COLOGNE, Germany — It took the Roman Catholic Church six centuries, overcoming a cash crunch and an invasion by Napoleon's army to complete Northern Europe's largest cathedral, the great, Gothic Dom of Cologne.
Homeless artist Walter Hermann was, naturally, much swifter in stringing up his cardboard "Wailing Wall for Peace" in the shadow of the church's twin, 500-foot-high filigreed spires. But Hermann too has faced hurdles in keeping his project alive, among them physical attacks by rightists and opposition from the church itself.
The Wailing Wall, says Hermann, is a continually evolving piece of art, a forum for anyone who wants to deliver a message against violence, war, hatred of foreigners or homelessness. And tens of thousands of people have hung their messages of peace in dozens of languages on his wall.
To the church, however, and to city officials, Hermann's creation is an infringement on a public plaza and the cardboard squatter's hut he has built against the 13th-Century cathedral sends a message to homeless people to move into the city center.
A state court has ruled against Hermann, allowing the church and city to evict him from the plaza. But Hermann is appealing the decision, and the two sides are in negotiations to see whether they can find an acceptable alternative site for the Wailing Wall.
Meanwhile, Hermann and his wall remain in the plaza, a seemingly popular attraction to tourists visiting the Dom. He has installed a mailbox--borrowing the cathedral's address--for his correspondence from around the world and sells postcards of the more artistic contributions to the wall.
The church is waiting for a decision on the legal appeal before taking action against Hermann, said spokesman Bernard Henrichs, "because if we take down the wall now, we know he'll just put it up again."
Hermann, a 55-year-old former teacher, erected his first Wailing Wall Against Homelessness in 1989 outside a nearby department store when he was evicted from his apartment in a payment dispute. Police took down that wall, and others, but Hermann rebuilt 16 times.
During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Hermann and friends in the peace movement decided to take the wall to the cathedral plaza and rename it the Wailing Wall for Peace.
"There is a connection between the housing shortage and armaments," Hermann said. Noting that 4,000 homeless people live on the streets of Cologne, he said that "with just part of (the money) the government contributed to the war, they could have eliminated the homeless problem."
Police have removed Hermann and the wall from the plaza of the Dom before, but he and his supporters among the city's homeless people, artists and peace activists set it up again.
Neo-Nazis also have torn down the wall--and assaulted Hermann--but he has made friends with the cathedral's night watchman, who he says calls for help if Hermann is under attack. Hermann says that neo-Nazis are the reason he sleeps by the cathedral--to protect his work of art.
The Wailing Wall for Peace is actually three walls of cardboard strung up in the shape of a ship between light posts, one of which serves as the ship's mast. A gas lantern serves as beacon at night for the 12-foot-high wall.
"When the wind blows, it is like a ship on the high sea, a ship that carries messages," Hermann said.
The messages are in Hebrew and Arabic, Japanese and Chinese, English and German and many more languages. Some of the messages are trite, such as "Peace of Cake." Others are cliches, like "Don't Dream Your Life, Live Your Dreams." And there's an angry obscenity for the Holden Caulfields of the world.
The wall also provides a forum for public debate. "Good Things Happened at Hiroshima," wrote an American. "1) It ended WW II. 2) We Won."
"Two things are never ending," answered another writer, quoting Einstein. "The universe and human stupidity. But I wouldn't be too sure about the universe."
Occasionally some smart aleck hangs a curse or racist epithet in a language that Hermann cannot read, but soon enough a well-intentioned soul will clue him in and he takes it down.
The multilingual, multicultural graffiti somehow come together with an interesting "moral value," the state court acknowledged in its ruling. The messages are surrounded by slightly wilted flowers-- donations from a nearby shopkeeper--and inside the ship is an exhibit on the explosion of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki.
Hermann leaves pieces of cardboard and pens at the wall for passersby who want to make a contribution. He changes some of the messages every day but keeps the old ones, numbering about 35,000, in stacks inside the ship and in storage.
"The Wailing Wall is a work that everyone can take part in and that satisfies me," Hermann said. "The church doesn't like it because it's autonomous. Here a person comes and takes responsibility for himself and writes a message. In the church, responsibility is delegated from the top."
The church reserves comment on Hermann.
But not the tourists who stopped to stare at Hermann's \o7 oeuvre\f7 on a recent summer afternoon. "This is good," Hong Kong engineering student Derek Hoo said as he prepared to write a message. "It is a warning to people that war is horrible."
"It would be a shame to take it down," added German student Nicola Lienenkamper. "It raises people's awareness and gets them thinking."
Thinking maybe, but not always along the lines Hermann hopes.
"I'm a liberal guy," said a 60ish German engineer who declined to be identified, "but my liberalism is not so broad that we should help people at any price. Those asylum-seekers can't come here with 10, 12, 14 children, with no life perspective and give birth to a child a year."
And what about peace?
"Not in the big city of Cologne," the man huffed. "You can't even walk around here at night."