Put St Nikolai Kirche memorial in Hamburg on your list

by Jul 8, 2014Hamburg

St Nikolai Kirche cover image for story
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The  St Nikolai Kirche (St. Nicholas Church) has been a part of the Hamburg skyline since the 12th century. Now in ruins from World War II bombings, just its spire remains standing. No longer a place of worship, the spire (thought until 1876 to be the tallest building in the world) and its restored crypt below serve as a haunting and moving memorial to the horror of war’s devastation.

Ironically, it served as a landmark and unlit beacon to guide Allied bomber pilots as they carpeted the city with bombs in 1943. Today, the spire is still the second-highest building in Hamburg. The church itself became a casualty of the war on July 28, 1943, when the roof collapsed and much of the nave suffered heavy damage from bombs.

Thanks to the efforts of the “Rettet die Nikolaikirche” foundation (“Save Nicolai Church”) founded in 1987, the remains of the wall and the spire have become a well-preserved and sobering architectural reminder of the cruelty that humans can exhibit toward one another.

Museum inside the crypt of St. Nikolai Kirche in Hamburg

Concise and educational museum exhibits, photos and diagrams, plus gardens and statues are worth the time. Plan on a couple of hours to fully enjoy the museum in the interior crypt as well as the outside architectural features and four sculptures. The spire promises the best views of Hamburg from its 75.3-meter-high viewing platform so pick a clear day if possible. (At the time of this writing, the spire was undergoing renovation so the exterior was unfortunately swathed in scaffolding and mesh fabric, which nearly obscures any views from the top and makes photography impossible – from the top or of the spire from the ground. No word on when the renovations were to be completed.)

Outside, be sure to take a few moments to contemplate the sculptures: “The Ordeal” for example depicts the pain, agony and hopelessness of war, and another called “Prayer for Peace” in a small peace garden signifies hope for humanity. Inside and down into the restored crypt, the museum covers the history of the church. That in itself is fascinating, but the primary focus is on World War II and the mass destruction from the fire bombings to the city.

This sculpture at St Nikolai Kirche is dedicated to the memorial in Sandbostel where in one of the largest prisoner camps established by the Nazis more than 50,000 people from many countries had died until 1945. The base of this sculpture consists of the original bricks of the prisoners’ barracks which Sandbostel pupils had collected on the former camp grounds.

“This sculpture at St Nikolai Kirche is dedicated to the memorial in Sandbostel where in one of the largest prisoner camps established by the Nazis more than 50,000 people from many countries had died until 1945. The base of this sculpture consists of the original bricks of the prisoners’ barracks which Sandbostel pupils had collected on the former camp grounds.” — explanatory text from the museum website.

Even English-speaking tourists will enjoy the exhibit since much of the information in the St Nikolai Church memorial is in both German and English; however, having someone along who speaks German if you do not will help in the translation of the many personal experiences and reflections from 1943 captured in letters and journals.

Expect to be thoroughly moved and, even for WWII buffs, expect to learn from this excellent and well-balanced exhibition. Rare photographs document the widespread devastation in Hamburg (43,000 dead and tens of thousands injured, plus the city itself was leveled). There are also photographs and documentation of the earlier German Luftwaffe bombing attacks on Warsaw, Rotterdam, Plymouth and Coventry, which, it is surmised, served as motivation for the Allied reprisal on Hamburg.

The Prayer for Peace sculpture at St. Nikolai Kirche "stands to a future full of hope which is possible only in times of peace."

The Prayer for Peace sculpture at St. Nikolai Kirche “stands to a future full of hope which is possible only in times of peace.”

HITT Tip: The St Nikolai Kirche memorial is at Willy-Brandt-Strasse 60, not much more than three-quarters of a mile (1.3 km) from the main train station, making it a good stop on a walking tour of town center. Otherwise, you can take the U3 to Rödingsmarkt or the S1 or S3 to Stadthausbrücke. If you take the public transit system, consider the so-called “9-Uhr Gruppenkarte” even for two people. It allows up to five people to take all public transit as often as needed after 9 a.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning (On weekends and holidays, it’s valid all day). Prices vary by zone but the basic ticket covers most of the larger central city area and will usually be enough for most visitors.

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Heads up! This information on St. Nikolai Kirche was accurate when we published it on HI Travel Tales, but, as we know, traveling is all about changes (and inflation, sadly). It is your sole responsibility to confirm prices, transportation schedules, hours of operation, safety and health considerations, and any other important details before your adventure.
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