Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Traveling Behind the Iron Curtain

        Our Sabbatical has been most rewarding and fulfilling, exceeding all of our expectations, but it has come time to bring it to a close.  When I first started planning for this Sabbatical over two years ago, I started looking at river cruises.

        We took our first river cruise a few years ago from Prague to Budapest on the Danube.  River cruise ships are so much smaller than big ocean cruise liners.  You have all the amenities of the larger ships and can often dock in the heart of towns and cities.  Smaller ships allow you to get to know your fellow passengers and the crew.  I looked at several options but settled on the Elbe River, primarily because the Elbe flows through Wittenberg and the cruise concludes in Prague, one of the most vibrant and beautiful cities in the world.  The Elbe also played a key role in the Second World War.

        If you have traveled on a river cruise you are familiar with the locks that control the water flow.  The interesting thing about this cruise on the Elbe was that we did not go through a single lock.  Because of this the water level is totally dependent on the weather and this cruise, more than any other, is often cancelled due to lack of water.  Robert and Martha Adams planned to take this cruise a few years ago only to have it cancelled at the last minute.  They were able to do the cruise later.

        The Elbe River also necessitates smaller ships.  Most Viking ships have three decks and hold close to 200 people.  The Elbe ships have only two decks.  There were 93 passengers on our voyage. 

        It is fitting that our Sabbatical ended in Prague, home to Jan Hus.  One-hundred years before Martin Luther, Hus was proclaiming many of the same ideas.  Hus was greatly influenced by John Wycliffe and his proposals for reform of the Roman Catholic clergy.  In 1402 Hus became in charge of the university chapel in Prague and became known for his fiery sermons that were preached in Czech, rather than Latin.  Hus, like Wycliffe, and later Luther, believed that the sole source of authority in the church is Scripture, not the church and the Pope. 

        The church was in turmoil during this time as a result of the Western Schism which left the church with two Popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon.  (Avignon is another fascinating city we visited on the Rhone River Cruise) Then, for a brief period there were actually three Popes! The climate was right was reform and even revolution.  Meanwhile the church was embroiled in a major political fight to determine who was really in control.  Part of this battle involved the sale of indulgences to finance the campaign of Antipope John XXII against Pope Gregory XII.  Hus, like Luther a century later, condemned the sale of indulgences and by so doing lost the support of King Wenceslas, who was secretly profiting from the practice himself.  Without the support of good King Wenceslas, Hus left Prague and went into hiding, but continued to proclaim his ideas through writings. 

        In 1414, Hus was promised safety if he would travel to the Council of Constance to defend his ideas.  Once he arrived the promise was ignored, he was arrested, tried, convicted, and burned at the stake on July 6, 1415.  One-hundred years later a young Catholic Priest named Martin Luther read the writings of Jan Hus and John Wycliffe and was greatly influenced by them.

        We returned to Luther’s Wittenberg on Monday afternoon, June 3 and boarded the Viking Beyla.  We were escorted to our spacious stateroom and our luggage arrived in just a few minutes.  We enjoyed a lovely evening onboard the ship including a delicious dinner.  The next morning, I stepped out on our veranda and kept hearing a familiar sound—a cuckoo.  My first thought was that someone had a cuckoo clock, or someone’s alarm was sounding.  But the more I listened I realized that this was actually a cuckoo bird that is found in Europe.  We heard several cuckoos while we sailed the Elbe.  They sound exactly like our cuckoo clock back home.

        Even though we had already spent time in Wittenberg I wanted to take the city tour which included the Lutherhaus.  I also wanted to hear our guide’s perspective on Luther.  Our guide was very knowledgeable, but didn’t have much of a personality.  I asked him a couple of questions that he basically ignored, but he did point out a store that sold “Luther socks,” so I ran in a bought an official pair of Martin Luther Socks that read, “Here I Stand!”

        I was very disappointed in what our guide did not tell us in St. Mary’s Church where Luther preached over 2,000 sermons.  He did point out that the pulpit in Luther’s day was on the opposite side of the church where it is now—a fact I did not know. However, there was one significant thing he pointed out before we entered the church that I had missed the week before.

On the back corner of the church building, 26 feet above the ground is a 700-year-old anti-Semitic sculpture of a pig.  Dozens of “Judensau” or Jew Pig carvings existed in Germany between the 13th and 18th centuries.  They are blatantly anti-Semitic and terribly offensive.  This 14th century carving is so offensive that I don’t care to describe it in detail. The worst part of it is that after Luther’s death, one of his caustic anti-Semitic quotes was added beneath the carving. 

This carving became even more offensive following the Holocaust.  After the reunification Wittenberg became a primary destination for religious pilgrims and the town started to prepare for the huge influx of visitors in preparation for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.  Suddenly, this terrible carving was in the spotlight and there was a huge debate about what to do with it.

Many of the faithful wanted to remove it, not only because it was an embarrassment to the city, but primarily because “it grieves people because our Lord is blasphemed.” 

The decision to leave or remove the offensive sculpture belongs to the church itself.  It turns out that even before the end of Communist rule in the 1980s, the church had discussed the sculpture and had even consulted local Jewish leaders.  The Jewish leaders and church leaders agreed that the sculpture should not be removed because as degrading and hurtful as it is, it is a part of a painful history that cannot be removed or forgotten. 

As a result of the discussions, the church’s youth group decided to create a memorial plaque, and on November 11, 1988, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass when Jewish homes, synagogues, hospitals and businesses ransacked and windows smashed and 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to Concentration Camps), the church installed a Holocaust memorial on the ground under the sculpture to counteract the “Judensau.”  A representative from a local synagogue gave a speech at the unveiling. 

The memorial is designed to not allow this history to be forgotten.  There are four blocks with cracks in between that symbolizes a cross that wells up as a sign of guilt and atonement.

