by Lev Raphael
En route to his hotel in the western part of Munich, Adam Rosenthal’s cab is stuck in a New York-style traffic jam near a road sign for Dachau, just twenty-five kilometers away. It’s perversely black-on-yellow like an American YIELD sign. Another harsh reminder of what his late parents escaped in 1937.
The stocky Turkish cab driver who’s already complimented him on his travel German mutters something about bad drivers. Adam, who has been studying German since his parents died, says, “Naja, so sieht das aus.” Oh, well, that’s how it goes. Having said that, he’s not sure how the phrase has entered his lexicon.
Apparently, his comment is idiomatic enough to encourage the driver to engage him in a serious conversation about his work life and life in general. It’s all so normal.
Adam is a Jew who has never wanted to travel to Germany. He has never even wanted to travel through Germany by train or even fly over it. Growing up as the son of parents who fled the Nazis, he’s always felt Germany to be as barren and forbidding as the dark side of the Moon. There’s nothing left of his parents’ family homes in Berlin and neither of them ever wanted to return, speak German, or even read news stories about that blighted country.
But here he is in Munich, on a book tour arranged by his German publisher to support their edition of German Ghosts, a novel skirting the edge of memoir. A book he couldn’t write until his parents were dead. A book propelled to strong sales in the U.S. thanks to a New York Times review. He teaches creative writing in an MFA program and his students who want to write memoirs always balance what they want to say with what they feel is safe to say. He hasn’t told them how well he understands the conflict; he keeps his advice impersonal.
“If you’re lucky,” a novelist friend said while Adam was working on the book, “you’ll get to tour in Germany. It’s amazing. They love authors and they treat you so well.”
Maybe so. This alien land, he is discovering, has a vibrant book culture unlike his own. He sees it even in train stations filled with large ads for authors of all kinds of books, not just the thrillers that sweep around the world in umpteen languages. As an American author, in just over a week here, he has felt honored as an artist, not just another author on the publicity treadmill. Hosts in each city have given him gifts: CDs, DVDs, calendars, local guide books, museum catalogues, wine and chocolate. It’s overwhelming. He has already shipped two boxes of goodies home and has drunk more wine alone at night than he should.
“Und was halten Sie von Ihrem Präsidenten Bush?” the driver asks as the traffic jam dissolves and they’re moving again.
Why does everyone ask him what he thinks about George Bush? It’s especially intimate in cabs because he’s been sitting in the front passenger seat, as he’s noticed single customers do. But he’s prepared with an answer.
“Ich habe nicht für ihn gestimmt.” He’s pretty sure that’s correct for “I didn’t vote for him.” That’s worked so far, and it does again: the cab driver nods and grunts his approval.
Munich is a break for Adam. His German publisher has generously given him two whole days off there without an event, since he’s been scheduled to speak in a different city every day so far: Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Hamburg, Hanover, Cologne, Frankfurt. Adam knows from more experienced writer friends that this kind of freedom on a book tour is rare. Tours are hard work, they’ve explained. You’re always surrounded by people, always talking, always on-stage, or so it seems, and there’s never enough down time. Even extroverts can get worn out and worn down.
Adam is shy and having unstructured time to himself is a blessing.
He has studied the heavy Dorling Kindersley guidebook for Germany and knows that he definitely wants to explore the baroque Nymphenburg Palace and its park near his hotel, and some of the famed museums closer to the center of Munich. The weather couldn’t be more obliging—it’s sunny and probably in the 70s and he can enjoy café life, watching people go by as he sips a coffee or wine and makes notes in his journal. There’s a book in this tour, he thinks, surprised at the thought of returning.
He is feeling good, feeling rested, feeling welcomed. He is not afraid in Germany and not freaked out as he thought he might be.
Opting for quiet and a bit of seclusion, he’s picked a very well-reviewed small hotel he read about on Expedia. It’s nestled in the elegant Nymphenburg section of the city whose streets are lined with luxury sedans. This small villa-like hotel is owned by a young couple, reviewers report, and the slim, red-headed husband who looks more Scandinavian than German has studied at Adam’s former college, NYU. The connection is immediate when he arrives at the tiny lobby, but then Axel is the epitome of charm and warmth anyway, a born hotelier who offers him a beer before he goes up to his room. Axel’s unaccented English is perfect if somewhat formal.
“So, tell me what I should see that maybe isn’t in guide books,” Adam asks. “Something different, something wonderful.”
“Well, you will, of course, visit the Nymphenburg Palace and its grounds, which is only a ten-minute walk from the hotel. But please don’t be a typical American, rushing in and out in just an hour. Take your time. Wander. They say it was inspired by Versailles. There is much to see, and there’s a nice café where you can have perhaps a light snack at the end.”
“Tell me what tourists miss. What’s really memorable in Munich, off the beaten track?”
