Monday, July 27, 2009

Dresden, Turning Towards Home

We're on our last week in Germany.  We fly out on Friday, and I have to say that home and thoughts of home have been tugging at me.  I have loved being here.  I've resolved (and I swear I'll follow through) to actually pick up a course in this language so that I can speak in something other than broken traveler's German to folks who look at my broad shoulders and my blonde hair and assume I live here.  I need to come back.

But we're not done yet.  And this last weekend, we went to Dresden and Leipzig, staying overnight in a hotel next door to the reconstructed Frauenkirche.  As always, Dresden was intense.  I hadn't been there since restorers first started sorting out the charred pile of rubble that was,  along with a small, standing fragment of the nave,  what remained of the Frauenkirche after the 1945 firestorm.   The DDR had decided to leave the site in ruins.  I well remember that last visit.  We were driving, and it was a hot, brilliant day.  We parked our car in an underground garage and walked out into the scalding sun, and even that--coming up from basement darkness into heat--was creepy.  

Depending on whose account you believe, anywhere from about 25 thousand to over a hundred thousand people died over the course of two days in the Allied firebombing of Dresden, incinerated, or smothered in basements due to the inferno's hunger for oxygen. Depending on whose account you believe, the city's destruction was anything from necessary  to prevent a second Battle of the Bulge to a criminal act of terrorism on an almost-undefended civilian population.   I've never understood military strategy.  It has always seemed to me to be a peculiar sort of sin to apply our logic to killing other human beings in an orderly fashion, but I'm not naive enough to believe that war is always preventable.  It just--well, it makes my head spin.   Kurt Vonnegut spoke at my college graduation when I got my BA in 1974.  And so it goes.

At any rate, before the firebombing, Dresden--whatever else it was or was not--was a cultural center, a stunning baroque city.  When I saw it the last time before my visit this weekend, its scars from those awful two days and its decidedly un-charming DDR rebuild were highly evident.  I stood in the blazing sun and knew I was in a haunted place. We wandered in the crypt of the Frauenkirche, which was all that was really tour-able by the public then.  The ruins of the church stood in the middle of nothing in the middle of a city.  There were blank, Soviet-looking buildings around it, and a handful of structures with baroque detailing on them.  

It's different, now.

The Frauenkirche, totally restored, anchors a city center that looks like Prague--which is about right; Prague, which took far less of a hit in the War, was the city film makers used for the pre-firebombed Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five.  Ken and I had a beer at an outdoor cafe next to the church, listened to its bells ring for a wedding, and watched the wedding party arrive in a white-ribboned limo.  We heard a glorious choral concert from the Bavarian Radio Chorus that night in the restored church's spectacular acoustic, sitting right next to the old cross from the top of the dome--the one they keep inside now as a reminder.  It was withered by the heat of the firestorm, but now people light prayer candles and leave them glittering around it like burnt-down coals. 

We'd eaten dinner in a beer hall across the way from the church, a place so perfectly old-German that if the exquisite woodwork in the room where we had our sauerbraten hadn't been so unscarred and perfectly new-looking, you'd swear it had been there since the church was first built.  And from the well-placed windows, you couldn't see anything but lovingly restored and rebuilt baroque and Renaissance-looking architecture.  But still.

In Dresden, there's always a But Still.  That afternoon, my organist husband had done what he often does--dragged me to an organ recital, and it was a fine one, at the Kreuzkirche, a place not far from the Frauenkirche.  The guy playing was HOT, and the instrument was tonally exciting.  He played a bunch of jazz take-offs on favorite Bach pieces that were both fun to listen to and really smart, interesting music: cheerful stuff.  Heavens, though, the heartbreaking Kreuzkirche!  It would have been rude to take a picture, so I'll tell you what it looks like.

Outside it's the kind of baroque church you'd expect to see in its newly re-baroque'd surroundings.  But it was restored early on, under the DDR, and they didn't do the computer-aided, bring-back-every-gilded-flourish kind of job that gave us the rescued Frauenkirche.  Inside, you can see what was left of the old church from the floor on up, for about twenty feet.  But it's blackened.  And beyond that battered original stone is a kind of cottage-cheese-looking grey concrete that you often see in this neck of the woods in buildings restored during that period.  The curves of the church's roof are defined in its almost-fuzzy texture.  It's as if the church were dissolving into a ghost of itself.

Statues are without noses.  Columns are battered.  The artwork in back of the altar is in fine shape, but adorning (if that's the word) the choir loft is a row of angel faces.  I think they must have been meant to be singing.  But some of them are missing the backs of their heads.  They're broken and charred in places.  They look like they're crying out in pain.

So here's the question: which is a real restoration of the town?  Is the eerie perfection of the new alte markt a sort of educational TV Disneyland?  Or is it there because the world couldn't stand it if it weren't--if it were more like the inside of the Kreuzkirche--if it broke your heart just to think about it?  I don't know the answer to that question.  

Like I said, Dresden is intense.  And I don't know what to think about what's really going on there now, except that it haunts me.



T J said...

Just like Dorothy says, "there's no place like home." I can't wait to get together with you guys and swap stories -- You'rs about life in Germany -- and mine about life on the farm. Yay!

chrispy said...

Hope you're enjoying Maine, bro.

Hug a goat for me. And ask her if she's got a little cheese for my salad!

Hugs & let's look forward to those REAL cocktails next week,

Da Potters