I see some similarities in this and the current debate in our country over Confederate statues.  To simply remove a statue does not remove painful history, but there is more to the story that needs to be told.  I have made a proposal concerning the confederate statue in Lexington.   I feel that this is an opportunity to learn from our painful past, acknowledging guilt, seeking forgiveness, and working toward reconciliation.

We returned to the Viking Beyla and enjoyed a delicious lunch as we started sailing the Elbe.  Our destination was Torgau that was instrumental in the early days of the Protestant Reformation.  It was here, at St. Mary’s Church, that Martin Luther’s wife, Katharina von Bora, is buried.  We took a walking tour of the city after dinner.  Torgau also played a key role toward the end of the Second World War.  On April 25, 1945 that US and Soviet forces met on the bridge in Torgau in what became known as the “Encounter on the Elbe.”

This meeting was not accidental; it had been discussed by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference and was carefully planned and orchestrated.  The next morning, we were sailing up the Elbe when we saw a monument on the bank of the river with several flags, including a US flag.  A quick Google search revealed that this was actually the site where US and Soviet troops met for the first time—accidently—it was not part of the plan.  We were near the town of Strehla.  Early on the morning of April 25 there was an unplanned encounter between US and Soviet troops.  This is what the monument commemorates. 

On Wednesday afternoon we arrived in Meissen which has a beautiful castle built in the 15th century.  But Meissen is best known for its famous Porcelain factory.  We toured the factory and had a fascinating demonstration on how the porcelain is produced.  Then we had time to shop.  Meissen Porcelain is some of the finest in the world, and the prices certainly reflect that reality.  

We arrived Thursday morning in the beautiful city of Dresden.  This is a German city where you could easily spend four or five days visiting the great museums and studying the intriguing history.  At the peak of its power in the 18th century this was the capital of Saxony that ruled over most of present-day Poland and eastern Germany.  With all of the grand architecture and the lovely arts, Dresden became known as the “Florence on the Elbe.” 

We had a tour of Dresden on Thursday morning.  The city was flattened during the Second World War, but today is a vibrant city that has become one of the most popular destinations in Europe.  

In the heart of the city is the spectacular Zwinger Palace complex.   One of the highlights of our tour was hearing the Glockenspiel on the Palace grounds.  There are 40 Meissen Porcelain bells that played a lovely 3-minute melody.  The sound is quite unique, much softer than traditional metal bells. 

         We also visited the Green Vault museum that houses some of the most remarkable and exquisite treasures in the world. We went from one amazing room to another full of diamonds, emeralds, and priceless jewels.  The Semper Opera House is an awe-inspiring fixture in the heart of the old city. 

        Thursday night we returned to the Zwinger Palace for a beautiful evening of classical music in the gorgeous Wall Pavilion.  The opulent setting and the gorgeous music made for a perfect night.  We returned to our ship and marveled at the beautiful Baroque skyline of Dresden at night, a breathtaking and magical scene. 

        The next morning, we cruised up the Elbe through some gorgeous rock formations that have become known as Saxon Switzerland because of their beauty.  Gigantic stones have been quarried from these mountains to build some of the grandest buildings in Germany.  We gazed up at the Bastei, a 1,000-foot spectacle of tooth-like rocks connected by a footbridge.  Later in the afternoon, we rode up to that peak and walked over that bridge!

        Since we crossed the Glienicke Bridge (The Bridge of Spies) at Potsdam, we had been traveling behind the former Iron Curtain.  Soviet-era buildings are easy to spot—they are plain, uniform, and depressing.  But the impact the Communist era had on the lives of the people is not as apparent, until they open up and share their painful experiences with us. 

        A lady spoke on our ship the night we were in Torgau.  She talked about the oppressive policies of the Soviets and how everyone lived in fear.  She talked about how hard it was to purchase a car.  One would be on a waiting list for seven years or more.  Her father had waited seven years to purchase a car and when he finally was able to buy one, it had something wrong with it. 

        She shared with us that there was very little food.  What they would buy would be old and often spoiled. 

        The Communists would read people’s mail.  If someone from the west tried to mail money, it would disappear before it reached the intended recipients.  There was an old joke (we heard this from two different people) of a man who wrote a letter in the spring to his relatives in the west.  He wrote that he appreciated the weapons they had sent and he buried them in the back yard.  The next day his back yard was torn apart and he happily reported that he could now plant his spring garden!

She talked about how the Communists controlled all the media, radio, television, and newspapers.  However, from Torgau, it was possible to pick up a western television station in Berlin.  In order to receive this station, you had to line your antenna in a different direction than the Communist stations.  The town kept a close watch on the antennas and if your antenna was found pointed toward Berlin, you received a reprimand from the mayor. 

        She also talked about the fact you could not trust anyone.  You never knew who was a spy—your neighbor, your best friend, maybe even a member of your family.  Our guide in Dresden expanded on this when she shared painful stories from her Communist past.  She did not know that her very best friend was actually a spy until after the reunification in 1989 when her friend simply disappeared, never to be seen again.

        Our Dresden guide told us that 30 years of her life were wasted by the Communists.  She was a person of faith.  She said that if you hear the Communists would not allow you to worship, that was not true.  But, if you did practice your faith by attending church, the Communists had their ways of punishing you.

        She shared the heartbreaking story of her first day of school.  She was six years old.  The teacher called her to the front of the class and told the other children that this girl and her family still believed in superstitions, they believed in a God who could perform miracles.  Then the teacher asked the little girl to perform a miracle for the class.  She stood there humiliated while the teacher and the class laughed and ridiculed her.

        She went on to tell us that she had no friends because of this.  On the playground, at lunch, before and after school, she was always alone.  But she excelled academically and was the number one student in her class. 

        The Communists would only allow the most intelligent students to advance in their studies.  Even though she was the number one student, she was denied the opportunity to advance past the basic education provided to everyone.  All of this was because her family attended church.

        She also shared with us how the Communists would intimidate and scare people into becoming spies.  If you did anything wrong, you were called before the authorities.  They would threaten you by telling you something would happen to your children, or that your children would be taken away from you, if you did not cooperate with them. 

