“I dedicate this essay to the memory of my son, Kyle Brennan (1986-2007), but it was also written to honor all the blessed children-our Angels-who have died too young.”
An early December wind sweeps up the narrow cobblestone street like a spirited entity. In search of celestial heights, it spirals upward enveloping the facade of the old church. St. Michael’s Cathedral—perched on the town’s highest hill—is a work of architectural brilliance. Built-in the twelfth-century, the Romanesque-style structure makes a magnificent sentry tower. Saints carved from stone gaze solemnly from their niches in quiet contemplation of the ever-changing world around them. The soft morning light adds a deceptive warmth to the beautiful vista that lies below—the medieval town of Bamberg, Germany.
Standing in front of St. Michael’s, my seventeen-year-old son, Kyle Brennan, is mesmerized by the massive house of worship. Locked in eternal conflict atop the cathedral’s central peak is Kyle’s hero—Archangel Michael, the Prince of Light. As the statue’s centerpiece, St. Michael, wings fanned-out in triumphant strength and glory, is spearing the serpent Satan. In defeat, the Prince of Darkness vainly reaches out into the void of space and time.
Inside St. Michael’s, we are welcomed by the nave’s brilliantly white walls trimmed in lustrous gold and copper-green. Overhead, the vaulted ceiling is beautifully adorned with local and exotic flora illustrated in the seventeenth century. Looking up, we notice pineapple, cotton, and tobacco plants. Bishop Otto of Bamberg’s tomb, which dates from the mid-1400s, rests heavily behind the altar. To Kyle, the church’s atmosphere is one of tranquility and timelessness.
Opening St. Michael’s heavy wooden door, and stepping out of the church’s candle-lit nave, we are met with the contrasting glare of morning sunlight. As our vision adjusts, Kyle carefully studies the cathedral’s exterior. His mood is quiet and introspective.
“Mom, I really like this place,” Kyle says after a moment, “it’s special. . . . It makes me feel good just being here.”
But standing amidst a large, open cathedral square—atop Bamberg’s tallest prominence—is not the best way to stay warm. The cold northern wind has not subsided and it strikes it’s victims a merciless blow, benumbing the extremities of those foolish enough to venture in its path. As we descend along a cobblestone street, Kyle walks backward taking brisk steps, his back to the upward-rushing current. In his hurriedness, he seems not to care if he falls or twists an ankle.
Picking my way carefully down the ancient pavement, I ask Kyle if he feels a spiritual connection to St. Michael’s.
“I think I would call it an inspiration,” he responds. “Think about it . . . when they built the cathedral people still believed the world was flat, the printing press had not been invented. Generations of people have come and gone from this earth, wars have been fought. It would take days for us to name everything.”
“While looking at the church,” he continues, “I realized that there’s one thing that has stayed constant throughout time.”
I listen intently to hear my youngest son’s revelation.
“It’s an instinctual part of man to conquer evil,” says Kyle. “The battle of good over evil in this world has not changed. It has remained constant throughout the millennia.” Continuing along the cobblestone thoroughfare, we rehash this theme from the perspective of literature and the movies. I bring up King Arthur—Kyle mentions Star Wars.
But the howling wind is unyielding. Somehow our jackets, sweaters, and scarves are just not enough. It’s mid-morning as we enter Bamberg’s old lower town. Small shops line the narrow strip of road. With the Christmas season approaching, the storefront windows are alive with nutcrackers, crèches, and loaves of stollen in neatly stacked piles. Kyle stops abruptly in front of a small shop, a venue that some would consider drab next to its gaily festooned neighbors.
“Wow!” he exclaims. “Mom, look at this!”
Bent over at the large window, Kyle is closely examining lead soldiers once belonging to a boy now long gone. Lined up in perfect formation, they stand at attention in the storefront display. Crouched together, we admire the pristine condition of the leaden platoon. It’s obvious to us that these are “green” soldiers who have never experienced the hardcore combat of a backyard battlefield.
Stacked behind the infantrymen is a host of once-cherished possessions, items the now long deceased once marked as worthy of saving. Iron crosses from the First World War compete for space amongst a large assortment of button-eared, and love-worn, stuffed animals. Movie memorabilia and old postcards scrawled with elegant script rise haphazardly between the linear rows of more saleable items.
“Let’s go inside,” says Kyle.
A bell rings above us as we enter the shop, alerting the proprietor. From behind a low counter, an elderly bespectacled gentleman looks up from his paper to observe his new patrons.
“Guten Morgan,” we pronounce as we walk between low shelves holding journals and sheet music.
When he asks us a question in his native tongue, I apologize in broken German for my inability to speak his language. Kyle is relieved that I could at least speak German well enough to apologize for not being able to.
“Are you Americans?” the gentleman asks in perfect English. Kyle and I pause at this question, wondering if our response will alter how he receives us.
“Yes,” answers Kyle. “We live in the State of Virginia.”
“How do you like my town?” he asks, looking over his reading glasses. “Are you enjoying your visit?”
“Bamberg is beautiful,” says Kyle, “and the churches are magnificent!”
“This is true,” states our new acquaintance, “but Bamberg also has a dark history that is not so beautiful.”
