It was a morning of stark contrasts: giggling ten-year-old school kids filing into the modern chapel built on the site of the old Emperor Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was almost completely destroyed during the Allied bombing of Berlin in 1943. A bit of the old church tower and apse still stand and have been carefully preserved over the years, an icon not only to Berliners but to all Germans. It is known as the “Gedächtniskirche,” or the “memory church.” The memory it preserves is not that of the emperor but of war itself.
Before unification in 1990, it was the Berlin landmark, at least for West Berliners. The famed Brandenburg Gate had been incorporated into a portion of the Berlin Wall; the Reichstagsgebäude (the Wilhelminian-era parliament building) was still a leaky half-ruin on the very edge of the divided city, housing a history exhibit on German militarism. And the impressive East German TV Tower (Fernsehturm) was in any case a latecomer to the cityscape. It debuted in 1969, and was in those days more a fixture of Cold War competition. It was meant not only to look stunningly graceful, a gleaming credit to the still young German Democratic Republic (GDR), but also to jam the anti-communist broadcasts of RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) emanating from West Berlin and until that point making their way without interference into the heart of the GDR.
The school kids, from the nearby Jesuit Canisius-Kolleg, radiated joy as they poured into the chapel that morning at 8:30 precisely. Though not quite a holiday, it was at least free of instruction. Apparently, even an Ash Wednesday prayer service was reason enough for a little giddiness. Their laughter and banter lit up that dreary Berlin morning, less a reminder of our mortality—the Ash Wednesday messaging had blessedly not quite reached them—than a testament to undying Easter joy.
Pater Marco Mohr, SJ, rector of the Jesuit community and president of the school, had his hands full, as anyone would who is charged with preaching an Ash Wednesday sermon to an ebullient school group. On the other hand, these Berlin students are in some ways closer to Lenten suffering than many others. The esplanade they crossed on their approach to the service was the site of the 2016 Christmas market terrorist attack, the reason the area is now ringed by heavy-duty barriers meant to impede another such assault.
After Poland, Germany has taken in more Ukrainian refugees than any other country. As of late February, they number about 1.2 million (figures vary, in part because Ukrainians can enter Germany without registering, and some have returned). Ukrainians are now Germany’s largest refugee group, exceeding even the then-historic influx of about one million who came to Germany in 2015–16 in the wake of the Syrian civil war. The anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, prior to that, the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, have understandably been grabbing the headlines lately. Less commented upon is the ongoing challenge of providing for so many refugees.
This is no abstraction to these Berlin students from Canisius-Kolleg, some of whom are refugees themselves. Unlike other schools that either refused to accept refugees in 2015, or did so only under duress, the Canisius-Kolleg opened its doors early in the crisis. The rector at the time, Fr. Tobias Zimmermann, SJ, made it a central mission question: If we don’t do this, he asked, why even continue on? Not all parents (or teachers, for that matter) were equally enthusiastic. Some were worried about foreigners diluting the quality and status of this highly respected school. Would the refugees be up to it? Do they really fit the profile of an ambitious Gymnasium (college preparatory school)? If they can’t speak proper German, how can they possibly keep up with the demanding coursework?