        She also talked about the brutal treatment they had received from the police, even after Communism fell.  Many of the people who had been involved in public celebrations as Communism was failing were carried to the police department, forced to stand against a wall without any breaks—not even to go to the bathroom.  The police would threaten, humiliate, and taunt the people especially if they urinated on themselves.  As our guide told us about this inhumane treatment, we could hear the anger and the bitterness in her voice.  Then she talked about forgiveness and as a person of faith she knew she was supposed to forgive, but she confessed she continued to struggle.  We could all understand why she is still struggling.

        We visited Prague on our Danube cruise a few years ago.  There are places you visit and say, “Well, I’ve been there and done that.”  There are other places you visit and fall in love with it, hoping that you can come again.   This is the way we felt about Prague.  The medieval architecture in the city is stunning, but the city is also a treasure for Romanesque, baroque, and Art Nouveau buildings.  And the main square with the large statue of Jan Hus may be the most exciting square in all of Europe with centuries-old structures and the still-functioning Astronomical Clock that has been operating since 1410. 

        The people of Prague suffered greatly during the 20th Century.  First the Nazis, then the Communists, but in November and December of 1989 thousands of people protested the communist rule that had oppressed them for over 40 years.  It resulted in the peaceful resignation of the Communist leadership and the founding of a democracy.  It seems Prague has been celebrating ever since!

        Our ship docked in Decin and we said good-bye to the crew on Saturday morning before boarding buses and driving to Prague.  We stopped at our hotel, the Hilton—a massive, modern hotel on the edge of the old city—and then started a city tour.  We walked down the Vltava River and spent time on the historic Charles Bridge.  The bridge dates back to 1357 and is now pedestrian only.  Lined with statues, the bridge is always crowded with tourists listening to the musicians and purchasing artwork from local artists.  We entered Old Town by walking through the Gothic tower at the end of the bridge that was built in the 14th century. 

        We made our way to the main square where a large crowd was gathering to watch the 12-noon performance of the Astronomical Clock.  After lunch we made our way back to the bus and traveled to Prague Castle.  Then we visited the huge St. Vitus Cathedral where King Wenceslas is entombed behind polished emeralds and stones.  The grand castle that was the powerful seat of Bohemian Kings and Holy Roman Emperors is today the residence of the Czech Republic President, Milos Zeman.  

        The next morning, we purchased tickets for the city’s transportation system and rode the electric tram into the old town.  We did some shopping and enjoyed some Prague Ham and sausages for lunch.  We met a college age young man who was traveling through Europe for the first time.  He was telling us where he was going and asking about our travels and especially what we had seen in Prague.  When I mentioned the Jan Hus statue in the main square, he had seen the statue but had no idea who Jan Hus was.  I couldn’t imagine someone coming to Prague without having at least a cursory knowledge of the great reformer.  But my world is vastly different than his. 

        Jim and Beverly, Ashley and Gay left for home on Monday.  Joyce and I stayed one more day.  We took a subway Tuesday morning to the Old Town and crossed the Charles Bridge.  We visited the Church of St. Nicholas, one of the most ornate and glorious churches in Europe.  This eighteenth century church is a masterpiece of High Baroque architecture full of statues, frescoes, and paintings. 

        We celebrated our last night overseas with a lovely dinner in one of the most prominent Art Nouveau buildings in Prague, the Municipal House.  This elaborate center is full of art and is the principal concert venue for the city.  It was in this building on October 28, 1918, that the independent nation of Czechoslovakia was established.  We celebrated our last night overseas in another significant historical venue! 

        We returned home on Tuesday but the Sabbatical was not over.  We decided to spend the last week of the Sabbatical at the beach with our two youngest grandchildren.  Thanks to the generosity of dear friends, we were able to spend a week at Myrtle Beach in their lovely condominium. 

        When our children were growing up, our annual vacation was a week at North Myrtle Beach.  Ray Nance was excited to go with us because he has such great memories of going to the beach as a child. 

        On Father’s Day morning, Ray Nance, Sang, Ella Rae, Parker, Joyce and I loaded two cars and headed to Myrtle Beach.   The roads have improved a great deal since we traveled to the beach over 30 years ago.  The condo complex has a nice pool that the children have really enjoyed, and it is an easy walk, or car ride, to the beach.  The most rewarding experience was seeing our grandchildren have fun. 

        Spending time with family was the perfect way to bring the Sabbatical to a close.  We have enjoyed the beach, the pool, putt-putt, and good food. And I taught Ella Rae and Parker how to play Monopoly!  We drove back to Lexington on Sunday to be back in time for Vacation Bible School. 

        How can I describe all that I have experienced during this gift of Sabbatical?  On Sunday night in Prague Ashley and Gay joined us for a Czech Folklore Dinner.  I signed up for this without any great expectations.  But it was a delightful evening that exceeded all of my expectations.   

        We boarded the bus and rode about 45 minutes out of Prague, past the airport, into the beautiful Bohemian countryside and the small town of Cicovicky.  We entered a large banquet hall full of happy voices, good food, and lively music.  We were entertained by a trio playing a violin, dulcimer, and bass.  They were all quite good, but the dulcimer player was amazing.  Two talented dancers dressed in traditional Bohemian attire thrilled the audience with high energy Czech dances and even had a few members of the audience to join them.  (Any rumors of me dancing in the Czech cannot be substantiated!).  And there was a gifted young lady with a beautiful voice who regaled us with traditional Czech songs that have endured for generations.

        One can sense the genuine sense of joy and celebration from all the Czech performers.  The painful memories of Communist rule and oppression are still fresh in the minds of many.  They understand and appreciate, much more than we do I fear, the blessing of freedom.

        At the end of the performance, our soloist sang a moving song that touched everyone there.  This song was not in the Czech language, but in English.  You know this song very well.

