History, dusted off and polished Rebirth: Emerging from Communist rule, cities in Eastern Europe refurbish once-proud buildings and venerate once-hidden heroes.

Sun Journal

September 15, 1997|By Hal Piper | Hal Piper,SUN STAFF

DRESDEN, Germany -- All over Central Europe, countries are reclaiming their history.

Generations of grime are being scraped away to reveal the beauty of Dresden, Leipzig, Prague and other one-time cultural capitals.

Statues of alabaster alternate with statues of soot on the ramparts of Dresden's Zwinger art museum. Freshly painted and gilded facades gleam next to gray and dowdy facades of peeling paint, crumbling plaster and exposed brick.

Beyond physical renewal, the front-line states of the Cold War -- Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the former East Germany and even West Germany -- are reinterpreting their history.

Germany has decided to rebuild Dresden's elegant, 200-year-old Frauenkirche. The striking domed church was destroyed, along with many of the other baroque treasures of a city known as "Florence on the Elbe [River]," in an American and British fire-bombing raid in February 1945.

Dresden had no significant military targets; the raid was simply an effort, late in World War II, to break the enemy's will to resist.

Because the city's population was swollen with refugees, nobody knows exactly how many civilians died in the raids; the estimate is 135,000.

After the war, Dresden ended up in the Soviet occupation zone. When Communist East Germany rebuilt many of Dresden's landmarks, the stunted, blackened ruins of the Frauenkirche (Lady Church) were designated to be maintained forever as a permanent witness to the crimes of "imperialism."

Now, however, reunited Germany would rather have its beautiful baroque church than have a grievance. So it is mounting a campaign to collect funds from Roman Catholics all over the world.

The ruins are now behind scaffolding, and the rebuilding has begun. The church, featuring a 311-foot-high stone cupola, is to be completed by 2006, the city's 800th anniversary.

In Berlin, the same impulse to move ahead and submerge Cold War grievances leads to a different outcome. The infamous Berlin Wall -- except for a tiny piece now, ironically, protected by barbed wire -- will not be retained as a memorial.

Instead, the space it occupied will be filled with new construction. Only a discreet red stripe painted on the asphalt street now identifies for the tourist where the wall was -- and coy hints such as the beauty parlor called "Hairpoint Charlie" near the old Checkpoint Charlie border crossing.

In fact, Germany is remarkably reticent about its recent history.

The Baedeker guidebook mysteriously identifies Leipzig as a "Hero City" in connection with the events of Oct. 9, 1989. But it neglects to explain what those events were -- a peace rally that led, one month later, to the collapse of East Germany and, in another year, to German reunification.

Similarly, on a bus tour of Berlin, the guide identifies the landmarks of imperial Germany before 1914, and the sites of vanished cafes and theaters in Weimar Germany between the world wars, but says little about the years of German division, 1945-1990.

Those years do have their own museum, however, in Bonn, the German capital until the move to Berlin in 1999. The House of History of the German Federal Republic is especially popular with middle-aged Germans because it tells, as Bernd Ewich, 59, a retired army officer, puts it, "the story of our generation."

That generation came to awareness when Germany was an ocean of ruins, and that's where the museum starts, with Germany's utter defeat in 1945, symbolized by the ration cards, the occupation orders, the handwritten notes posted in railway stations by which divided families sought news of their near and dear.

Cardinal Rudolph Frings is recalled. His name became a slang verb -- "fringsen," meaning "to steal sinlessly" -- after he preached in a New Year sermon that Germans did not sin in stealing coal or food if they couldn't get them by work or prayer.

The history commemorates men and events great and small. On display are the notes -- handwritten, spelled phonetically as a pronunciation guide -- used by President John F. Kennedy in his famous speech at the Berlin Wall: "Ish bin ein Bear-leener."

Consumer goods of the 1950s and '60s evoke exclamations of: "I had a radio like that" or "That's my toaster."

Few historical eras have such defined beginnings and ends as the German postwar period. As the museum exhibition begins with German defeat, it ends with the triumphant dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification a year later.

Elsewhere, yesterday's history is being exhumed and brandished.

A Warsaw tourist magazine suggests that Poland in 1920 single-handedly saved Europe from Communist domination -- or at least postponed it for a generation -- by repelling a Soviet invasion that would surely have rolled on to gobble up Germany, had not Josef Pilsudski rallied the Polish army.

Throughout the Communist period, Poles revered Pilsudski as the savior of Polish independence, but they could not say so out loud, for fear of offending Russia.

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