“The dead open the eyes of the blind.”
It is said that the ancient Romans used to recite these words at burials. I have recited these words to myself over five and a half years, and find they are true for me in multiple ways.
Fresh from the out-of-the-blue ruin of losing my son, I saw reality with newly-opened eyes. I can say without any trace of pride – more with wonder, really – that I discerned things in new ways. Part of what I saw anew was that death was everywhere. The withering vine, the rotting tree, the parched reservoir – I now saw them all with painful clarity: they were evidences to me that death and decay were omnipresent, the rule (not the exception) of this mortal existence.
With eyes opened to the omnipresence of death, and knowing I would never again have the luxury of my former blindness, I longed to be close to others who had similar eyesight. I deliberately sought out those who knew significant loss. With them, I felt kinship and consolation.
Beyond seeking out people in pain, I also sought out places of pain.
Dresden, Germany lay five hours northward from Munich. “Dresden”, if the name doesn’t send an immediate shockwave through you, deserves a paragraph or two of solemn attention. What I’m going to write here will help explain why several times, drawn to places of pain, I bee-lined it with my family to Dresden.
“Listening? You all listening back there?” I was now sitting shotgun, Randall was driving up the wintery autobahn, and I had my notes open on my lap.
“Yeah. Go ahead, Mom. Listening,” came Claire’s voice from the back seat.
Dresden is a living landmark to massive devastation and painstaking reconstruction. A century ago, this city then known as Germany’s Jewel Box or Florence on the Elbe [River] boasted, among other important edifices, the eminent Zwinger museum, Semper opera house, and its gently towering Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady.
This is where I stopped reading and explained why, besides visiting our church’s temple (a structure sacred to us, built in the eastern city of Freiberg in the years when Germany was still divided into East and West), I was intent on getting us to Dresden.
I continued to read aloud to my family from the material I‘d sifted through over weeks. I’d had to sift because what happened in Dresden in the last months of World War II is unquestionably one of the most contested military maneuvers of modern history. It has aroused widespread and unresolved controversy, outside campaigning, and heated public debate. Accusations, justifications, wild speculations, exaggerated or minimized claims of the death toll, subsequent novels and movies based on the horror – all have blurred the contours of whatever we might pin down today as the truth regarding Dresden.
What I wanted my children to know were the cold facts upon which the most respected historians agree: that between Febraury 13 and 15 of 1945, in the ultimate winding down scenes of the global conflict, 722 heavy bombers of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and 527 of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) dropped several thousand tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on Dresden.
“And now we’re driving our family car right into the heart of all this history,” I said.
The firebombing resulted in a colossal firestorm, which phenomenon destroyed fifteen square miles of the city center and killed somewhere close to 25,000 people. Some estimates, which take into consideration the thousands of refugees who’d fled to Dresden ahead of the approaching Russian forces, go as high as 300,000 fatalities. Such claims, however, are generally discounted as overblown.
What is not discounted but what I did not add because it was too much to try to articulate, was that these civilians – men, women and many children – died either by suffocation in air raid shelters where they were crammed and oxygen was sucked into the above ground firestorm, or they were crushed by falling debris and collapsing buildings as they ran through the streets. Most were incinerated alive.
For various voices documenting the attack on Dresden, you might consider going here, here, here or here. I have to warn, however, that the eyewitness accounts offered from survivors read like pure apocalypse.
Post-post-apocalyptic Dresden; that was what I wanted my family to see as we approached the Elbe River. I’d last seen Dresden in its general state of ruin when I was a teenager in the late ’70′s.
I held my breath a bit now to see this city decades later, transformed, as I’d read it had been. I wanted for myself and for my family to see the city’s emblem, Dresden’s creamy soft-domed cathedral standing whole and wise on the skyline.
“The Frauenkirche,” I half-turned so the three in the backseat could hear every word, “is the main reason for our visit. Whoever sees her dome first. . . well, you’ll know it.”
And there she stood.
“The last time I saw her,” I told my family as we walked across cobblestones up to the cathedral, “she was a sprawled heap of rubble, no more than a sandstone quarry.”
There, on a plaque, we read that the citizens of Dresden had left her as she’d fallen: splayed and scorched, a mountain of scarred stones. For over forty years, in fact, (that Biblical number of exile), they’d left her crumbled remains just as they’d fallen, a haunting anti-war memorial.
During the firebombing, her famous 100-meter-high dome weighing 12 tons and supported by eight elegant pillars – an architectural marvel like St. Paul’s in London and St. Peter’s in Rome – had held up just long enough so that 300 people who’d run into the crypt for refuge could be evacuated. Why would they run from cover into the streets, which were filled with flying ash and burning whips of flame? Because the 650,000 incendiary bombs generated heat that exceeded 1,000 Celsius, and that roaring furnace made the cathedral pillars themselves into incandescent shafts of dynamite. The Lady herself was like a scaffolding of ammunition, and began rumbling and shaking like an engine ready to explode.