 “I see fields of green, red roses too; I see them bloom for me and you and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”  

        You probably can’t hear that song without thinking of Louis Armstrong and his distinct gravelly voice, but as this young Czech lady sang with her charming Eastern accent, I thought; this is it!  This is the compelling truth I have learned in my travels.  It is a wonderful world!

Everywhere we went we met the greatest people who treated us with kindness and went out of their way to help.  There was our dear friend Maria at the farmhouse in Tuscany who brought Joyce medicine when she became ill and the entire staff, from the owners to the woodcutter who celebrated her birthday. 

There was the kind stranger in the subway in Berlin who gave us directions and when he found out I was a minister, he told us the sad story of Hitler silencing his grandfather, a Lutheran minister. 

In Turin, Italy one morning I asked for two cups of coffee to take to the room.  A sweet little girl went into the kitchen and returned with a beautiful pitcher full of hot coffee with matching cups on a silver tray.  As she handed it to me she asked, “Is this okay?” 

And then there was the little old lady walking down the sidewalk in Florence, Italy, when smoke was pouring out from the hood of our car and I stopped on a sidewalk in a panic.  She was chattering away in Italian, trying to tell us where we could find a mechanic. 

        But one of the most powerful and dramatic acts of kindness came in a cathedral one day.  I was walking around taking pictures while Joyce waited on a back pew.  When I returned I saw that she was talking to a Catholic Priest.  His niece brought him to Turin on a spiritual pilgrimage to see the Shroud.  Joyce was telling him that we were also on a spiritual pilgrimage of Sabbatical. 

        The Priest smiled warmly as I approached him and extended his hand.  As I shook his hand I said, “Hello Father.”

        “No,” he said correcting me still shaking my hand.  “It is not Father.  You are my brother, my brother in Christ!”

        “I see friends shaking hands, saying, ‘How do you do?’  They’re really saying, ‘I love you.’”

        Did I tell you that it’s a wonderful world?


Friday, June 14, 2019


        The train trip from Wittenberg to Berlin normally takes less than an hour on the fast train.  However, they are doing some track work south of Berlin and we could tell when the fast train slowed down and we took some of the, would you say, “back tracks?”   Even so I marvel at the extensive rail network in Germany.  In just over an hour we pulled into the ultra-modern Berlin Hauptbahnhof.  This slick, glass-covered station is a destination in itself.  In addition to dozens of train tracks with long-distance and local trains arriving and departing all the time, there are hundreds of shops, cafes, restaurants and stands. 

        The architecture is clearly designed to make a statement that Berlin is a modern, international city.  The plans started soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  After years of planning followed by the actual construction, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof opened on May 28, 2006.  As you stand in front of the historic Reichstag, you can look to your left and see the imposing glass Hauptbahnhof standing proudly overlooking the city. 

        We found a taxi and made a short trip to the Berlin Intercontinental Hotel, one of the best hotels in the city.  This proud hotel has hosted American Presidents, Kings, Queens, and many other governmental officials and celebrities through the years.  Later in the afternoon, there were a number of police cars, darkened limousines, and dozens of security personnel.  Someone very important was about to leave the hotel, but they would not tell us who. 

        We took a taxi to the Reichstag, the stunning legislative building that dates back to 1895. When the building was first inaugurated in 1895, the Hohenzollern family that had reigned for nearly 500 years was still in power.  Back then the real power was in the royal palace.  But when the Emperor was deposed in World War I, the German Republic was proclaimed at the Reichstag and the words “Dem Deutschen Volke” (To the German People) were inscribed on the fa├žade. 

        The first democracy proved to be very weak.  In 1933, Adolf Hitler had his henchmen to set fire to the Reichstag.  Hitler and the Nazis quickly blamed the Communists for the fire, but it was a scripted move to gain total power and control. 

        The Reichstag was barely used during the terrible Nazi regime, but it remained a powerful symbol.  It received serious damage due to bombings in the war.  When Berlin was divided into East and West, the Reichstag was right in the middle.  It fell into disuse during the Cold War, but now that Germany is reunited, the Reichstag has become the symbol of German unity and democracy. 

        To the side of the Reichstag there is a row of slate stones sticking out of the ground.  It almost looks like a bike rack.   There are 96 slabs that remember the 96 members of the Reichstag who dared to speak out against Hitler.  When Hitler became chancellor, every single one of these critics was persecuted and murdered.  Each slate stone memorializes one brave man who saw the danger Hitler posed and had the courage to speak up.  You will find his name, his political party, and the date and location of his death.  Most of the slabs had KZ which meant they died in a concentration camp.  For years their names were forgotten, but now there is a lasting memorial in front of the building where they worked.  It was a moving and sobering sight to see.

        We walked beside the Reichstag and turned right.  In the middle of the road that runs to the Brandenburg Gate, there is a prominent line of pavers running through the street.  This line represents the former site of the Berlin Wall.  On a fence running behind the street we saw a row of white crosses.  Each cross represents a brave East Berliner who died trying to cross the Wall into freedom.  At least 136 were killed in the 28 years the Wall was up.  The final person killed was a 20-year-old who was shot and killed in 1989, just a few months before the Wall came down.  Many of those killed were guards who longed for the freedom they saw on the other side of the Wall.

        When you think of an image of Berlin, you think of the Brandenburg Gate.  Originally one of 14 gigantic gates to Berlin’s old city, this is the last one standing, the only one to survive the war.  The majestic four-horse chariot on top is driven by the Goddess of Peace.  When Napoleon conquered Prussia in 1806, he took the huge statue back to Paris with him.  Seven years later the Prussians defeated Napoleon and they brought it back, renaming the Goddess the “Goddess of Victory.”

        During the Cold War this iconic gate was stranded in no man’s land between the East and the West.  But then on June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood in front of this gate and demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”  Finally, on November 9, 1989, the wall finally came down and joyful Berliners adorned the gate with flowers and celebrated. 

