Normally when I travel around the world I do something different for church on Sundays. I believe that covetousness is a sin, but I have truly righteous envy of cathedrals and abbeys and all other religious places of worship that are old. Mormon churches are beautiful and clean but so very practical. When you’ve been in one, you’ve been in almost all of them. Especially of late, the buildings all follow the same basic pattern. There is comfort in predictability, but there’s also something about worship in an imposing space that changes the way I think about God. I don’t know that I want to do it all the time, but when I’m in Europe, it’s my preferred way to worship.
Today, though, is Father’s Day; my father served as a missionary here ages ago and was itching to go to the branch where he attended for nearly a quarter of his time in Germany. I may (will probably) ditch the LDS services next week in favor of Salzburg Cathedral, but this week it seemed like the best choice was going with the family.
I’m glad that we did. This beautiful little building was full of people from varied walks of life. There couldn’t have been more than a hundred or so people there, but we heard at least four languages out of the group (German, of course, but also French, Portuguese, and English.) One sacrament prayer was in English, the other in German. One talk was in French then translated to German, another given in English and translated to German. A musical number was in English. It seemed as though about half the branch were American, including six missionaries. It was an excellent service, though, and I enjoyed it.
The best part of our visit there was seeing some of our family friends from Iowa who were there as well (what are the odds?!), and meeting one of dad’s old friends from his mission who is serving as a counselor in the bishopric. We also talked a bit with a man who told us the history of the building and reminded me so forcefully of my grandpa it was like he was there. The more time I spend in Germany the more I feel I understand my grandfather. He was not always an easy man to understand or to get along with - actually, most of the time he could be quite difficult to be patient with. But he loved stories, and he loved to share his stories. Don’t most people have a fundamental desire to share and to be understood? We all do so in different ways. Grandpa’s was through talking, and he especially loved doing so in German. Long after he left his mission (even his second one), German was spoken in his home. He would video chat with German and Austrian friends regularly. He had decorations around his home in honor of this country. I wonder sometimes if he felt like he was better understood here than in America. He was a true patriot, but I wonder if he felt more comfortable in the Alps than the Rockies in respect to his personality.
If so, I know how he feels. I love my country, but anyone who spends even an hour with me will probably realize quickly my deep and abiding love for England.
Anyway. Family musings aside, it was worth the effort to go to church this morning.
Afterward we came back home to change and ventured out in search of some history. It’s not hard to find in Berlin. The city itself is soaked in what feels like four distinct eras: Pre World War II, During World War II, during the Wall and after the Wall. Everywhere you turn are memorials and reminders of each of these periods.
We started today primarily focussed on Berlin during the War by visiting the Topography of Terror museum. Located where the SS used to keep their records, this building outlines how the politics of the Nazis functioned - what laws and cultures and traditions were carried out in order to achieve the goals of the party. Most museums on the War are a bit more broad than this, but this museum focuses pretty tight on the Nazis themselves. The open room of the main floor exhibit is full of hanging panels displaying information beginning with the official founding of the party in 1933 and ending more or less with the present day. The panels themselves seem to sway since they are only anchored from the ceiling by wire, which means that reading the information makes you feel literally as well as symbolically sick.
Given the state of world politics right now, it’s difficult not to see some parallels between what happened in Germany in the early 30s and what’s going on in society now, but there are also some significant differences that give me hope that we have grown as a society. For example, the foundational principle of the Nazi party is that all men are not equal. There was intense focus on getting rid of any danger to the “Volk community” to which everyone should belong. Any non-conformity to the community was publicly shamed - there were pictures of women being shaved in town squares, for example. Men standing on chairs with signs around their neck like Jane Eyre while she attends school. Although we do see great societal pressure to conform, we also live in a time of reaction against conformity and celebration of minority groups over the majority. The internet has helped give smaller factions of society unity and the government isn’t in the practice of casually humiliating the average citizen for being different. That’s not to say that our laws are perfect and all government leaders free from bias, but there does seem to be a difference here.
On the other hand, there was a common sentiment among the Nazi party that there was no room in the country for “useless eaters”. It’s hard to ignore the debates going on all over the world right now of what to do for the poor, especially the refugees that are fleeing dangerous governments. My heart breaks when I hear these individuals spoken of in such an attitude as this one.
There was a smaller and temporary exhibit on the way that the Nazis used Martin Luther as the example of the best German. Luther was, admittedly, an anti-Semite. There are records of his calling for the burning of Synagogues (something the Germans took to quite literally on Kristallnacht, held, incidentally, on Luther’s birthday), but Luther on the whole was a man who fought passionately for people to worship more freely within Germany. I’d never heard of the new Nazi-Protestant/Catholic hybrid that was created once the Reich began - there were even crosses with the swastika emblazoned on them. Hitler once declared Jesus as the “greatest Aryan of all time” which is utterly mind boggling to me, given that he was not in any definition Aryan. (The benefit of this information is that now I’ve seen this document, I can quite literally the alt right Christians who want to establish some kind of white power movement on the foundations of Christianity that it is quite literally something Hitler would say.)
Side note: Jared is still on a complete pun roll, but so many of them were said today in the Topography of Terror that were definitely not for the internet. Don’t get me wrong - some of them were crazy funny - but in the off chance that he ever applies for a job or public office, he’d probably be happier if that information didn’t follow him around. He did have one particular gem while we had lunch today, in which he declared his bratwurst the “brat best”.
After the Topography of Terror we wandered around the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag areas. The Brandenburg Gate is a huge tourist destination, of course, but I find it a rather sobering one. The first time I went was with family members who talked of their time in East Germany when they would only be able to approach so close to the Gate and attempt to see the beautiful cars driving in West Berlin. My dad was particularly taken by the Gate, given that he never thought he’d be able to walk so freely around it. Now it’s a haven of embassies (including the US) and other activities. Today we saw an imitation Mickey Mouse begging for change and pictures (who would remove his head to get a water break every five or so minutes in the heat) and a circle of people meditating. I don’t know how they manage to reach any benefits of meditation there - it’s so crowded that anyone who actually can meditate in such a place must be truly a master.
The Reichstag was damaged during the war and re-built with much more glass later on. The glass surrounding the Parliamentary chambers and the dome above it are said to represent the transparency in this new German government, something that seems to be going well. Keep in mind that it’s only been 28 years since the wall came down and Germany is already bailing out the rest of Europe again. The Germans have never been content to sit back and watch the world develop. They’ve always been so active on the world scene.
Our last major stop for the day was back to the Kudamm where we briefly visited the Gedachtniskirche (another war casualty church that’s been rebuilt) and the Kathe Wolfhart Christmas shop. I went to the one in Rottenburg ob de Tauber ages ago and have been jealous of one of the ornaments my friend Nicole got ever since. They didn't have that ornament (grr), but I did pick up a few others that I’m happy about. Christmas ornaments are some of my favorite souvenirs because they are inexpensive and bring back memories of a good trip each year. This trip is shaping up to be a particularly memorable one.
Tomorrow we head off to Spitzkunnersdorf where we may be off the grid for a while until we head into Austria. Spitzkunnersdorf is quite rural and the last time I stayed there my internet access was severely limited. If you are actually reading these (hey, thanks!), you may not hear from me again until Thursday night or Friday. For now, I’m ready to collapse into bed. It may only be 9:00 here, but we’ve got an early train to catch into Dresden.