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Pirates & Magic Lamps


2015-11-11_0912When I was growing up, there was a trunk in a shed at the back of our house. It resembled a prop from Pirates of the Caribbean, large musty dome lidded and strengthened, with iron bands. It was the repository for family bric-a-brac, useless items no longer tolerated inside the house. On wet afternoons with the light drawing in, I liked to rummage the contents, always hoping to unearth some curiosity. Apart from its impressive bulk, the trunk had one of other overwhelming feature,  smell.

The unmistakable malodour of must and mothballs was enough to bring tears to your eyes. I wondered how something as innocent looking as a hard sweet could smell so foul. My grandmother was a great believer in the power of mothballs. In the overheated church, you could almost see the smell rising from her winter coat. Thinking back, this was tame in comparison with the other organic fragrances that must have emanated from the overfilled agricultural base congregation of our big church.

But back to the trunk itself. In the course of one of my expeditions, I found a fresh novelty. In an overlooked corner  was a small glass globe. It was as if I had uncovered Alladin’s magical lamp. The globe contained in image of the Virgin Mary with hands joined in prayer and eyes upcast to the heavens. The magic was that you could make the Virgin’s world come alive with snowfall by inverting the globe. Wondrous snowflakes cascaded all about her blue mantled shoulders whenever I tilted my hands. So why in the ruins of a bombed out church in Berlin on a winter’s day over half a century later should I recall this religious novelty?

The answer? I was looking at the original image of the Madonna of Stalingrad.

It hangs adjacent to the ruined shell of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. This building has been left symbolically shattered, its broken spire and entrance hall remain as they were following the Allied bombing raid on the night of 23 November 1943. It has become a place of memorial reflection and the adjoining church the perfect space to house the Madonna of Stalingrad. The image is that of a Madonna and child. The mother has wrapped her infant son inside her cloak. The baby sleeps. Their foreheads touch. The cloak is that of a traveller, serviceable, warm and woven from one piece of cloth.

Her bare feet protrude from beneath it, strong and square. They are the feet of a woman who has walked the roads of the world. They are the feet of a mother who will carry her sacred child as long as she is breath in her body. The image is rendered in charcoal and measures 3′ x 4′. It is drawn on the back of a Russian map of the city Stalingrad. You can see the folds and creases of the original document. The picture was executed on Christmas Day in 1942 in a foxhole bunker during the Battle of Stalingrad. In its right-hand margin are printed the words Licht,  Leben, Liebe,  light, life, love. The drawing was made by Kurt Reuber, a German Army physician.

He wanted to create something that might reawaken the spirit of long lost Christmases for his surviving comrades.

There were seven of them in that mortar position. They had nothing to give each other. No gifts. Bread and ammunition were the finest presents they might hope for. The calendar told those who bothered to consult it that this was Christmas Day. The pewter sky augured snow and towards evening delivered on that promise. The glow from distant burning buildings mocked their frozen fingers. In spite of numbness in his hands, low light and his presence in this place of Purgatory, Kurt Reuber  managed to complete his drawing. He did it so that his comrades soldiers would have a spiritual icon to reclaim their minds on the sacred day.

In a letter home, he wrote of his companions response. “They stood as if entranced, too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall, and read the words light life love.” Doctor Roy Reuber’s famous drawing survived the war. It was flown outof Stalingrad on the last transport plane to leave the encircled German Sixth Army. I looked at it and was held captive by its simplicity, purity and compassion. I think about these men’s worlds were turned upside down and how the snow fell soft and clean all around the charcoal image of the Madonna in the bunker outside Stalingrad on Christmas night. How childishly foolish now seems my own delight when I tilted the glass globe and made snow for the Virgin Mary.

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