        We walked through the Brandenburg Gate and admired its beauty from Pariser Platz.  We walked beside the US Embassy—it was so good to see the United States flag, and went over a block to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  The Germans decided not to use the word “Holocaust” but intentionally chose the word “Murdered.”   They were confessing that as a nation they murdered over six-million Jews during World War II. 

        This moving memorial covers the better part of a city block.  It is more than ironic that less than a block away you will find a small sign marking the site of Hitler’s underground bunker.  It was here that Hitler and his cowering staff sought cover while the rest of Berlin was being destroyed by bombs.  Then on April 30, 1945, as the Soviet Army closed in on Berlin, Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide.  A week later the European War was over.

        There is nothing more than a sign that marks the site of the former Nazi bunker.  The Germans don’t want to do anything to call attention or memorialize this evil site.  When we visited Berlin over 10 years ago there was just a small, wooden sign.  There is still only a solitary sign, but this more permanent sign has a diagram of the bunker and detailed information on its destruction following the war.  The only thing that sits over the bunker site today is a parking lot. 

        One of the last direct orders that Hitler gave before his cowardly death was to execute the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer was a leader in the “Confessing Church” movement that refused to put Hitler and the state before God and the church.  Bonhoeffer recognized the evil in this man and refused asylum in the United States in order to suffer with his people. He rescued a number of Jews from certain death. 

He was also involved in the resistance movement against Hitler and was a player in the Valkyrie plot to kill Hitler.  One may think it hypocritical for a pastor, a man of God, to be involved in a plot to kill someone.  But Bonhoeffer rationalized his decision by saying, “If a madman is driving a bus with the intent to kill many people, wouldn’t you be justified to take out the madman in order to save the lives of many?”

        On April 5, 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested in his parent’s home in Berlin and two years later, following a direct order from Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945, just days before the war ended. 

        Dietrich Bonhoeffer is recognized today as a 20th Century Martyr.  He is a true man of God who lived and died with dignity, courage, and grace.  His last words were, “This is the end.  For me, the beginning of life.”

        I don’t know of a Bonhoeffer memorial, a Bonhoeffer museum, or a Bonhoeffer historical site.  He never owned a home, but in 1935 his parents built a retirement house in west Berlin and Dietrich lived his last few years of his life there, writing and plotting the resistance against the Nazis. 

        On Saturday morning, the doorman at the Intercontinental Hotel hailed a taxi and I gave the driver the address for the Bonhoeffer House. I had read there was an English tour every Saturday morning at 11 a.m.  It was a long taxi ride.  At one point I thought the taxi was either lost or I had given him the wrong address.  We were in a quiet residential area.  The taxi driver was driving very slowly and turned down a short dead-end street.  He stopped in front of a house. 

        “This is it,” he said in broken English. 

        I looked at the attractive home that gave no indication it was any different from any of other neighborhood houses.  The meter was already up to 20 Euros.  I was afraid I was going to have to pay another 20 Euros to go back to the hotel without finding the Bonhoeffer House.  I got out of the car and saw a small sign at the gate:  “Bonhoefferhaus.”  This was it.

        I paid the taxi driver and we walked to the front gate.  But the gate was locked.  The taxi was leaving.  There was a bell at the gate.  I rang the bell.  A moment later a rather large German man opened the door and said to reach inside and open the gate.  We did and he welcomed us to the Bonhoeffer House.  He went into a room where two ladies from Texas were waiting.  The younger lady leads a mission for refugees in Berlin. 

        By 11 a.m. a few other folks had come.  The German man invited us into a large room with a big table surrounded by pictures on the wall.  He explained that Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer had built the house in 1935 and Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived there until he was arrested in 1943.  He asked where everyone was from.  We had a couple from Australia, another couple from England, the two ladies from Texas and a young man from North Carolina.  He had just graduated from UNC was tracing his grandfather’s World War II journey escaping from the Nazis.

        There is only one room in the house that has been restored historically.  It is the upstairs room where Dietrich lived.  The desk where he wrote, his piano, and his bookcases are all original.  The man told us that before we would visit the room, we would have a conversation on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 

        The “conversation” ended up being an hour-long lecture without an opportunity for anyone else to speak.  While I know our host, who was a volunteer, had the best intentions and obviously knew a great deal about Bonhoeffer, I was greatly disappointed.  His English was not very good and he spoke in a monotone, making it very difficult to follow.  But finally he stopped and we ascended the stairs and had the unforgettable experience of standing in Bonhoeffer’s room.  He was in that room on April 5, 1943 when the SS agents came and arrested him.  Two years later he was executed.

        Bonhoeffer in his epic book, The Cost of Discipleship wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

        We walked with the ladies from Texas and the young man from North Carolina to a nearby train station where we caught a train back to our hotel area.  We were walking up the sidewalk to the hotel when a big bus pulled up that had a “Viking” sign.  A moment later, Ashley and Gay Whitfield, Jim and Beverly Black got off the bus.  They had come from the airport after their long overseas flight.  After they got their luggage into their rooms, we went across the street to a Greek Restaurant where we had a nice lunch and a great time catching up with our friends.

        Saturday night we took a tour of Berlin.  It doesn’t get dark until almost 10 p.m., so we started with a great German meal at a brewery.  Berlin is a beautiful city, especially at night.  The next morning we took a city tour.  The traces of the war, both World War II and the Cold War, continue to leave their mark on this great city.  Today, Berlin is lively and growing.  Unless you have someone to tell you, you would not know if you are in the former West or East Berlin.  Of course, we visited Checkpoint Charlie and saw remnants of the Berlin Wall.  But it is clear that this is a city that is focused on the future while it honors and seeks to learn from its painful past.

        We had an early departure Monday morning.  We were going back to Wittenberg to board our Viking ship.  But on the way we were making a fascinating stop at Potsdam.  We had an excellent guide.  He grew up in West Berlin and told us about life following the war and after the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961.  He has a vivid memory of seeing President John F. Kennedy in 1963 when he famously said, “Ich bin ein Berliner!”  He talked about listening to Armed Forces Radio and being introduced to Western music.

