, on the far right edge, the one with his blond lock of hair falling over his forehead, could be my uncle, the one who was just the age Emil Radle is in the book. Or, for that matter, my favourite high school teacher, who spent hours regaling us with stories of how he was drafted in the last years of the war, at the age of sixteen, to become cannon fodder; and who said the best moment of the whole thing was when he could drop his gun and raise his hands in surrender to the British armed forces.
That’s Emil’s story in Playing With Matches. It’s well worth the read.
Lest We Forget.
PLAYING WITH MATCHES
Heinz Schultz’s word could send a man to prison. Though only a youth of fifteen, he was strong, tall, and blond. The boys in his Deutsches Jungvolk unit esteemed him and feared him.
And they wanted to be just like him.
Emil Radle wanted to be just like him.
A dedicated member of Hitler Youth, Emil was loyal to the Führer before family, a champion for the cause and a fan of the famous Luftwaffe Air force.
Emil’s friends Moritz and Johann discover a shortwave radio and everything changes. Now they listen to the forbidden BBC broadcast of news reports that tell both sides. Now they know the truth.The boys, along with Johann’s sister Katharina, band together to write out the reports and covertly distribute flyers through their city. It’s an act of high treason that could have them arrested–or worse.
As the war progresses, so does Emil’s affection for Katharina. He’d do anything to have a normal life and to stay in Passau by her side. But when Germany’s losses become immense, even their greatest resistance can’t prevent the boys from being sent to the Eastern Front.