Axel smiles now enigmatically and his dark blue eyes seem to glow. “You must see Herz-Jesu, a church barely ten minutes away by S-Bahn, the tram.”
“You will understand when you get there, I do not wish to spoil it for you.”
Dinner that night is long, languid, Italian and just down the street. Adam has been divorced for two years and eating alone is what he’s used to, no reason to feel depressed. He’s actually happy that he can read the menu and order in German that’s become more fluent each day. He stumbles back to the hotel replete and falls quickly asleep in the small, tidy room that’s a bit like a monk’s cell despite the attractive TV, minibar, and ultra-soft pillows.
After a typical hotel breakfast the next morning of rolls, cheese, ham and strong coffee, he’s soon on an aquamarine-and-white tram headed for Herz-Jesu which somehow has moved to the top of his list after reading about it on his laptop. Getting off at his stop, he walks through a quiet, green, residential neighborhood with elegant villas and apartment buildings dating from the end of the nineteenth century. Rebuilt? Or untouched by war?
Their appearance doesn’t prepare him for the church, which is so extraordinary it’s like a lightning strike on that still, sunny spring day. Enthroned in its own square, it sits like a mammoth sculpture on a rectangular limestone base.
Adam is alone, it’s a work day, there’s barely any traffic in the streets around him and there are no pedestrians anywhere.
Consecrated in 2000, the building speaks in an architectural language he has never heard before. Herz-Jesu is in effect two giant rectangular boxes, the outer one measuring almost 160 feet long and 69 feet wide. The inner box is built of maple and limestone, the outer one of glass and steel. The front of that box has human-sized doors set into it, but the entire front wall, fifty-plus feet high, can pivot like two giant portals onto the limestone plaza. The glass façade is made up of hundreds of small square blue and white panes of glass as if there were a deeper, nearer heaven.
He walks across the plaza to the entrance doors with a surprising sense of wonder. Inside, through the clear glass on the sides of the small entryway, looking out, he can see buildings and parked cars, but behind him, those deep blue panes of glass etched with white nails of the Crucifixion cast an unearthly glow.
The entrance from the small forecourt is low, and he is standing in the darkest part of the church. Under his feet, the same bright white limestone from outside continues into the church and even makes up the altar, the baptismal font, the ambo, and the priest’s chair. The stone glows so brightly he might be floating.
It’s not like any church he’s ever seen. It’s not like any building he’s ever seen. The inner box is bathed in cool tones of beige, and the architects have made the space doubly intriguing by louvering the side walls of maple so that you enter in dim light, but as you approach the altar down the central aisle, the natural light intensifies.
He feels strangely, slowly drawn to the altar. Behind it, there’s a mammoth floor-to-ceiling curtain of bronze and copper with a cross woven into the entire width and height. The metalwork is open and light penetrates throughout, so the interior doesn’t just become brighter and brighter as he approaches, it comes alive with light.
But he doesn’t move very far down the aisle. Suddenly, he’s possessed by a humbling, almost overpowering urge to fall to his knees and cross himself. It’s as if strong but gentle hands are on his shoulders, pushing him inexorably to the limestone floor. He obeys.
That’s right, a Jew compelled to do what’s utterly anathema in his religion. Even a totally secular Jew like Adam is shocked by the sensation. He staggers to the nearest polished, glowing pew and sits down, sweat beading down the back of his neck, his breathing erratic.
There is utter silence now in Herz-Jesu. He hears no traffic noise, just the stirrings of the building itself. No one is moving inside the church, stillness is everywhere. Only his breathing slips through the quiet.
This alien urge to humble and cross himself has overwhelmed him—it is so intense, so unexpected, and so foreign it banishes everything else from his mind, leaving it emptied out.
He is thunderstruck, but there is no thunder.
How long does he sit there? Does it matter?
He doesn’t hear voices, he doesn’t go blind. There’s nothing cinematic about this moment that nevertheless banishes time.
Adam has been to wedding masses for friends, but he’s always felt like a distinct outsider in churches. None of them has ever claimed him in any way, none has ever spoken to him, commanded him, taken hold of him. Or disturbed him, either.
He remembers an oversized childhood book: Tales from The Old Testament. An unusual gift from parents whose Jewishness was almost vestigial. The watercolor illustrations were intense and moving, and his favorite showed Jacob dreaming of the angels ascending and descending a giant heavenly staircase. This story of a man in touch with Heaven always fascinated him. After waking from his dream, Jacob says, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”
Here in Munich, in Herz-Jesu, Adam says nothing aloud, but the blood pulsing through his veins tells him that God is in this place, too.
There’s no escape. Something has happened. It is happening. The invisible hands have not released him.
His eyes are closed now, but the light is everywhere.
And somehow, he is home.
Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery and he mentors, coaches, and edits writers of all kinds at writewithoutborders.com