        One of the most fascinating things he shared was traveling with his family to Italy each summer to visit his grandmother.  He told about all the papers and documentation necessary to travel through East Germany.  He remembers the soldiers at the border crossings and how they seemed intent on intimidating those trying to cross.  He told how certain books, newspapers from West Berlin, and other items were forbidden.  He said their holiday never truly started until they left East German and the Soviet soldiers.

        We left the former West Berlin sector and entered former East Germany by crossing over the Glienicke Bridge where US pilot Gary Powers who was shot down over the Soviet Union in his U-2 Spy plane was exchanged for a Russian spy.  Steven Spielberg brought this 1962 event to life in his 2015 movie “Bridge of Spies.”  The dramatic prisoner exchange was actually filmed on the Glienicke Bridge. 

        We all got off the bus and walked across the bridge.  It was a beautiful, sunny day.   When we got back on the bus our guide told us something I had not realized.  For the rest of our trip, from that moment until we departed from Prague, we would be behind the former Iron Curtain, in former Soviet territory.  We would not have been able to travel in these areas 20 years ago. 

        When you visit Potsdam, you learn about Frederick the Great, the idealistic 18th century Prussian king.  Sanssouci Palace was the summer home of Frederick the Great.  This dazzling palace is small by royal standards.  We did an outside tour.  We also saw his simple grave next to the graves of his best friends—his dogs.  Interestingly, there were several potatoes on his gravestone.  It was Frederick the Great who introduced potatoes to Germany and people honor him by leaving potatoes on his grave. 

        We drove to the other end of Sanssouci Park to the New Palace.  Frederick the Great built this massive showpiece in the 1760s to wow his guests and dispel rumors that Prussia was running out of money following the costly Seven Years’ War.  It is a breathtaking experience to walk through this 1,000-room castle with its stunning Grotto Hall and Marble Hall.  The last monarch to live in this opulent mansion was Kaiser Wilhelm II (the grandson of Queen Victoria of England) who was exiled from the country when the monarchy was dissolved in 1918.

        We went into downtown Potsdam for lunch.  It is a beautiful little town with cobblestone pedestrian only streets.  We found a small restaurant at the top of a building where we enjoyed a light lunch with great views over the city.  We had one more stop to make after lunch, the Cecilienhof.

        This early 20th century villa was built in 1912 to house Crown Prince Wilhelm and his wife, Cecilie.  He would have become Kaiser had Germany not lost the First World War.  The beautiful Tudor-style villa was the site of the 1945 Potsdam Conference that decided the fate of Europe following the war.  The big three—Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill had met at Yalta five months before and decided that when the war was over they would meet in Berlin.  In those five months Berlin had been destroyed by bombs, Roosevelt had died, and Churchill would lose his re-election bid for Prime Minister while the conference was taking place.  One has to wonder what difference it would have made if Roosevelt and Churchill had remained in power and healthy for just a few more months.  The decisions made at Potsdam would impact the Western world for generations.

        We were now traveling behind the former Iron Curtain, the result of that historic conference in the summer of 1945.  Our destination was Wittenberg, or more specifically the River Elbe and the Viking Ship Beyla. 

A Mighty Fortress: Wittenberg

This Sabbatical has been a treasure of historical gems.  We have done more than visit great and inspiring historical sites, we have immersed ourselves in history by living in unbelievable historical homes.  We stayed in an exquisite Italian Villa that is over 1,000 years old.   We returned to our beloved farmhouse on the famed Via Francigena that the Archbishop of Canterbury visited in 990 AD. 

        We stayed in a Medieval hotel in Rothenburg that started as a tollhouse in 1264 AD.  But we were about to experience the most amazing historical setting of all, for our little hotel in Wittenberg was not just a witness to the Reformation, it played a leading role!

        We took a taxi Wednesday morning to the little train station in Rothenburg.  Our trip to Wittenberg included two very tight connections, but we didn’t have quite the drama that we had getting to Rothenburg.

        The short trip from Rothenburg to Steinach has two stops, but the train only stops if people are waiting.  Since no one was waiting at either station, the train kept going and we arrived in Steinach early.  This gave us six minutes, rather than four, for us to move from platform 5 to 3.  We were actually standing by the track at platform 3 before the train to Ansbach arrived.  We had another four-minute window in Ansbach to catch the train to Nurnberg, but when we arrived at the Ansbach station we learned that the Nurnberg train was actually running late.

        We waited for 20 minutes before it finally arrived.  We originally had 48 minutes in Nurnberg before catching the high-speed train to Wittenberg, now we had 28 minutes.  I felt like I better reserve us some seats, but when I went into the room where the agents were located, there was a long line.  Everyone takes a number like you do at the doctor’s office.  But since I had first-class tickets, my number came up next and the friendly agent told me there were only 7 more seats left on the train in first class.  I paid her 12 Euros to reserve two of those remaining seats and we went to the platform to catch the ICE train that pulled in precisely on time. 

        Two and ½ hours later we got off the train in Wittenberg, found a taxi and went to the “Alte Canzley Hotel.”  I reserved our room almost a year and ½ ago.  This lovely little hotel only has nine rooms, each one named after a great reformer.  Our room, quite appropriately, is the Martin Luther King Room. 

You may recall the story that when the great 20th Century reformer was born, his name was Michael King, Jr.  His father, the Rev. Michael King, Sr, (Daddy King), made a pilgrimage with other ministers to the Holy Land in the 1930s.  On the way back, they attended the Baptist World Alliance that was meeting in Berlin.  One day they decided to take a trip to Wittenberg and see where Martin Luther started the Reformation.  Dr. King, Sr., was so inspired by visiting Wittenberg that when he returned home he changed his name, and his son’s name, to Martin Luther King. 

