Our first stop in Germany was to visit my brother- and sister-in-law in the small, industrial town of Hagen. We drove, we got lost, we got found, we ate, we visited, and then the next day we went to Cologne to see the famous cathedral there.
The black facade of the church is the largest in the world, and the building took a staggering eight hundred years to complete. This means that for nearly a millennium, architects and engineers and masons and laborers spent their lives in service of a final work they knew they would not live to see.
But when the building was finished in the late 19th century (still working off the original plans!), the king swung a ceremonial golden hammer and struck a ceremonial golden spike to mark the church’s completion. In his speech he proclaimed that after generations of back-breaking (and bank-breaking) labor, the work was finally done and the church would stand for millenia as a sign of the greatness of, wait for it, “our great city.”
Do you hear that dissonant note?
After climbing hundreds of tower steps and walking the cavernous nave and marveling at the craftsmanship and dedication involved in raising up something so beautiful, that speech landed on me like the final episode of Lost. Eight hundred years invested in a church building—and in the end it’s all for the glory of your city? That golden hammer went wide of the mark. How tragic to fumble the final act after such a storied history.
I’d think about this a lot during our trip through Germany—the way that people and cultures so often stray over time, winding up at destinations far afield. We visited Wittenburg and stood at the door of the church and walked through Wartburg Castle where Luther fled in the aftermath of his defiance. We stood in the room where he translated the Bible into the language of the people. Eventually we’d even stand in Charlemagne’s throne room, the very seat of Christendom. Everywhere we went, the land was marked by history. The Church itself had marched through these ancient woods, through time, through space, always setting out with the grandest of intentions—often ending up elsewhere. Germany is a land built in the shadows of giants.
And yet, those weren’t the shadows we’d come to see.
We’d sometimes find ourselves talking to our AirBnB hosts, or to a local waiter or waitress, and they’d ask what brought us all the way from Tennessee. They’d inquire with a friendly smile and piqued curiosity, but upon hearing my answer, they’d change.
“I’m doing research for a play. I’m here to visit a concentration camp.”
Then followed the faded smile. And then the solemn nod, as if to say “Ah, that old spectre. Two thousand years of theology, and philosophy, and civilization, and music, and architecture, and art—but the swastika has blotted it out. We really messed things up. How long will it haunt us?”
It was only ever an instant that I saw the disappointment, then they’d put on a good face and cover it up. But it was there, and I felt the pain of it, something like embarrassment. I wonder if the king ever felt that way after he swung his golden hammer. I suppose not.
But the spectre of the swastika is what brought us here. A short drive north of Berlin, out in the wooded countryside, we entered Ravensbrück, the camp where Corrie and Betsie ten Boom were imprisoned in 1944.
The SS command center sat like a crude industrial blight on the shores of a small lake, and the ruin behind the building spread across the ground like a salted field that would have to lay fallow for a generation before it could bear fruit again.
I didn’t know what to expect. A few plaques? A memorial? A list of names? I had no idea. But I’ve come to think of the experience as a mirror image of the experience of visiting the Grand Canyon.
The ground and stones themselves cried out, adding name after name to the same lament they sang for Abel.Pete Peterson
When you go to the Grand Canyon the first time, you think you know what to expect. You’ve seen a million pictures of it. You’ve seen it in movies. You’ve heard people talk about it, oooh and aaaah over it. Maybe you’re just going to do your time and see it for yourself. But when you walk up to the rim and see the vast chasm of glories sprawling out below you, your jaw drops, you’re speechless, you can’t believe how big it is and all you can do is keep on looking at it as you try to comprehend its size. It’s hard to turn away. It’s so much grander than you ever thought it would be.
The opposite is true at a concentration camp. You think you know. You think you’ve comprehended it. But the reality is so much darker. The chasm of horror so much deeper and wider and more incomprehensible than you imagined. You just keep looking at it in disbelief. You can’t fathom its size or its depth and it threatens to swallow you.
I stood in the crematorium where Betsie ten Boom was committed to smoke and ash, and I trembled under the din of the ghostly silence screaming from the oven’s mouth. Later I would stand with my back against a wall in Dachau where untold numbers of men were executed by firing squad. The ground and the stones themselves cried out, adding name after name to the same lament they sang for Abel.
We spent about four hours at Ravensbrück, the same at Dachau, and we only scratched the surface. It was overwhelming—the artifacts, the photos, the documents, the testimonies, the terrible quiet, the evidence of a gradual and years-long build from a relatively pleasant place of political confinement to a swirling horror of death and suffering and hate. It’s hard to even know how to react. When we got back into the car, all we could do was cry.
This is the creeping shadow under which modern Germany lives and breathes and goes about its life. Fifteen-hundred years of history is nearly obscured by it. It’s tragic on an epic cultural scale.
As we retreated back into the relative safety of the world at hand, I grew more and more anxious. I’d agreed to tell the story of the Hiding Place, but the story of the Ten Boom family is so much more than their own. It’s the story of a darkness more vast than I can imagine—and of the light that pierces it. It’s a tale of ponderous weight, and tremendous hope. And I worry that it’s more than I can tell. I worry that I’ve been handed a golden hammer.
Yet, thankfully, the insistent ghosts that found me at the Beje and drove me to Ravensbrück beckon me forward still. If it’s by story that the world remembers, then it’s by silence the world forgets.
If I’ve learned anything of Corrie ten Boom, it’s this: she did not keep silent. She saw into the darkness of human suffering and evil. She saw what lay beyond it. And she spent the rest of her life testifying to what she she’d seen.
The ghosts won’t let me keep silent either.
Act 1. Scene 1. Time to write.
I whisper a prayer for the Holy Spirit’s help. I close my eyes. And I swing my hammer.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.