My husband and I spent spring break in Germany. He’s a German historian, so it’s a place we tend and like to go. We were in Munich, Bamberg, Dresden and Berlin. I’m particularly fond of Berlin because it’s deeply layered with complicated history, and manages nicely being both funky and drenched with high culture, but I don’t think of it as a place where I’m likely to have poetry experiences—my German’s not good enough for that, for one thing. But it happened.
We stumbled onto a really interesting-looking brick church. There are interesting brick churches all over Berlin, mostly 19th century. 19th c. Prussian brickmakers seem to have been determined to see how many different decorative elements they could make with brick or embed into brick, sometimes even pretty whimsically. But this church, two blocks from our hotel, was clearly 20th c.
(you can check it out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirche_am_Hohenzollernplatz).
I didn’t immediately recognize the architectural style. It looked like a cross between Bauhaus and Art Nouveau, both of which I like. It also looked, a little weirdly, like a power station or a factory. I guess that’s what makes it Expressionist. We were interested and wanted to go inside, but it was locked. There was a sign on the side about “Noon Song” on Saturday, so we figured we’d check that out, since we’ve generally had wonderful luck with music in German churches.
It turned out that the “Noon Song” performance was a 16th c. Gospel of John (we were there during Lent). It was predictably exquisite. I’m fond of the Gospel of John because of all the imagery of light. I’m often bothered by the Gospel of John because it’s pretty openly anti-Jewish. In any event, it’s the Gospel which records having the Jewish elders say to Pilate “We have a Law, and according to the Law, he should die.” Anthony Hecht used that line, translated with rich and heavy irony into German, as the epigraph for his endlessly brilliant “The Book of Yolek.” I’ve spent a lot of time studying that poem, and teach it every chance I get, not the least reason for which is that it’s a dazzling example of using ancient form to talk about chaotic horror (the poem is both a sestina and an acrostic), but because I believe it’s the single finest Holocaust poem in English. The poem tends to be close to the surface of my mind.
Mostly I was just happily swept up in the music—sort of vaguely following along with the printed words as best I could, and oblivious to what was coming–I really can be that oblivious. So when the words “Wir haben ein Gesetz, und nach dem Gesetz soll er sterben” abruptly rang out through the church, I was startled and badly shaken. Badly enough that I had to be careful about not sobbing aloud. You can cry quietly during a German concert if the music is moving you that profoundly, but you do not ever want to get between a German and the music they’re listening to by making unnecessary noise. They take music very seriously.
I cry fairly easily, but being in Berlin, listening to a Gospel that was used for 20 centuries to justify Christian killing of Jews, in a church that was being built while Hitler was planning his rise to power, listening to an exquisite rendering of a line used indelibly by an American poet (who fought in the war and helped liberate the camps) to talk about The Final Solution in the middle of a season of penitence, that was a lot to process. A lot. I’m not even sure that it’s “process-able” in some ways, or should be. But I did manage not to sob. And I let the Hohenzollernplatz Kirche feeling even more deeply marked by Hecht’s poem, and swamped by all the currents of history and meaning that half hour had contained.