        We walked into our room and dropped our jaws.  This is the largest hotel room we have ever seen!  It is actually like a small apartment.  There are four windows facing the street.  When we look out of our hotel windows, we see the doors of Castle Church where Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on October 31, 1517!   But this old house predates the Reformation by over 125 years!  When Columbus “Sailed the Ocean Blue in 1492” this house was already a hundred years old.

It is named “Alte Canzley” which means “Old Chancellery” because for centuries this house had been the residence of powerful Saxon Kings residing in Wittenberg.  Fredrick the Wise, who played such a key role in the Reformation and was actually appointed “Holy Roman Emperor” (but declined to serve due to his age) lived here.  If Fredrick the Wise had not protected Martin Luther, Luther would have never survived and we would have never heard his name.

As recently as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation two years ago, Royalty from Sweden stayed here at the Alte Canzley.

This is one of the oldest buildings in Wittenberg.  Most significant to the Reformation is that in 1521, just four years after the 95 Theses, Chancellor Justus Jonas, moved into this spacious home.  He was a key figure in the Reformation along with Luther and Melanchthon.  As a master of Latin and Greek, he helped Luther with his final edition of the German translation of the Bible, a feat that is as important to Western history as the Reformation itself.

Luther, Melanchthon, Jonas, and other key leaders in the Reformation met at this house often.  They dined here and discussed theology and important developments in the ongoing dispute with Rome.  As I said, this house was not just a witness to the Reformation, it was part of it!  And we are staying here!  Waking up to look out our window on the doors to the Castle Church where Luther nailed the 95 Theses—wow!  It can be argued that the pivotal event in Western Civilization, the most significant event in the last 1,000 years, took place outside of our window and this house was a major part of it!   Oh my!   I can’t believe where we are staying!   I’m like a kid in a candy shop!

But before we disappeared completely into the sixteenth century, we were brought back to the twenty-first century when our host excitedly informed us that there was a big musical festival in town.  A number of different groups were playing at different venues around Wittenberg this night, including a group at the Alte Canzley.  There is a garden with a stage behind the hotel.  The group that was playing here is named Jakkle.  They play jazz, swing music, and rock n’ roll.  They said they would play “Old school music that makes you dance!”

When we opened the back window that is right beside our bed, we can see the outdoor garden and the stage.  But first, we had a delicious German meal in the same dining room where Martin Luther, Justus Jonas, Philip Melanchthon, and others huddled to exchange revolutionary ideas. 

Then we went upstairs to the second floor to our room.  We opened the window and listened to the music, watching the crowd below.  It was a cool evening and there was a fire around which everyone gathered.  The band was quite good---I’m not sure how long they played because I went to sleep.  But I’ve decided that is the best way to attend a concert.  Get a hotel room over the venue so you can rest and relax while the band plays on!

We spent all day Thursday immersing ourselves in Reformation history in the city of Wittenberg.  It was another gorgeous, cloudless day.  When I woke up early Thursday morning the Castle Church and its massive tower were glowing in the bright, morning light.  The morning temperature was 39 degrees, but it warmed up quickly to make a lovely day.

After breakfast, Joyce and I walked through the old city of Wittenberg on our way to the Lutherhaus.  The city was almost deserted because this day is Ascension Day which is a holiday in Germany.  (That explains why they had the big music festival the night before.).

Wittenberg is a beautiful city and it is evident they went all out to improve the city and spruce things up for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation back in 2017.  It is clean and attractive.  The sidewalks and streets are wide and made for easy walking.  You can easily walk from one end of town to the other in around 20 minutes.

We stopped in the Markplatz with its Renaissance Rathous.  In the center of the square stands Martin Luther holding a Bible.  To his right you will find Philip Melanchton, his brainy colleague.  We kept walking to the end of the street where we entered the Lutherhaus.  We were fortunate that very few people were there.  For most of the tour we were by ourselves. 

This huge “house” was originally a monastery.  In fact, Luther lived there when he first came to Wittenberg.  After Luther had been officially excommunicated and the Reformation was becoming a reality, he married Katharina von Bora, his “dear Katie.”  The building was given to Luther as a wedding gift by one of the prince electors who was protecting him.  There is a statue of Katharina in the courtyard.  Luther turned all the responsibilities of the house over to her.  She rented out rooms to students and other guests, planted gardens, bred cattle, and brewed what Martin called, “the best beer in all of Germany.” At dinner each night in the refectory, Luther would lead the discussions.  These spirited conversations would often continue after dinner in the ”Lutherstube” where students would often take notes on what Luther would say.  After his death, these were published as Luther’s “Table Talks.”

This may be the best museum on Martin Luther and the Reformation anywhere.  Even though we will be back in Wittenberg for a day next week while we are on our Viking Cruise, I wanted to be able to spend much more time here.  The museum has some remarkable historical items.  There is an indulgence chest and an original letter of indulgence.  There is an original letter that Luther wrote to the Emperor after the Diet of Worms explaining his epic refusal to recant and also thanking the Emperor for his safety. We saw Luther’s pulpit from the Town Church of St. Mary, where Luther preached over 2,000 sermons. There are marvelous paintings of Luther and of Luther and Katharina.  You will find a 1534 German Bible, the first edition of Luther’s monumental translation.  There is also one of the first hymnbooks with Luther’s epic hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”  And most interesting is a recent discovery, Luther’s toilet. 

Luther had well documented digestive issues his entire life and he was often obsessed with sharing too many crude details about his battles with constipation.  He shared that he spent much of his time in contemplation on the toilet, and that is where he received many great revelations.  He even wrote that his great moment of discovery that led to the Reformation, took place on the toilet.  Luther gave us more information than we wanted to know!  He could be very crude and vulgar at times.

German archaeologists discovered what may be the world’s most famous toilet in 2004.  The 450-year-old toilet was very advanced for its time.  It is made out of stone blocks and has a cesspit with a drainage system beneath it.  The first thing the lady did when we purchased our tickets was invite us to go see his toilet, which we did!

