On August 2 this summer, I was privileged to provide the English part of a wedding ceremony for my friend,Torsten, and his husband, Florian, in Dresden, Germany. The many, spaced wedding activities went on for about 14 hours and were a great deal of fun. I was glad to be there to help the happy couple celebrate the beginning of this new part of their lives together.
The next day, we took a tour of Dresden. Walking downtown in this vibrant city, I was again impressed with how we, our relationships, that city, and our world move from one state into another and another, molding our histories of tragedy and triumph.
During the last months of World War II, from February 13 until February 15, 1945, 1,249 heavy American and British bombers dropped “over 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on Dresden, devastating the center of this cultural city of Europe. Around 25,000 civilians died. Debates still rage about whether such devastating Allied bombing of the city was necessary for the war effort and what purpose it served. An RAF memo issued to airmen on the night of the attack indicated that a secondary purpose of the raid was to “show the Russians when they arrive [at Dresden] what [the British] Bomber Command can do.”
In the center of the main square had stood the Lutheran “Church of our Lady”, Die Frauenkirche, a large, 18th-century domed church that was “regarded as the finest baroque building north of the Alps.” [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/oct/31/arts.secondworldwar.] After standing through two days and nights of the Allies bombing, the extreme heat of the fires throughout the city (1,830° Fahrenheit) finally caused the “huge stone dome to topple, leaving only small sections of two walls and an alt[a]r, amid a pile of rubble 55-feet high . . . .” [https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/dresden-church-rebuilt-from-wwii-ashes/.]
“Rebuilding the Baroque masterpiece was out of the question following the devastating war. Officials in East Germany left it as a memorial to the fallen in war. The blackened stones would lie in wait in the center of the city for the next 45 years. It was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany in the 1990s that people began to dream of resurrecting the old skyline of Dresden, with its crown, the bell-shaped dome that rose higher than a football field over the city.”
“A citizens’ initiative founded by Dresden musician Ludwig Güttler began raising the $200 million needed to rebuild the church. Thousands of watches containing tiny fragments of Frauenkirche stone were sold, and people from other nations got involved. The new golden cross that [now] tops the dome was funded by the British people and the House of Windsor[. It] was made, using the original 18th-century techniques, by a British silversmith whose father was on one of the airplanes that dropped bombs on the city. The cross that once topped the dome, now twisted and charred, stands to the right of the new altar.” [https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/dresden-church-rebuilt-from-wwii-ashes/.]
On October 30, 2005, Die Frauenkirche was re-consecrated. I was awed by the upper parts of this monument to reconciliation, peace, and rebirth. But then we went into the lower part. “The crypt of [the former] Frauenkirche served as a burial place in the 18th century. . . . During the destruction of the church, however, only one single burial chamber remained unscathed. The location of the coffins in the walled graves [there] was largely preserved.” Within the rebuilt, architecturally simple and stunning vaulted chambers of the Lower Church, lie next to the remnants of the old structure. “Particularly striking . . . is the [new] monumental stone altar that was crafted by the Indian-born Jewish sculptor Anish Kapoor out of black Irish Iimestone.” It stands in the center of the Lower Church, directly below the altar in the Upper Church. . . . [T]he Lower Church has become a place of silence, contemplation, personal devotion and prayer. To this end, the artistic design of the five chapels” has a “central theme” – “destruction and renaissance”. [https://www.frauenkirche-dresden.de/en/architecture/.]
As my sister and I left the Lower Church, she pointed out an elderly couple to me. In contrast to the young couple we had just witnessed getting married the day before, the elderly couple before us appeared to have spent decades together. They were seated beside each other in the first pew in front of the black limestone altar, silently holding hands in what seemed to me to be shared prayer or meditation.
I mourned again the terrible destruction of which we are capable; war and the ripping of the fabric of humanity; lives and loves, art and holy spaces, crushed into rubble. And in the midst of my mourning, observing the simple act of those two people holding hands, worshiping together in that marvelously reconstructed church, I was reminded that we are also resilient, hopeful, capable of transformative love, of rebuilding ruined lives, of forgiveness, of working together to create and recreate beauty.