Put St Nikolai Kirche memorial in Hamburg on your list
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.
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.
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.
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