To build a city


The Frauenkirche (cathedral) looks like a Jenga game. Although grand and old-fashioned, the stones of its walls are mostly clean and without blemish; a new build in an old style. There are a number of entirely blackened stones, sitting amongst the clean ones at numerous locations up the walls, the ones that from afar look like missing Jenga pieces. These are the stones that survived. They were carefully labeled – somehow – with an indicator of their position, until the restoration could begin. Then they were placed back where they belonged in the walls.

It was not only stones that were replaced by numbers, but people too.

It is beautiful here, certainly. Twisting cobbled roads most fit for horse-drawn vehicles lead up to magnificent buildings of limestone with bronze statues atop their roofs and ornate clocks hanging from their sides. The river Elbe peaks through from between clocks and cobbles. A historic town, polished and proper seems to be what is presented. Still, here and there the blackened rocks shine out the brightest.

This is what I cannot ignore: that this town, whilst boasting centuries of history, was blown to the ground 70 years ago. Are there still those who were here? There must be a few I suppose. I hope.

I feel like I am tightrope walking the line between remembering and forgetting. To fall on the first side is to live in our past and never let go. To fall the other way is to repel the stories until they are exiled from our consciousness, an equally terrible fate.

Let me for at least a few moments remember, and dwell on those things that we may write with the least uncertainty, indeed may even dare to call them facts. On Tuesday evening, the 13th of February, 1945 at 22:14, the first bomb was dropped from an RAF Lancaster aircraft flying at 2,400 m over the city of Dresden. In the next eight minutes 500 tons of high explosives and 375 tons of incendiaries were released by this plane and the 253 others that accompanied it on their mission. Some three hours later in the middle of the night, a further 529 Lancasters returned and dropped 1,800 tons of bombs onto the fires that already raged and engulfed the town centre.[1]

Dresden was justified as the main target for this bombing campaign by the allied forces since it was a transport hub for the German army. Furthermore, it was said that by assisting the Russians on the Eastern front, the strike could hasten the end of the war by as much as six months. What they created by this carefully calculated strike was an inferno. Most death was as a result of asphyxiation: people dropped to the ground as they no longer could breath. This meant counting the 20,100 victims easier; few were too badly burned to be found.

“To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire.” – Margaret Freyer[1]

I am told that the people of Dresden are of a practical inclination, towards the latter side of the line I consider above, whereby unpleasant memories are left behind and the good ones upheld. This is indeed what can be seen on the streets. New cobbles cover old roads and the face becomes beautiful again.

The castle that recently reopened is still undergoing work. A different scene presents itself here. Inside, to the right, old stone pillars compose a part of the wall, failing to blend in at all to the modern plaster above them. Were these replaced back here from some other place, or was the new castle built around their ruins? The other wall, to my right, is entirely white plaster. This mixture of styles is not as pretty as a completely reconstructed courtyard might have been, but it is without pretence. I like it this way. Above us the sky is visible through a strange lattice of transparent tiles. Back out in the streets the historic idyll rules; in here a more honest mosaic of periods and epochs hosts us.

No locals knew what the reconstruction plans for the castle were until the main parts were complete, a guide tells me. This was apparently to avoid long drawn out meetings discussing alternatives. And their verdict? The job that has been done is well received by most.

On the riverbank my axis of time changes. The rolling green land of the Elbe valley was carved out over thousands, not tens, of years. I breathe easier here. The Stones from the river[2] that line its banks are smooth, and good for gripping in one’s palm. A wave of hurt runs over and through me. Looking at them piled up in their hundreds and thousands reminds me of other great piles, of spectacles, or shoes.

What is the point of remembering? Why bring this sadness into our lives? This is not today. Today is friends and colleagues and stem cells and (soon) German beer.

I propose this: a bistable state. Rather than balance precariously maybe I can sit comfortably with both truths.

1. We must remember the past.
2. We must let go of the past.

As if waiting to reveal itself to me only after I have gotten there on my own, on my way home, between the river the motorway, is a small garden of flowers.

Rose garden

“This rose garden is dedicated to the many Dresdeners of all faiths and to the refugees and expellees then thronging the city, who died in the firestorm on 13th and 14th February, 1945.

This rose garden is a symbol of the reconciliation achieved between Great Britain and Germany and an expression of the yearning for understanding between all peoples.” [3]

In the dark above the buildings night birds swoop past in flocks. Startled, I look again: are these creatures glowing? Are they mutants, tagged by some orange-yellow fluorescent protein? Ah no. I have become, perhaps, too engrossed in biological ideas this day. The reflection of streetlamps on their bellies provides the colour. But wait — As they swoop again did they just become a fleet of Lancasters, glowing in the light of the fire below? Maybe, just for second. But now they are birds again, and birds they shall remain. Little sky-hung reminders that we choose everything. We choose what we see, we choose what we saw and we choose what we will see tomorrow.

Yes, be it a balance or a bistability, Dresden seems to be managing just fine.


[1]Wikipedia and sources therein.

[2]A wonderful book.

[3]The Dresden Trust. Dedicated in May 2011.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s