Churches and messages are inseparable. So it is that three German churches swept by fires of war speak to the generations.
A ruin in Hamburg teaches, "Remember."
A Bremen cathedral says, "Be strong."
A landmark in Dresden celebrates, "Forgive."
St. Nikolai Memorial, Hamburg:
A blackened spire lances the blue above Hamburg's teeming docklands and city center. The thrumming of traffic on busy Willy Brandt Boulevard muscles into the space below the stone needle, entering through skeletal Gothic windows, their shattered stained glass long ago swept away.
The steeple and broken sections of walls are what remain of the once majestic St. Nikolai Church, built in the mid-1800s, though its history dates to the 12th century. In July and August 1943 during World War II, the spire, the tallest structure in the harbor area, became a reference point for British and American air raids on the city's shipyards and U-boat facilities. Inevitably, the church was hit. The tower survived, but the nave's roof fell, and outer walls were heavily damaged. A firestorm devoured the area around.
In 1951, debris was cleared from the church, and in 1987 after restoration, the site became a memorial "to the victims of war and persecution 1933-1945."
The space once occupied by pews, altars and congregants is open-air now, set with two bronzes by Hamburg sculptor Edith Breckwoldt that embody the memorial's message.
A female figure stretches heavenward from a pillar on which bas-relief hands reach toward her. Nearby, a disconsolate male figure sits atop a mound of broken stones, collected for the artwork from the site of Sandbostel, a Nazi camp where an estimated 50,000 prisoners died.
In a corner, morning sun fleshes out the bones of a window, duplicating its graceful tracery in light and shadow on an opposite brick wall.
A door in the glass pyramid at the nave's center leads to the crypt, where displays of photos and artifacts show wartime destruction, and church history is outlined.
An elevator at the base of the 483-foot-tall steeple carries visitors past a 51-bell carillon to a windy observation platform at the 249-foot level. Each opening offers an expansive panorama of the vibrant city. Panels in German and English speak unblinkingly of the war:
"The original catastrophe occurred in 1933, when the National Socialists, with the support of large parts of the elite and the population abolished democracy and the rule of law in a matter of weeks. This catastrophe was to bring on all the tragedies that followed."
There are no excuses at St. Nikolai, and no glorification of the conflict that left it a hulk. There are only admonitions and challenges to be carried away into the hiss of traffic outside.
>St. Peter's Cathedral, Bremen
St. Peter's is a survivor, outlasting nearly 1,200 years of political and religious upheaval, wars and the inexorable passage of time and life.
Prayers have risen from this high point beside the Weser River in northwestern Germany since a wooden chapel was built here in 789. Destroyed and rebuilt several times, it faced perhaps its greatest peril during World War II.
In what Eva Rogge, a Bremen tour guide, called a miracle, St. Peter's and the 600-year-old Gothic City Hall and 1404 statue of the knight Roland next to it on the market square survived repeated Allied air raids that destroyed 65 percent of the city and razed adjacent structures.
The twin-spired Protestant church, substantial and solid, was damaged but endured. Firebombings in 1943 and 1944 took its stained glass, and three bays on the north aisle were punctured in 1945.
Repaired and restored now, its windows gradually replaced, St. Peter's has returned to loveliness its broad Romanesque face only hints at. A 100-yard-long nave with soaring vaulting and flanking aisles, splendid 1638 oak pulpit with intricate limewood figures, and rose window backstopping a magnificent organ (one of five) are unexpected beauties behind the time-darkened entrance stones. If awe needs leavening, let a church mouse at the base of a pillar in the high choir -- the legacy of a good-humored, 13th-century stonemason -- amuse you.
Crypts below the nave date to the earliest days of St. Peter's, and conflicting stories are told about the eight mummies in the Lead Vault. A museum showcases priceless artifacts, and strong-legged visitors can climb the 265 steps of a spiral staircase in the south tower for wide vistas.
