It took them two years to build – a vast, monumental edifice in the eastern part of Berlin, ostensibly to the glory of God but with a far more important additional, political role. Between 1933 and 1935, whilst the Martin Luther Church was being constructed, its towering dome rose to dominate the surrounding buildings, just as the Nazi party was rising and growing to dominate the political landscape of Germany. By the time of its consecration in 1935, the Protestant church had come under the influence of the movement known as “Stormtroopers of Jesus”, which the Nazis referred to as “Positive Christianity”.
An integral part of the church’s original decoration were the swastikas on the church bells and altar. Embedded in the stonework and wooden friezes of the interior were many Nazi symbols and icons, including a muscular, Aryan Jesus with a Nazi soldier, statues of Nazi stormtroopers and a bust of Hitler. A vast cross adorned the wall facing the congregational pews but the building had a function above and beyond that of a local place of worship.
Its yawning interior space and impressive height made it the perfect venue for key Nazi party meetings and rallies. During the 1930s Nazi party members made up two thirds of the church attendance and it was here that they baptised their children. Not only was there plenty of space downstairs, but up in the gallery there had been installed a huge and ornate organ with massive pipes. Imagine the sound produced by this organ, perhaps in 1936, just after its installation. It must surely have stirred many a party member to proclaim undying loyalty to the Fuhrer. So impressive was the music it produced that the complete apparatus was transported to Nuremburg for use in the rallies there and later brought back to its original home.
Now let us fast forward 75 years to December 2011. Time has moved on but the place remains the same – and yet not quite. The building still stands there in all its glory but no longer do the bells and altar carry the swastika symbol. These have been removed but if you look very carefully at the stonework it is possible to see where swastikas once were. All the other reminders of the mixing of Christianity and Nazism are still there. There had been voices which advocated the complete destruction of this memorial to Nazi oppression but the building was preserved because of its unique architectural value. Today it stands in a residential area of what was East Berlin and serves as a local community church.
In December 2011 the Zemel Choir was invited to take part in an international Jewish choral festival in Berlin, together with choirs from Boston, Johannesburg, Jerusalem, Toronto, Strasbourg and Berlin itself - eight choirs from four continents. On Saturday night, after Shabbat, each choir was allocated a venue in a different part of the city at which to perform. At first the Zemel choir were disappointed not to be singing at the Jewish Museum, which had been offered to the Boston choir, but when we heard something of the history of our venue, the Martin Luther Church, we were intrigued by its past and felt a compulsion to see it. It is, after all, the only church left in Germany that still carries the distinctive markings of the so-called “Positive Christianity.”
As we trooped in to rehearse before our concert we could hear the sound of Christmas carols being sung. Looking up to the ceiling of the entrance hall we saw a chandelier in the shape of an iron cross. As we entered the church itself the deep and resonating sound of the organ overwhelmed us, thundering out from high above in the gallery, filling the entire space. The wooden pews were crowded with families enjoying a carol service in the days before Christmas. As they filed out we examined the plaque on the wall in the entrance lobby, which explained the facts of the building’s chequered history.
It was a strange feeling to sing traditional, liturgical Jewish music to a completely non- Jewish, German audience in a place that had once held such sinister gatherings. Our accompanist, an extremely accomplished organist, drew from that instrument the beautiful chords written by nineteenth century synagogue composers Lewandowski and Sulzer and our voices filled the church. We thrilled to the sound of the organ as we stood beside it in the upper gallery. Below, in front of the huge cross stood the lone figure of Robert Brody, our soloist, his lovely baritone voice holding the audience spellbound with the haunting melodies of the prayers we have sung for generations.
There was an incongruity in the whole situation and yet at the same time a sense of rightness. We, a Jewish choir, some of whom were descendants of German Jews, were singing our music, defiantly, surrounded by the iconography of a power that sought to make of us an extinct people. We felt that we had contributed in some way to the healing of a deep, historical wound. Our very presence in that church was proof of Hitler’s failure.