I am in a bad mood. A foul mood. I have been listening to my personal listening device. I hear a Japanese flute, the sound of running water. The little readout says “sacred” music. That is the problem. Recorded “relaxing” commercially available music is not sacred. Anything labeled sacred, anything that comes up on the little screen, that is commoditized, partner to other uses, one of which is making money, is, says my spleen, un-sacred.
And so I scroll to Dawn Upshaw singing poems by Goethe, set to music by Schubert. Nothing sacred here, just a lovely, uplifting contralto voice.
After that, I scroll to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor. And then I remember sitting in the protestant Thomas Church, the Thomaskirche, in Leipzig, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is the church where Bach was Cantor for many years. Bach died in 1750, one year after the birth of Goethe. Behind me, up in the choir loft, four people began singing, each following a different thread of the music. Was there a cello? Were there other strings? I heard the words Agnus Dei, Lamb of God, from the Mass. The song was sudden and glorious. I thought to myself, I am sitting in the middle of history.
I would say it was a sacred moment, if I had not just gotten through trashing that word. There were no more than six people below, sitting in the pews. A janitor pushed a wide broom, a member of the clergy arranged things on a table at the base of a large cross. Sun fell through the tall lead glass windows. The music washed over and past me – pulling me toward an earlier event.
Sixty-three years ago, in 1943, Hans and Sophie Scholl, 25 and 22, brother and sister, dropped anti-fascist flyers down through the air vents in the ceiling of die Grosse Aula, the Great Lecture Hall, at the University of Munich, onto the heads of the attending students. Someone betrayed Hans and Sophie. They were arrested by the Gestapo and quickly guillotined. Agents tracked down their accomplices and executed them, as well.
Anita Pilger, one of the student conspirators, 20 years old, with the police on her heels, fled to Leipzig, then, by night, to the Thomaskirche. The attending assistant pastor Karl Bronner locked the doors. The Gestapo threatened to shoot them if they did not open up. Assistant Pastor Karl Bronner, a slim delicate man, asked Anita if she was Protestant. She said she was Catholic. He said it didn’t matter. She was a tall woman. Pastor Bronner asked her to take off her coat and shoes and dress. He put on her shoes and dress. She put on his clothes, his shoes were a little too big. He showed her a door where steps led down to an underground passageway. He gave her instructions. Then he kissed her on the forehead. He said he did not know how to give a proper Catholic blessing.
He pulled the anorak hood down over his head, unlocked the door and let himself out. His pale calves and the slight heel of his shoes were plain to see. Gestapo agent Christian Wegner put a Lugar to the anorak hood and shot Assistant Pastor Karl Bronner dead.
Anita Pilger escaped to Sweden, and then to England. For many years she taught music composition at the University of California at Berkeley. She had one child – a boy, whom she named Karl.
I listened to the four voices singing up in the choir behind me. Was the music sacred or secular? Maybe it was “sacred” as metaphor, as a moment of extreme beauty and meaningfulness, something that resonated with a foreknowledge of Bach, Latin, and German history, including all the currents, the ebb and flood, of grey fascist anger.
Didn’t Bach himself have to walk a narrow line between the religious and the secular? Wasn’t beauty, by its very nature, both secular and glorious – therefore contradictory, and therefore dangerous to the State? Probably not for the producers of relaxing “sacred” music.
If they had been present and set up, they could have recorded and then offered “spiritual” music from “Bach’s own church” – for purchase. I would have been able to download it into my device. The question is, what would it have evoked? Would it have shown Assistant Pastor Karl Bronner, or does that take a different kind of device? The one between the ears.
Rain was falling. He could hear it through the door. He stalled as long as he could. He opened the door, it was dark outside. He hung his head forward as he stepped out. Did the night air smell fresh and clean? He pulled the door closed behind him, and turned.
Gestapo agent Christian Wegner and three armed, cooperating city police stood on the same side of the door for a particular reason. When the small figure stepped out, Christian Wegner was glad she was wearing a hood. She wasn’t even looking at him. With one movement, he placed the Luger against her temple and pulled the trigger. The girl dropped. There was no spray from her blood, because of the hood.
He looked down at the exposed leg. There was hair on it. One of the policemen made a remark about not wanting a leg like that in bed with him. Christian Wegner poked at the body with the toe of his boot. Then he leaned over and pulled at the hood. The head was heavy. A policeman turned on his flash light. They could see that the traitor had short hair. Blood covered the side of her face.
“Ugly,” said one of the policeman.
Something bothered Christian Wegner. His eye began to twitch. Something stirred in his chest, looked for a more comfortable position, with teeth and tail. He ordered the police to pull up her dress. They saw a man’s underwear and evidence of male genitals. Christian Wegner raised the Luger. The policemen lurched backward out of the way. Christian Wegner fired a quick shot into Karl Bronner’s genitals. The ejected shell casing tinkled against the pavement. Then they turned and crashed through the church door in pursuit of Anita Pilger.
Outside, the rain fell on Assistant Pastor Karl Bronner’s exposed legs. The blood from his head seeped until it joined the blood from his underwear. The rain carried the blood to the street, where it found its way around cobblestones, to a drain in front of a building that had been a Cabaret during the Weimar years.
The blood entered the drain. The drain led to an arched underground drainage canal. The canal ran parallel to another underground passageway, the one that led from the Thomaskirche to the Matthiaskirche, the one which Anita Pilger now followed, barefoot, in men’s clothing. She held an altar candle in front of her, shaded with one hand, so she could see forward.
At one point, she had to step down into the great arched drainage canal and wade waist high through the mixture of Leipzig’s sewage, the soft spring rain, and the diluted blood from the temple and genitals of Assistant Pastor Karl Bronner. She did not see the blood.
In the Matthiaskirche, where the underground passageway came out, a surprised janitor led Anita Pilger to a room, gave better fitting men’s clothes, and a cup of tea. She was shaking and crying. While still in the Thomaskirche, she had heard a muffled shot, and then another one, just as she had entered the stairway to the underground passageway.
The janitor, who was grey and unshaven, hesitated, then said it must have been a backfire from a car – that that frequently happened in front of the Thomaskirche. He had heard it himself. She wanted to believe him. He wanted her to believe him.
In ten minutes, a small grey three-wheeled panel truck stopped behind the Matthias Church. Two figures got into the back. When Gestapo agent Christian Wegner reached the door from the underground passageway to the Matthias Church, it was locked. They were unable to break through it. When he arrived at the Matthias Church from the surface, that door, too, was locked. When the police eventually forced the door, there was no one there and no sign that anyone had been there.
Two weeks later, on a moonless night, off the Swedish coast, Anita Pilger climbed a long rope ladder, from a fishing boat, up onto a British destroyer, which had never come to a full stop. Two RAF pilots follow her up. Gestapo agent Christian Wegner had Assistant Pastor Karl Bronner’s body cremated. The ashes were poured into a trash bin. The bin was carried by truck to a landfill outside of Leipzig, and dumped. If you had stood there, where the garbage men had dumped the ashes of Assistant Pastor Karl Bronner, on the horizon, rising above the beech trees, you could have seen the Gothic tower of the Thomaskirche.
I sit in the Thomaskirche, or am I listening to my device? The music flows over me, through me, filling the low spots first, like an incoming tide. My head is slightly bowed. Christian Wegner raises his Luger. Assistant pastor Karl Bronner asks, “Are you a Protestant?”
Anita Pilger replies, “No, Catholic.” Karl Bronner says, “It doesn’t matter.” Gestapo agent Christian Wegner raises his Luger. The voices in the choir above and behind me sing the Agnus Dei. Lamb of God.