“What kind of dark history?” asks Kyle.
“Well,” says the proprietor, putting down his paper, “Bamberg burned a lot of women at the stake during the witch hunts in the 1600s.”
Kyle, with heightened interest, steps closer to where the German gentleman is seated.
“What a horrible way to die,” Kyle says. “Is that the reason I’ve seen witch trinkets in all of the tourist shops?”
“Yes,” says the shop owner. “People want to make money and the tourists buy those things.”
“Hmmm,” responds Kyle, nervously tapping the top of the camera slung around his neck. “I wonder how those women who were burned alive would feel about that?”
With this comment, the gray-haired gentleman looks up at Kyle over the spectacles that have now slipped down his nose. It’s as if he notices the young man standing in front of him for the very first time.
“People forget the pain of others,” says the German plaintively.
In the awkward silence that follows, Kyle reaches for an old book whose dusty cover has not been cracked open for decades. He turns the brittle-yellow pages, looking with feigned interest at the German text. I know what is coming—he is preparing a litany of questions, an impromptu interview.
“I don’t see anything from World War Two in your store,” says Kyle, returning the book to its slot. My son gives the old man no time to respond to this statement.
“Did you live in Bamberg during the Second World War? Were you in the German Army?””
The gentleman holds his gaze steady. He looks directly into Kyle’s face. “I was a child . . . a boy, when World War Two happened.” Without pausing he answers Kyle’s first question: “It’s against the law to sell World War Two items in Germany.”
“I have lived here my whole life,” he proceeds. “I saw many things during the war. Yes, some of them were very bad. . . . I was young, only six or seven years old. I still remember things I saw then, but at the time I was not old enough to understand the world that adults occupy.”
The proprietor’s directness does not deter the interviewer. Kyle explains that he is not passing judgment, he simply enjoys listening to the life stories of others. With this statement, the shop owner’s countenance softens. He removes his glasses and carefully sets them in his newspaper.
“Did Bamberg have many Jewish families living here during the war?” my son asks. “Did they survive the war?”
As the gentleman prepares his answer I can hear Kyle’s foot tapping the grey wooden floor. It’s a newly acquired nervous tick, an uncomfortable SOS that I immediately decipher.
“I have been told,” says the German, “that many of Bamberg’s Jewish families, sensing the impending danger, fled Bamberg years before the war broke out. The war against them, of course, had begun when Hitler came into power. . . . But sadly some stayed. Perhaps they had no place to go—maybe they were hoping that things would change. It was after November of 1938 that everything was turned upside down.”
“What happened to the people who stayed?” asks Kyle.
“Early one morning the SS came into the town,” answers the shop owner. “All of the remaining Jewish men and some of the women were sent to Dachau. The women with small children were taken to Auschwitz. Thank goodness there were not many. . . . I don’t think any of those people survived.”
“I think one is too many if it happens to be your life,” responds Kyle. “No one said anything? No one spoke up for them? What kind of people would send children and babies to their death?”
“My people,” answers the German sternly.
“If one individual had spoken up,” he continues, “it could have given the weaker the courage to do so. It was easier to stay silent.”
“Does it upset you to talk about it?” asks Kyle.
“We don’t like to talk about the things we saw during the war,” responds the old man. “And young people like yourself seldom ask questions.”
“One memory is particularly painful. . . . One morning, while walking on the outskirts of town with my grandfather, we noticed a train stopped on the tracks. It was pointed toward the east. . . . One of the cars was open and I saw inside the faces of children huddled together. Young mothers, too, holding their infants. Soldiers with weapons slung over their shoulders were walking alongside the train. . . . When the car doors were closed we heard people crying out, begging for food and water. The soldiers told my grandfather to leave, to take me home. And my grandfather, seeing the children, told me not to look, but of course, I did.”
“The faces of those children, the sound of them crying, has stayed with me my whole life,” he says touching his chest just above his heart.
Kyle’s face reddens with emotion. He stares at the floor, avoiding eye contact.
“Do you think some of those children could have survived?” my son asks in a broken voice.
“One can hope,” answers the shopkeeper. “And if some did . . . perhaps they are fortunate enough to have a grandson who would be just about your age.”
“That’s not the story I expected to hear,” says Kyle, deeply moved. “I guess you have to be careful when you start asking questions.” Then, turning away from the German gentleman, he says to me in a low voice: “I think I should leave now.”
Back outside—and despite the cold wind—we decide to walk back up the steep slope to St. Michael’s. Kyle comments on the irony of the saintly, hilltop cathedral overlooking an ancient town that has witnessed so much evil. Inside the church, we light a candle for all of the innocent lives lost.
“But Mom,” he says, as the small taper flickers and brightens, “they have no names.”
“They did have names,” I answer, “but today we’ll call them the Angels of Bamberg.”
It’s the end of our week-long visit to the medieval Bavarian town—the very morning we’re leaving—and Kyle wants to say goodbye to the kindly shopkeeper. He rushes to the store only to find it closed. He never gets a chance to say farewell, or to thank the German gentlemen for sharing his story.
Copyright 2020 Victoria Britton