FILM MARCH 18, 2009
From “Album of My Germany”
Our German trip was coming to an end. I reserved the last afternoon in Berlin to visit a place I wanted Laura to see. I had seen it in 1967 and had dreamed of it since. It was a Catholic church in an outlying district, Charlottenburg. Maria Regina Martyrum stands near Plotzensee, the prison where many had been executed during the Hitler years and where, in August 1944, the eight German officers found chiefly guilty in the July plot against Hitler were hanged. With piano wire around their necks, they had been strung up to meathooks in the ceiling while a film camera recorded their deaths. Then the film, as ordered, was rushed to Hitler.
Plotzensee was now completely empty. In 1952 the bishop of Berlin had urged that a church be built nearby, and in 1962 it was finished.
It is a quiet, terrifying church. It is modeled on a prison camp. The entrance is an iron gate that opens into a large courtyard. The gate is in a concrete bell tower that suggests a guard tower. The courtyard is enclosed with a concrete wall that looks like a prison wall. At the end of the courtyard is an altar, a plain stone slab set upon what looks like a metal crown of thorns. The church itself is a large, plain, stone box resting on slabs. The interior is plain, too. Light comes through bands of glass high in the walls. Some of the interior walls still bear the marks of the forms in which they were molded so that the concrete looks hammered into place. The whole church is a question, an unrelenting question. We sat there for a while, then left.
That night I dreamed again of the church. I woke early. Laura was still sleeping. We were leaving for Paris that afternoon. I decided to go for a walk before breakfast. I dressed and whispered to her that I was going out and thought she understood.
In the fresh light the city looked falsely young. I walked a few blocks on the Kurfurstendamm and saw the waiters getting the cafes ready. I turned into side streets and wandered. I fought the feeling, fanciful, untrue, that everything looked familiar. I tried not to imagine, not to put myself at the center of this century’s history as I walked through the morning streets of the old capital that had made my century’s history grotesque. But some thing had been lurking within me for four years, since my first visit, and it began to rise. As I walked, as the streets began to fill, I admitted it to myself as if I were reluctantly acknowledging an ache.
Part of me wanted to be German. Part of me wanted to share the shame, the inheritance that burdened the best Germans I had met. Everything in my childhood and youth, everything that had been brutalized by the Hitler Germany, the Germany that would have brushed me into the ovens with the back of its hand, all of that earlier German remembrance reached up across the blackness. It was strange, double. I wanted to reclaim what I had lost. And I wanted to share the guilt for that loss. When our plane took off that afternoon, I felt relieved. I was on my way to my home, my only home. Still, in a corner, the ache persisted, the early morning mystery. In one small corner of myself, I felt that I was fleeing.
By Stanley Kauffmann