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Medieval Berlin church asks for return of missing items

19 September 2014

© stadtmuseum berlin/straube

Chequered history: the Nikolaikirche, in Berlin, which is hoping to retrieve its lost artefacts

Chequered history: the Nikolaikirche, in Berlin, which is hoping to retrieve its lost artefacts

BERLINERS are being asked to check their homes for "souvenirs" that were removed from the ruins of the oldest church in Berlin.

The Nikolaikirche (St Nicholas's Church) in Berlin dates from the early 13th century, but its distinctive twin spires were destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War, and its damaged nave collapsed in 1949.

It was rebuilt in the 1980s to mark the 750th anniversary of the founding of the city, but, during the intervening period, hundreds of objects, from statuary to blocks of stone, were removed by locals and visitors.

The church stood in what became the Russian sector of the city, and little effort was made by the Communist regime to halt the removal of items.

But now an appeal has been launched for their return, in an effort to restore some of the building's original glory. So far, 100 items have been returned, but staff at the church, which was deconsecrated in 1938 and turned into a museum and concert hall, believe that thousands more are still out there.

The curator of the Berlin Municipal Museum, Albrecht Henkys, who is leading the appeal, told The Times: "When the nave collapsed, the ruin was barely safeguarded. Metal thieves then dragged away whatever they could find, thinking it could be silver or some other treasure.

"There were also many amateur collectors, who took things out of the rubble to protect them from the wind and rain. . . These fragments have little value, but for us they are essential to restore the art treasures."

St Nicholas's became Lutheran at the Reformation in 1539. It was destroyed by fire in 1380, rebuilt by 1470, and underwent substantial renovation in the 1870s.

Its ministers have included the 17th-century hymn-writer Paul Gerhardt, and the Lutheran theologian Provost Philipp Jakob Spener. The 17th-century composer Johann Crüger was musical director. From 1913 to 1923, the minister was Wilhelm Wessel, whose son Horst Wessel wrote the words to the Nazi Party's anthem.

One item already returned is a carved stone hand, which Herr Henkys has identified as part of an angel from an 18th-century tomb by the sculptor Johann Georg Glume. The scythe it once held is still missing.

It was handed in by Klaus Hongxin, who is 84. When he was a young music student in 1950, he discovered it in the debris. He said: "I felt sad that such an artistic thing should just lie there in the rubble."

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