After a fascinating tour of the Lutherhaus, we decided to visit a 360-degree panorama painting of Wittenberg in the year 1517 by Berlin artist Yadegar Asisi.  Rick Steves has a fairly good review of this, but places it a low priority and says it is overpriced.  I probably would not have gone, but our host at the hotel told me it was an amazing experience.  The entrance fee was 11 Euros per person with an additional 3 Euros for the audio guide.  I would disagree with Rick Steves on this one.  This was a highlight of our Wittenberg experience and well worth the 14 Euros. 

This awe-inspiring 360-degree painting covers 12,000 square feet and is complete with light and sound effects.  Using a combination of photographed models and digitally reconstructed historic buildings, Asisi has done a masterful job recreating a day in the life of Wittenberg in 1517.

Yadegar Asisi has created a number of these amazing panoramic paintings around eastern Germany.  This was obviously created for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation and is scheduled to end on October 31, 2021.

We were glad we had the audio guides.  We learned things about the painting that we would have certainly missed otherwise.  It also helped to place everything in a great historical perspective.  After visiting the Lutherhaus and now the panoramic painting, we felt we had a fairly good understanding of events that led to the moment that shattered world history on October 31, 1517.

Our next stop was the Town Church of St. Mary, which is the oldest building in town.  The Castle Church that we would visit later was the University Church.  St. Mary’s was the Parish Church and for most of his life, this was Luther’s Church where he preached over 2,000 sermons.

It was in this church on Christmas Day, 1521, that the first-ever Protestant worship service was conducted.  All of the readings were in German, not Latin.  Communion was taken by everyone, not just the priests, and hymns were sung by the congregation!  

One of the most interesting fixtures in the church is the old baptismal font where all of Luther’s children were baptized.  There is a tube that runs from the basin to the floor, so the water that has washed away sin can be drained away.  But the most interesting feature is a group of demons around the lower legs.  They are attempting to get to the one being baptized, but above them on each leg is one of the Saints who impedes their progress.

We found a little Italian place where we ordered our usual, Rocket Salad and Margherita Pizza, then continued to the Church of All Saints, better known as the “Castle Church.”  This is where on October 31, 1517, Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the Chapel Door.  There is robust debate whether he actually nailed the Theses or not, but in the end, it really does not matter.  All Luther really wanted to do was to have a learned and academic debate with his fellow theologians.  He never intended to start a movement that would lead to a new church, the only “reforming” he was interested in was within the church itself.  But through a series of factors; political, social, economic, theological, and a new device called the “Printing Press” Luther’s ideas went viral and touched nerves everywhere.  The bottom line is that Luther was in the right place at the right time with the right circumstances for reform to take place.

I did not know before coming to Wittenberg that the Castle Church of Luther’s day no longer exists.  The church of Luther burned down in 1760 during the Seven Years’ War.  But the church that stands there today, built like the Castle Church of Luther’s day, was constructed in the late 19th Century as a memorial to Luther and the reformers.  However, the arch over the “Theses Doors” is the original that dates back to Luther’s day.  Prominently buried in the church are Luther, Melanchthon, and Fredrick the Wise.

The Castle Church was the University church.  St. Mary’s was the local parish church.  The general public didn’t normally have access to the Castle Church, but All Saint’s Day was an exception.  This adds credence to the argument that Luther actually posted his 95 Theses the day before knowing that the entire town would be coming to the church the next day.  Most didn’t read Latin, but they would want to know what all the fuss was about. 

We had a special, unexpected treat Thursday afternoon.  We worshiped with other believers in the Castle Church.  Wittenberg has a volunteer English Ministry.  They sponsor worship services in Castle Church and the small chapel beside St. Mary’s.  A Lutheran Minister from the US will donate two weeks of his or her time.  There is also a couple from California who donated their time to work with the ministry.  They will be in Wittenberg for six weeks.

We met the Rev. Grace Gravelle from Cologne, Minnesota.  She said that she has been on a waiting list for two years and that she is the only female minister on the schedule this year.  She led the service that she described as “very Lutheran.”  I told her that even though I was a Baptist minister, I could be Lutheran when I needed to.  I told her about the great relationship we have with the Lutheran churches in our community. 

She brought a very nice homily on Luke 24: 44-53 in honor of Ascension Day.  The highlight of the service was singing Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”  As long as I live I will never forget standing in Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany and singing “A Mighty Fortress.” 

I had one more thing I needed to do.  I paid my 3 Euros and climbed to the top of the tower at Castle Church.  It was quite a climb of 289 steps, all up a winding staircase—the last part up a small metal winding ladder.  The view was spectacular as this visit to Wittenberg has been! 

We dined again at the Alte Canzley, outdoors behind the house.  Back in our room I looked out over the Chapel Doors.  I still cannot believe that we have been staying right in the middle of the greatest revolution of the past 1,000 years!

The next morning, I was talking to our gracious host and I asked him if he knew the story of how Martin Luther King got his name.  He did know that his name was not originally Martin Luther, but did not know the story.  I shared with him about Michael King, Sr. coming with a group of ministers to Wittenberg and being so inspired that he went home and changed his name and the name of his young son.  As I told the story, I pointed across the street to the Chapel Doors and said, “He was standing right there.  He was so moved that he changed his name.”

At this point our host shared something very personal and very sad with me.  He said, “I hear stories like this. I see people, like you, who come here because of their faith.  I can see the passion and see the difference this place makes for them.  But I cannot share this experience.  I was born here in Wittenberg.  But we were under the Communist regime.  We were socialists.  We did not believe in religion.  So I have never confessed my faith and I cannot share what you and others experience.”

He was very sad because he knew he was missing so much. 

I told him, “It’s never too late.”  

Then he pointed to his heart and said, “I understand.  It is a matter of the heart.”

I think Luther would agree. 

A taxi came to take us to the train station.  Berlin was just up the way.  Another adventure awaits us!