Walk just minutes from St. Peter's to tour the city hall and eat in its equally old restaurant, measure yourself against 18-foot-tall Roland, hear the glorious tones of the Meissen porcelain carillon on artsy Bottcherstrasse, and be charmed among the unusual shopping and fragrant food in the slim streets of the Schnoor neighborhood.
But return to the cathedral. Cheer its endurance. Be glad it was spared. And marvel at its strength and unbroken line of history.
The story isn't unique. Allied aircraft came to this city on the Elbe River to unleash a hurricane of fire, hoping to break the German will to fight and hasten the end of World War II.
For the city known for centuries as "Florence on the Elbe" and beloved for its art and architecture, it was a human and cultural catastrophe. An estimated 25,000 or more people died, and 80 percent of the heart of old Dresden was destroyed. Its jewel, the Frauenkirche (Our Lady Church) stood through the inferno of Feb. 13 and 14, 1945. Then on Feb. 15, its stones and supports deformed by heat, the 300-foot-tall dome collapsed into the fire-gutted church, creating a mountain of rubble that remained for five decades.
The story could end there, but former enemies wrote an epilogue of rebirth and reconciliation: The Frauenkirche rose again.
Financed primarily by the gifts from more than 100,000 people around the world, including Gunter Blobel, a German-born American biologist who donated his million-dollar Nobel Prize, the debris was sorted and studied by archaeologists, engineers, computer wizards, craftsmen and religious authorities. Then, like a puzzle with thousands of pieces, it was reassembled using original 18th century plans. Salvageable stones were inserted into the structure. Nearly 2,000 fragments of the altar were identified and pieced together. New technologies strengthened or supplanted old building methods.
The result is the majestic, monumental church -- a true re-creation of the original -- where hundreds of thousands of people have come since its consecration in 2005. They gather for sermons in the 1,800-seat sanctuary, for concerts, for guided tours, to climb the spiral ramp through the dome's 12,000 tons of Elbe sandstone and scan a city regaining its momentum after years behind the Iron Curtain.
They are soothed by the authentic hues of the nave's trompe l'oeil marble: blush pink, baby blue, dove gray. They pray for peace beside the misshapen cross that once topped the church and was discovered in the ruins. They are awed by the gilding, a contrast to the muted colors of the dome's huge paintings 86 feet above.
Outside, they see the checkerboard effect of fire- and age-blackened limestone set beside new blocks. And when they look up, they see the Frauenkirche's message.
At the pinnacle of the church whose resurrection is a wonder, a new cross gleams. Crafted by the son of a British airman who participated in the bombing, it shines with healing.
Anger or resentment at wartime destruction and damage seems rare, especially among young Germans.
"That's another generation," one thirtyish Cologne businessman says.
"We began it," says a youthful Dresden cabbie.
Visitors, then, may look for meaning, not guilt, in the three churches:
The ruin, the survivor and the reborn.
>If you go:
The churches, all Protestant, welcome visitors.
St. Peter's Cathedral, Market Square (www.stpetridom.de, translate through Google). Cathedral, southern tower (seasonal for climbers; about $1.50) and Lead Vault (seasonal) generally 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. weekdays, to 1:30 Saturday. Guided tours (about $4.50) are offered at 3 p.m. Wednesdays and one Sunday a month. Check for religious services and concerts. Midday prayer, noon weekdays. Organ demonstration (free), 5 p.m. last Tuesday of month.
Frauenkirche (say "frow-in-KEER-kuh"), on New Market square (www.frauenkirche-dresden.de, click "English version"). Free entry. Guided tours (011-49-351-65606-100; many options, some modest fees). Guided tower climb: about $14.50. Concerts: fees according to seat location.
To see a 10-story tall, 360-degree painting of Dresden in 1756 when Frauenkirche was new, visit the Asisi Panometer Dresden, Gasanstaltstrasse 8b (011-49-351-860-3940; www.asisi.de). Dresden tourism: www.dresden.de.
German tourism: 212-6617175; www.cometogermany.com.