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The book on the side altar: An insight into Europe

By Connie Marshner
web posted March 11, 2002

There is a legend along the Rhine River in Germany about Master Gerhard, who lost a race with the Devil. The Devil wagered he could build an underground brook from Trier to Cologne before Gerhard could finish his Cathedral, "and the ducks will swim in my brook before your towers are completed to their tips!"

It so happens that, a thousand years earlier, the Romans had built an aqueduct to carry water from Trier to their outpost in Cologne. But by 1248, when Master Gerhard began his cathedral, nobody remembered what the aqueduct was, and so it became material for a legend, a legend meant perhaps to illustrate the foolishness of impatience. The spires of the Cologne Cathedral were not completed until 1880 – six hundred years after Master Gerhard lost his bet.

If one lives in a place where it takes six hundred years to complete a local landmark, instead of the six years that Americans consider a long time, one has a different sense of one's place in the universe.

The first time I visited the Rhineland, my friend pointed out to me the Monastery of St. Hildegard, its twin towers rising from a hillside of vineyards. I remembered that Hildegard was a medieval abbess of some fame, and indicated a desire to visit the place. "You will be disappointed," she said, "the church is all new." Expecting that she meant it had been "modernized" like most American Catholic churches since the 70's, I was astonished when I got there to find it austere and beautiful, with shimmering Byzantine-style mosaics and frescoes.

Later, I asked her: "I must have misunderstood you. I thought you said the church was new." "It is new!" she insisted. "Napoleon burned Hildegard's original monastery, and this was built after Napoleon left."

If one lives in a place where something built soon after Napoleon is considered new, one has a different sense of oneself.

Rudesheim from the river
Rudesheim from the river

Rudesheim is a town of about 10,000 people, a tourist center on the Rhine. If you want to take one of the cruises down the river, to see the Lorelei rock and the Mouse Tower, and watch the vineyards sail past, you board at Rudesheim. The place never had an industrial or military significance, yet it was bombed repeatedly during World War II. On one night 212 people died, and one woman had to be pulled by her hair out of the cellar that had collapsed. Her hair never grew back completely, but she owns the shoe shop today.

The forests were bombed too, and today young trees grow in the unnatural craters. During the Occupation after the war, most of the old oaks in the forest were cut down and taken to France – without, of course, any payment to anybody. Such is the cost of defeat. In those days, people foraged in the forests for edible plants and herbs because there was little food and no medicine. Alternative medicine is not a new fad there; it's the tradition of those who survived.

If one makes a living by catering to tourists from the country that bombed one's homeland in order to liberate it from a tyrant who had been democratically elected, one has a different sense of politics than we do.

There is sympathy, and there is cynicism. My friend told me, "We have great sympathy for America after the World Trade Center. We know what it is like to be bombed." I also heard what one village grandfather remarked years ago when JFK visited Berlin and was cheered: "Ja, ja, they cheered for the Kaiser and they cheered for Hitler too."

There are two churches in Rudesheim, the Evangelische (Lutheran) and the Katholische. The Catholic one is St. Jakobus (St. James). It was founded in the 12th century by a local aristocrat, in thanksgiving for his safe return from the Third Crusade, where he had been taken prisoner by the Moors. St. Jakobus too was destroyed by bombs, on November 25, 1944, and had to be rebuilt with its own stones, to be re-consecrated in 1955. It is an architectural hodgepodge: Baroque archangels greet the visitor under a Gothic tympanum, and fragments of frescoes from 1390 are displayed on the back wall. The onion dome that was added in 1766 still tops the medieval towers.

On a side altar a large parchment book, perhaps 12 inches thick if it were closed, lies open under a glass case beneath a modern crucifix. The pages are turned to keep them current with the passage of the year. The book is handwritten in beautiful calligraphy, in red and gold and black. In format the book is something like a child's "birthday book", in which is listed, day by day, which friend was born on which day.

But it is not birthdays that are listed in this book.

For almost every day of the year, the name of a man is written, a man from the parish. Below his name is his birthdate. Next to that, is a year – all the years of the First and Second World Wars are represented. Next to the year, his place of death: "in Verdun, France," "near Stalino, Russia", "at home, of war injuries." Almost every day has a name. Some days have three or four names. I was told that the names are read from the altar, at the part of the liturgy where the dead are remembered.

If one lives in a town that suffered hundreds of men, women, and children as casualties in two world wars of the 20th century, and lost both of the wars, and endured the subsequent humiliations and privations, one has a different attitude toward war.

We in the United States have wide ranging multilateral interests which we must pursue. European countries have self-interests as well. Europe also has one very profound, enduring interest which we Americans probably do not sufficiently appreciate: to do nothing that will add any more pages to that parchment book on the side altar.

Connie Marshner is director of the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Governance.

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