The dome fell late on the night of February 15th, the eight pillars glowed red and erupted like cannons, and the cathedral walls shattered as if detonated, sending 6,000 tons of stone downward. In one echoing blow, the floor (and the crypt below) were decimated.
Standing on the public square that fans out from the church, our family eavesdropped on a tour group:
Over the ensuing years while Dresden was under East Germany’s Communist rule, citizens quietly collected and catalogued the charred pieces of rubble, peacefully planning for a day when their cathedral would be reconstructed. By the mid-1980’s, the East German civil rights and peace movement that resisted the Communist regime had gained traction, and the ruins of Dresden’s Frauenkirche served as a symbol around which protestors rallied. This helped propel the events that led to the demolition of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany.
In 1994, a man named Günter Blobel, a naturalized American citizen who had known firsthand as a child refugee the devastation of the Dresden bombings, established the “Friends of Dresden.” This nonprofit organization set out to preserve and, if possible, reconstruct the city’s cultural and artistic heart. Then when Blobel won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1999, he donated the entire $1 million winnings to see that the Frauenkirche be rebuilt as well as a new synagogue be constructed not far away.
We entered into and walked around the cathedral. Her pristine walls were painted to replicate her original state, all in chiffon yellow and Easter pastels.
“Think of this,” I told my boys, “even after all they’d suffered, after all the evil they’d seen, the survivors didn’t cave in. They looked ahead to when they would one day rebuild. They carefully stored every bit of the rubble they could so that when the time was right – there had to be plenty of financial, political and technological support, right?– they could actually reinsert thousands of the original stones, and right in the very place they had been in the first place. Amazing, huh?”
Looking above our heads, we saw the cupola, which had finally been completed in the year 2000. Atop that dome, we learned, had been placed a newly gilded orb and cross fashioned by British silversmith Alan Smith, whose father, Frank, had flown in an aircrew that had bombed Dresden.
Forty-five years after decimation, the cathedral’s dome and cross could finally be seen there on the banks of the Elbe.
And inside, the church’s original cross, blackened and contorted from enemy bombs, stood next to the altar, the altar which is a relief depiction of Jesus suffering in Gethsemane, and which, incidentally, had been only partially damaged in the 1945 fire raids. It and the altar had been the only segments of the structure left standing while the rest of the cathedral showered in a storm of fire and stone to the ground.
Outside now and standing with Randall and our children in a waning parallelogram of early evening sunshine, I felt warmed with hope. If out of sheer obliteration this kind of architectural and political vigor can rise, then surely out of my private patch of demolition something valuable or even beautiful might emerge.
And what would it look like?
Really: what does beauty from ashes actually look like?
I had the prototype standing right in front of me. Strange and imperfect, with blackened roughness touching bisque smoothness. Burned scar tissue splotchiness grafted together with taut chalky curves. Functional and strong after years of rehabilitation, a monument that was a victim to war, but which spawned a movement that reunited an entire country. And forever in its stones a patchwork of death and life, loss and gain, destruction and reconstruction.
Strange, yes. But for me at least, reverberating with comfort that no slick or unscathed surface is able to offer.
The same holds true for our Mother Earth, whose crust, writes philosopher Eleanore Stump in “The Mirror of Evil”, is “soaked with the tears of the suffering”.
We live in a world where the wrecked victims of this human evil float on the surface of all history, animate suffering flotsam and jetsam … It’s morbid, you might say, to keep thinking about the evils of the world; it’s depressive, it’s sick.
[You might also say that if you’re grieving, what you need is Disneyland and Sleeping Beauty, not Dresden and the firebombed Church of Our Lady. But that’s just not how I work.]
… A loathing focus on the evils of our world and ourselves prepares us to be the more startled by the taste of true goodness when we find it and the more determined to follow that taste until we see where it leads. And where it leads is to the truest goodness of all… the mirror of evil becomes translucent. And we can see through it to the goodness of God…
Even our own evils – our moral evils, our decay, our death – lose their power to crush us if we see the goodness of God. The ultimate end of our lives is this, Ecclesiastes says: “The dust returns to the ground as it was, and the lifebreath returns to God who bestowed it.” (12:7) – to God, who loves us as a good mother loves her children.
-Eleanore Stump, “The Mirror of Evil”, in God and the Philosophers, ed. Thomas V. Morris. 236-243
I stepped a few feet from the kids and went over into the shadow just to take a last and closer look at the side of the Frauenkirche. Don’t ask me what I was checking for, but it was my instinct, and as I drew closer, I planted my palm discreetly against her outer wall.
Death stones pushing always against Life stones. Lines of mortar running like meticulous sutures all over this architectural heart that’s known implosion and rebirth.
And my kids probably nervous that I might be over there breaking down in anguish over Parker.
In that moment, I was actually just starting to be built back up.